Why Pronouncing Students’ Names Correctly Is Important

By: | 07/02/2021
Categories: Instruction, Leadership

On the first day of school in Mr. Timothy Landenberger’s Grade 10 biology class at the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Glendaliz Mercedes Almonte’s name was at the top of the class attendance list. After Mr. Landenberger made several unsuccessful attempts at pronouncing her name, Glendaliz felt like she had to speak up. “You can just call me Glenda,” she said.

“I will not call you Glenda,” Mr. Landenberger responded. “How do I pronounce it? You have to make White people, like me, pronounce your name correctly.”

That moment would turn out to be pivotal for Glendaliz, who now goes by Glendaliz Almonte Martinez and is Curriculum Associates’ director of content and implementation for English Learners and culturally and linguistically responsive teaching. For the last 25 years, Mr. Landenberger’s words and actions have stayed with her. “I remember every single word he said in that moment,” Glendaliz said.

The power of Glendaliz’s memory underscores the fact that we, as human beings, place great importance on our names. Our names carry our family history, culture, and identities, and research shows that mispronouncing, not learning, or changing a student’s name can contribute to a student’s low sense of self-worth and feeling like they don’t belong. However, when educators get students’ names right (or at least keep trying to), it can lead to more welcoming classrooms, stronger student–teacher relationships, and a whole host of other positive outcomes that improve learning.

Glendaliz’s Story

According to family lore, Glendaliz’s mother, Fredesvinda, named her daughter for a Dominican actress she had long admired.

“When I was a kid, I hated [my name],” Glendaliz recalled. “No one could pronounce my first or last name, and when they heard my middle name, Mercedes, they thought I was named after the car, when in fact Mercedes is derived from ‘Our Lady of Mercy’ in Spanish. I just thought it was easier to have people call me Glenda.”

However, back in that 1996 classroom in Hershey, PA, Mr. Landenberger set a different precedent. “He was one of several really forward-thinking, radical teachers,” Glendaliz said.

“When you think about people’s names, most people have a story to tell,” she continued. “We can always ask someone, ‘Why did your family name you that?’ In a classroom, it gives kids a chance to share an intimate part of who they are in a simple way. If the child comes from a different background, it allows them to talk about their family and culture.”

Glendaliz Almonte Martinez

Glen-Duh-Lease  Al-Mon-Tay  Mar-Tea-Nez

Jorge’s Story

Like Glendaliz, Curriculum Associates’ Vice President of Strategic Relationships Jorge Navarro had a complicated relationship with his name when he was young. His family immigrated from Cuba when he was a child. He spoke only Spanish until he was five years old, which is also when he started school in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools system.

Picture of Jorge Navarro as a child.
 Jorge Navarro in First Grade

Like his Cuban-American friends, and classmates, Jorge’s use and mastery of English increased over the years, but his fluency in Spanish diminished. At the same time he was losing his primary language, Jorge also lost his name. Educators routinely anglicized students' names, Jorge explained. Alejandro became Alex. Guillermo became Billy. And Jorge was no longer Jorge—he was George.

“I remember my five-year-old self feeling an odd mix of pride (I have an English name!) and embarrassment at how strange—ugly even—my new name sounded,” Jorge recalled. “‘Inglés en la escuela, español en la casa’ (‘English in school, Spanish at home’) is what my mom said when I told her my teachers were calling me George, so I felt that I really had no choice but to go along.”

Jorge let people call him George right into college. At the time, he felt it was easier. Going by George also meant he didn’t have to hear strange and grating mispronunciations of Jorge, like “Her-gay,” “Hor-gwee,” and worse.

“I finally decided, around the time that I began reconnecting with my Cuban roots and speaking more and more Spanish, that my name was my name, and having people call me Jorge was more important to me than avoiding awkwardness at someone’s mispronunciation,” Jorge said. “Jorge is who I am—my given name—and having others call me by it is a small but powerful act of acknowledgment of and respect for my family, home language, culture, and identity.”

A few years later, when Jorge was in graduate school at the University of Florida, he took a class called Bilingual Education. During the course, he realized that the negative experience of losing proficiency in his first language had a name: subtractive bilingualism (i.e., when learning a second/academic language comes at the expense of a first/home language). He next realized that the experiences that had changed his connection to his heritage, his language, and his own name had affected him deeply.

“I never really knew much about bilingualism in terms of what it could do to and for a person, how it could influence feelings of belonging and self-worth,” Jorge said. “I didn’t know there was any sort of connection between academic achievement, identity, and the sociopsychological difficulties therein.”

To read more about Jorge’s story—and to listen to some of his music—check out his personal blog.

Jorge Navarro
Hoar-Hey Nah-Var-Oh

Learning and Pronouncing Names Exercises

Name Narratives

Tell the story of your name. What does it mean? Where does it come from? Are you named for a family member, a celebrity, or a line from a song?

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, author of Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy, explained why she has educators give their name narratives before she starts a workshop in a blog post, Debunking Deficit-Centered Views of Our Children. “When teachers share their name narratives and their identities, the conversation quickly fills with joy, love, and laughter,” Dr. Muhammad said.

Glendaliz encourages educators to use the name narratives exercise in their classrooms because it fosters a sense of community. “Level-set your classroom as a space for trust and learning,” she says. “If you do that, every kid in the room feels they’re seen and affirmed. It shifts the energy and lets them know we’re about to have an amazing time together.”

Personalized Name Badges

This idea comes from the My Name, My Identity campaign, which was created by the Santa Clara County Office of Education in partnership with the National Association for Bilingual Education to bring attention to the importance of pronouncing students’ names correctly. In this activity, educators and students create name badges that show important elements of their names and share information that will help others learn their names. The badge can be a physical name sticker, or it can be digital (e.g., an infographic). Once all participants are done making their badges, they present them to the rest of the group. By presenting and explaining the meaning of their unique badge, participants help others remember their name and get to know them.

The My Name, My Identity campaign has lots of resources for educators who are interested in learning additional name-related activities, hosting a Getting to Know Our Names Week, and creating name campaigns of their own.

Make an Audio Name Badge

A company called NameCoach helps individuals record NameBadges (i.e., audio name pronunciations that can be embedded in social media platforms, digital documents, and more). Individuals can create a name pronunciation using the NameCoach website, or they can use any number of recording apps to generate audio files that they can then embed in email signatures and other digital items.

Additional Resources

Curriculum Associates is committed to helping educators create classrooms where all students feel like they belong and programs that help all students access grade-level work.

How are we doing that?

Learn More about Access and Equity
Teacher and students sitting on the floor.

Grants and Funding Hub

Curriculum Associates’ grants and funding team has assembled resources to help educators and administrators make sense of new federal funding sources, plan for summer school, and understand how our programs meet funding requirements. 

Locate Your Representative