Learning students’ names: how do *you* do it?

Getting to know students’ names is something every teacher has to do. It goes with the territory. Working in a language school, you teach multiple groups of students at various levels, of various ages, which adds up to a lot of names. My latest timetable currently has 7 different classes with another 1 due to start in a few weeks. Fortunately, 2 of the classes are YL classes, kept on from last term, and one of the classes is an on-going IELTS class. The other 4 are new adult groups each with around 11 or 12 students in, and the one due to start soon is another IELTS class. Like I said, that’s a lot of names!

This blog post has come about because after my first class with one of my new groups of learners on Wednesday 4th February, I came back down to the staffroom and one of my colleagues was wondering if I had inherited his students. So I proceeded to reel off all their names for him to check against. The response was ‘Bloody hell! How do you know all their names already?!’ The simple answer is, I need to. In order for me to be able to teach a group, they need to be individuals, as soon as possible, so that I can work with them and not experience group-fear (fear of being in front of a big group of people I don’t know!) :-p

Of course, remembering these names and people just after the end of the lesson you have just spent with them is one thing. The difficulty comes when two days later, having met umpteen other new students and taught umpteen other classes, you pick up your register to meet your new class for the second time. Who are they again, these names? I had that moment today, but luckily because of what I did in the first lesson, before I walked in I was quickly able to remind myself who they all are.

Here’s how:

  • In the first lesson, you always do some kind of getting to know you activity, right? Obviously. For example, at the most simple level, find out three new, interesting things about your partner. (Always concept check ‘interesting’ here… 😉 )
  • What I find works best is if after the activity you do some kind of plenary, where the students report things about each other to the group as a whole.
  • While they speak together and while they report, I scribble bits of information down.

Here is an example page from the above-mentioned class:


(You may well wonder why the book says September when we are in January. This book was a freebee from the school, which my desk ate between October and January, and recently regurgitated! 😉 ) It’s no work of art, very basic scribbles. Of course, names and ages blanked out for obvious reasons. (And I’m not entirely sure why I wrote ‘Sicilian’ down, not really a distinguishing feature here! I think though that it had been to do with cooking but I didn’t have time to finish writing!) So, some of the information relates to physical features, some is from the initial ‘3 interesting things‘ activity or equivalent, some is from the subsequent FSW activity, and some is meta-information gleaned from the activities e.g. the eye symbol, to remind me that the student in question looks like one to keep an eye on. The important thing is, moments before the second lesson with this class, I opened my notebook, looked at these notes, these bits and bobs of information I had scribbled down, and it was enough to trigger memories of who they all were, meaning I could walk into the classroom and confidently use their names straight away, which of course they appreciate and which helps with rapport.

This time round, I did the usual ‘Find someone who…‘ type-activity but I did it with a ‘learner autonomy twist’, which, as well as acting as an icebreaker and getting everybody talking to everybody else, immediately gave me an insight into/snapshot of where they are all at with regards their independent learning habits. It also encourages the students to think about what they do already, vocalise it to their classmates, and compare it with what their classmates do. Hopefully this is sowing the seeds and setting the scene for further work on helping them – and helping them to help each other – become more autonomous in their learning.

For homework at the end of the first lesson, I set them the task of writing a letter to me, with the goal of telling me about them. I told them the objective of the homework was for me to get to know them better and to see what their writing is like. Two days later, 11 pieces of writing duly plopped into my lap from my eager beavers! So, killing two birds with one stone, I’m getting extra needs analysis data both from the point of view of getting to know them better (including about their learning habits, as I encouraged them to use the ‘Find Someone Who‘ activity statements for inspiration as to what to write about) and seeing where they are at with their written production.

Obviously my initial observations in terms of speaking and listening ability or level of autonomy may not necessarily be accurate, and they are not set in stone judgements, they are just first impressions which will keep evolving every lesson, as I learn more about the students and as the students evolve. ‘Eyes’ may be added or removed and so on. Simply, this is a starting point. The main thing is, as a whole, the notes fixed the students’ faces and names in my memory from the get-go, which makes life much easier for me.

This works for me. But I’m sure other people have much more efficient ways of going about it! How do you get to know your students names? 🙂

15 thoughts on “Learning students’ names: how do *you* do it?

  1. Hi Lizzie,

    It’s great to read how fellow teachers cope with first days and names. I must say remembering names is getting increasingly more difficult the older I get – and teaching four new 18-student-groups every six weeks just doesn’t help! I take notes of ss on the first day but never thought of adding descriptions to them. My notes are purely to help me assess their needs. I think I might try that next term.
    My approach is basic but seems to work (some!). I ask them to keep a name sign (A4 sheet – which I provide – folded in three) in front of them for the first few lessons. Visuals tend to work best for me. I noticed that the ss whose names take longer to stick are the quieter ones so I make a conscious effort to learn theirs first. Saying that, it still takes me up to 2 weeks at times to remember all of them. Nothing to boast about really!

    Just in case you get a moment, I recently wrote a post on starting a course too; here’s the link http://bit.ly/1A24Ujb

    Thanks again for sharing.

    • Just read it – lovely post! Absolutely agree with you re taking the time to talk to them and getting them to write being much more meaningful than box-ticking on forms. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  2. Hi, Lizzie!
    Lovely post! Well, I agree that learning students’ names is esential. I have 6 25-student classes, 3 of which are new classes.
    The first day we play a game with a soft ball. I throw the ball to one student, he/she says their name and something personal about themselves, then they throw the ball to someone else and repeat the procedure till all the class has spoken. I get the ball and repeat all their names, they remind me if I forget…. Then I ask them to change seats and try again. The next class, I call their names again and again and that’s it!
    I feel it’s important for me and for them!


  3. Flashcards! No really. There first assignment is to e-mail me a picture. I make online flashcards, and match the name to the face. Once I have that, I am usually pretty good at remembering interests. The face to name is the hardest link I have to make, and good old fashioned flashcards work well!

    I used to have students make me a note card that had their name, picture something they liked about English, something they wanted to work on, and their interests on it, but with technology I usually just focus on name and face now.

  4. I love getting students to write to me, too, Lizzie. It can be great as a diagnostic tool. However I find that getting students to write me a letter never really seems to work – practically every teacher in my school does it so if they are repeat students they are already really bored with it, or struggle to think of more “interesting” things to write about. For lower levels a blank page is also very difficult and off-putting. And from a teacher point-of-view, I find it also rarely generates the useful details about them as a learner that are so vital, even when I encourage them to tell me about learning habits or past learning experiences – I was still getting the kind of basic intro to self letter I think they all learned to write in school!

    So instead I’ve recently started handing out a two A4 worksheet with six boxes for them to write in, and each box contains a specific question. They then have to write a paragraph in each box. I’ve been varying the questions a bit from class to class to see what works well. It’s been good to mix it up with some easy (What’s your favourite book or movie and why?) and some more difficult (What’s your favourite memory of school and why?) questions, but the one that’s got me the best response so far has been “Tell me one secret about you.”

    Most of my students have really opened up which surprised me at first because of course at the point in the course after just one lesson, I’m really a total stranger, but they’ve told me some amazing/hilarious/deeply personal and revealing things (e.g. secret phobias, crashing their father’s car but never having admitted it, secrets about romantic relationships) and the great thing is these facts are so personal that they hugely help me to remember the individual students as people, not just faces in a classroom, so I find the names much easier to learn because I have vivid memories attached to them of the things they have told me.

  5. I’ve been doing FSW as the first task in a new class, the problem is though the students I come across usually have done that activity (doesn’t matter in what it’s variation) and I can easly notice their relactance. Therefore, I’ve learnt to keep it as short as possible just so they can say their names and then engage them in real learning but incorporate a lot of pairwork and during first classes they – everybody – always have to report on their partner, bearing in mind they should work with different partners. In this way I learn a lot about them (interests, attitude to life, willingness to speak, their level of spoken English, pronounciation etc.) and within two, three next classes their learning style, stong and week points. If it comes to learning about their written abilities I set short written activities at classes, ie. write a three-sentence story with the use of some (how many depends on the level) newly learnt vocabulary, phrases, grammar structures, paying attention to who writes down the ideas in the pair / group. As I monitor them I can overhear who is the strongest at grammar or spelling etc. I may take me more time but ss don’t complain they have already done it thousands of times. I never write things down, just try to memorise them (the fact I completed law studies possibly helps me remember things I come across them).

    Returning to the way I remeber the names – especially during the first class I try to repeat their names, asking them to report or sit with this or that partner and by doing it It stays with me.

  6. I used to work in a school where the standard class size was 28-33and the standard teaching timetable included 6-10 classes – that meant A LOT of names!

    In the first couple of years there, which coincided with the arrival of affordable digital cameras, I took photos and made my own A4 class photo list for reference. I also used namecards at one time but I found both of those stopped me learning the names as I would rely on the support they provided.

    Eventually, I simply made sure I used the students’ names as much as possible. I would explain to them early in the course that learning names was an essential but not easy task and they should bear with me for a week or so and not get upset if I couldn’t remember or mispronounced their names (amazing how kids even as old as 14 get in a huff if you struggle to recall their name on day two!) I would then use their name every time they spoke in class – “Thanks for your answer Ali,” “that’s a great question Zeynep” and so on. I also amde a point of addressing students by name in the corridors or outside lesson time. On the ocassions I couldn’t remember, I would apologise, ask them to give me a second to think, and finally ask them again if I couldn’t remember. I think they appreciated that Iw as making an effort at least.

    Now I teach in a school where my largest class has 8 students – it took minutes to learn the names rather than days. 🙂

  7. Wow! This is a really useful post and comments thread.
    My approach mostly comes from working with classes of up to 12 (nowhere near as many as anyone else here!) in Newcastle where students arrived and left every week, and was developed so that the students knew each other’s names too – I was constantly amazed when I took over a class, and they didn’t. Sometimes they didn’t know their teacher’s name either, even when they’d been with them for weeks or even months!
    All I do is draw a line down the side of the board and write a list of their names in the order they’re sitting, working around the room. The first couple of activities are focussed on everyone learning names. The names go on the board at the start of every lesson (a test for me!) until I’m sure everyone knows everyone. I also got early SS to do the list sometimes too, which was good spelling and writing practice, especially at lower levels.
    I had my biggest group ever, a whole 18, on the CELTA in Vancouver, and the magic of the line between the names and the rest of the board meant the list was still there 5 days after I wrote it, because we didn’t have to share the room and nobody wanted to erase it!
    I hadn’t thought about combining it with the level of needs analysis and diagnostic data that you’ve got here.
    Thanks Lizzie,

  8. Thanks for posting this Lizzie and thanks Sandy for sharing it on FB via which I landed here to read this. Learning my students’ name has always been a priority for me as well for the reason that you have already stated – to treat them as individuals. Love the way(s) in which you learn your students’ names. Here is mine:
    Wherever available I go through the application forms of my students and try to get the names familiar. This I do even with the attendance register as well. Before taking the class I refresh my memory by going through the list once or twice. Then seeing photographs of students also help me a lot to identify their names. This generally comes along with their application forms.
    Thanks again for sharing.

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