When you start teaching a new group of students, it’s important to begin learning their names right away. As Lang (2020) puts it, “learning and using the names of your students will not only help spark attention, but also builds community among your students.” I recommend using students’ names when you speak to them, as well as scanning faces during group work or pair work to recall students’ names.
It’s also important for students to learn each other’s names. During the first few weeks of class, teachers can ask students to mingle and introduce themselves. Even after the first few weeks, students can benefit from a few opportunities to learn the names of unfamiliar students in group work activities.
The following activities are ideal for the first week or two of classes, and will help students (and you) learn names of everyone in the classroom.
(For more tips on learning student names, read the article “5 Ways to Remember Students’ Names” by Tory Thorkelson
1. Give the class a simple discussion task. For example, ask them to jot down three things they like about being a university student and three things they don’t like. Students work in groups of 4 or 5. Ideally, each group should contain students who don’t usually sit together. Students begin by introducing each other and saying their names clearly. Students discuss their lists and ask each other for ideas, each time using the other person’s name. When students have completed the task, a spokesperson from each group can give a report on their group’s ideas.
2. Write this question on the board “How many of your classmates’ names do you know?” After two or three minutes, call on a student to tell the class the number of names they knows. Ask the rest of the class if anyone knows even more names. Call on several other students. Challenge the student with the highest number to call out students’ names and wave (not point) at each student as they say the student’s name. Afterwards, tell students to stand up and mingle. Challenge them to learn at least three additional names. At the end of the lesson, you can go back to the question an additional time.
3. Tell students you are going to call out a name and look at one area of the classroom. If you’re not looking in the direction of the student whose name you called, everyone should give out a very bored-sounding moaning sound, as if they’re very disappointed. You will look at several areas of the room, and when you get to the area where the student is, they should call out “YEAH!” very excitedly. Then ask the student to stand up, and chant their name together with the class. Repeat until everyone’s name has been called out.
4. Choose one student to compete with you in a short game. Tell the student to stand up. Ask them to choose one area of the room (front, back, left, right, middle) and you will say the names of three students in that area, making eye contact with each student as you say the names. After your attempt, you choose a different area of the classroom, and ask the student to say the names of three students in that area.
The winner of the game is the one who can remember more names, quickly and accurately. Repeat the game, this time with two students competing. They must say five names instead of three. Continue several times with different pairs of students, until each area of the room has been covered at least twice.
5. Students work in pairs. Ask students to interview each other. They should ask for their classmate’s name, as well as some questions about their family, hobbies, interests, and favorites. Next, give each student an A4 sized sheet of cardboard. Students will fold it up in three sections to form a name tent.
Students will create a name tent for their classmates, writing the student’s name in big letters and adding a few simple drawings that represent the student’s life. Ask students to keep their name tents and put them on their desks during every lesson. They will make it easier for you and everyone else to learn names faster.
Lang, J. M. (2020). Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. Basic Books.
If you enjoyed reading this article, please take a look at my new book from iTDi Publishing, 101 EFL Activities for Teaching University Students: