Numerous sites have been designed to help new parents name their babies and curious people discover the meanings and origins of their names. As teachers, we can use these sites for our own purposes. Gaining familiarity with popular names in the English-speaking world is worthwhile for language learners. Reading and pronouncing first names can teach awareness of syllables, stress patterns, spelling patterns, and more.
Here are two sites, followed by one idea for classroom practice.
- Names by gender and birth year (collected by the U.S. Social Security Administration)
- Names by origin (regions and religions)
The Name Game
Step 1 – Target one consonant sound. Select 8-10 names that have that consonant sound in different positions and, if possible, in different letter combinations. Example: /tʃ/ = Charles, Charlie, Chelsea, Rachel, Richard, Rich, Mitchell, Mitch.
Step 2 – Guide students through a syllable count. Identify the number of syllables in each name. Have them clap or tap the number as they say the name.
Step 3 – Identify the stress pattern in each name with more than one syllable. Use stress dots to indicate stressed syllables.
Step 4 – Have students work in pairs to sort the names into three groups according to the position of the targeted sound: initial (Charles, Charlie, Chelsea), medial (Rachel, Richard, Mitchell), and final (Rich, Mitch).
Step 5 – Correct their work as a class. Challenge them by adding 3-5 new names. For these additional names, they must work with their partners identifying the number of syllables, stress patterns, and position of target sound.
Step 6 – Ask students if they are acquainted with anybody who has one of these names. Have they heard of any famous people with these names? Also, ask them if they know of other names with the target sound. Welcome additions to the list can be names from their native cultures.
VARIATION: Choose two or three sounds, either minimal pairs or three similar sounds that can be easily confused, for instance, /tʃ/, /dʒ/, and /ʃ/. With two target sounds, have students group the names into those with target sound 1, those with target sound 2, and those with both target sounds. With three target sounds, you can also challenge students to identify names having more than one target sound. Example names with / dʒ /: Jane, John, Joshua, Jake, Ginger, Roger, Bridget. Example names with /ʃ/: Shelly, Sharon, Shannon, Sheldon, Charlene, Ashley, Ashton, Alicia, Michelle.
SUGGESTION: Take the activity one step further by either (1) having students research the names to find out their origins and share that information aloud or (2) creating funny sentences. For example, you can play a memory game that requires each person to repeat what has been said and add one new piece of information: Charles loves Rachel. > Charles loves Rachel, but Rachel loves Rich. > Charles loves Rachel, but Rachel loves Rich, and Rich loves Chelsea…