Name Talk: Exploring Letter-Sound Knowledge in the Primary Classroom
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This lesson invites pre-school through first grade students to share what they know about letters and sounds with a small group of their peers, and also gives teachers an opportunity to assess that knowledge in a more meaningful context than traditional “screening” sessions achieve. Working with name cards written by themselves or an adult, students share observations about their names and the names of their classmates, such as similarities and differences in spelling. Extensions of the lesson are appropriate for more experienced and knowledgeable primary-aged students.
Stapleless Book: Students select page templates and then design pages that can be printed out, cut and folded into an eight-page book.
From Theory to Practice
The Primary Voices article "Letting Go of 'Letter of the Week'" shows the power of using children's names in early literacy lessons. In the article, Bell and Jarvis explain that young children develop literacy knowledge from an early age, even though it is not yet conventional. They emphasize that much of young children's letter-sound knowledge begins with personal connections to their own names, family members' names, and environmental print. Further, they state that new learning develops by connecting familiar information to new information. This lesson provides a vehicle for making such a connection as students compare and contrast their own printed names to those of their classmates, making a link from the familiar to the unfamiliar.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
Materials and Technology
- Name cards or blank notecards and pens.
- Anecdotal note paper/post-its or a letter-sound screening sheet on which to take notes.
- Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henke (1996).
- A one-sheet class list written in large font or print. Find a logical ways to group the student names—i.e. seating groups or teams—so that the list can be more easily read.
- Organize students into small, heterogeneous groups of 4–6, i.e. by seating groups, seasonal birthdays, or friendship groups. Organizing by “ability” is less advantageous for this lesson, as the diversity of responses from a range of students is an asset to the conversation.
- Create name cards for the students, as well as one for yourself, if the children’s writing is not yet conventional. (It is worthwhile to try this lesson with student-written cards and teacher-written cards to explore the relative values of each, rather than making firm assumptions about the students’ abilities.)
- If you elect to have children write their own names, have a stack of notecards and marking pens available. Cutting 9"x12" card stock in three strips works well, or 3"x9."
- Review use of the Stapleless Book student interactive.
- share their knowledge of letter and sounds, prompted by their names.
- make connections between their names/knowledge and that of their peers.
- make connections between personal print knowledge and the available print in the classroom setting.
- demonstrate knowledge of letters "in context."
- Read Chrysanthemum aloud to the class, the story of a young mouse whose name is the focus of much notice and teasing. Her teacher and parents successfully help her recognize that Chrysanthemum is a special name. Following the reading of the book, tell kids they’ll be invited to participate in “name talk” groups about their own names. As the class looks at the book title, or the word Chrysanthemum written on the board, ask what they can see in her name. You might expect answers like … her name starts like Chris’s name … there are two /m/’s in her name … her name has a big C at the beginning.
- Invite students to come to a meeting table to talk about their names. Create or pass out name cards. Accept not-yet-conventional writing and spelling if kids do the writing. Their friends will often help them out, necessitating they turn the card over or use a second card.
- Begin the discussion with “Who would like to share first? Tell us anything you notice about your name.” Wait for a child to take the lead. First responses have included, “My names has three triangles (capital A’s).” “My first name has two ‘n’’s and my last name has one ‘n’.” “My name starts the same as Andrew’s.” Or, “My name starts with a big letter.” Children readily take up this “name talk,” allowing plenty of opportunity for anecdotal notetaking. Facilitate turn-taking as needed.
- Contribute to the talk with an interesting comment about your own name. I have contributed comments like, “My name has a “y” at the end but it makes the /e/ sound (Kathy). My last name starts with an “e,” and it makes the schwa sound (Egawa).
- After each child has made four or five contributions, compliment the students on how much they know and invite them to continue noticing new things about their names and those of their friends and family.
- Make the Stapleless Book student interactive available on a nearby computer. Title page one with the “name” of the group as appropriate (the Whale Clan, Kindergarten Buddies, etc.), and then invite each child to enter his or her name on one page of the book. Print as many copies of the book as there are members of the group, pass out, and fold together. Invite the students to draw or write something about each of their classmates on the page with that person’s name.
- Invite families to learn more about the popularity of their names by visiting the Social Security Administration Website of the ten most popular baby names for every year since 1880.
- Invite the students and their families to create another version of the stapleless book. Variations could include adding one family member’s name to each page (don’t forget pets and grandparents!), or running off or making a blank copy of the book to carry family so each person can write his or her name on a page. Encourage more variations!
- Keep the same groups or create new ones. Gather the small group together at a meeting table and pass out the class name sheets. This time invite the students to read the names, noticing how the names are alike and different. This initial name “reading” will likely take 2-3 minutes.
- Again invite students to share their observations. Responses have included comments like, “Everyone has an “e” in their name except Ryan.” “My dad’s name is Bob, too.” “I spell my name different than the other Claire because mine is spelled the Irish way—Clare.”
Create a one-page sheet divided into 24-28 box spaces (fold, then trace on fold lines) and print one child’s name at the bottom of each box. Send the sheets home with the instructions to draw or write one thing about each classmate right above his or her name. Parents can help with writing as needed.
- Match a small school photo next to each name for young children. Some school picture companies even provide a small set of photos with adhesive backs.
- Invite students to write their immediate family names on cards. This task could be homework to prepare for “name talk” the following day. Pet or teddy bear names could also work.
- Add addresses or other ID along to the name cards. (Take caution with privacy issues.)
- Use this engagement in partnership with a class of older “buddies, working with two pairs in a group.
- Follow with multiple opportunities for letter “play”: magnetic alphabet letters, assorted writing paper and writing instruments—the more interesting the better.
- Play computer games based on letters and letter sounds. An example would be ABC Match.
- Research and collect multiple spellings of the same name, in particular noting cultural or linguistic root variations.
- Research the Spanish, Chinese or Russian variation of each child’s name in the class. Use those names.
- Invite parents to write a letter to the class about the choice of the child’s name (an idea developed by Shelley Harwayne at the Manhattan New School in New York City; letters were placed in a notebook and made available for other families to read on a table in the main hall).
- Focus on nicknames. Little kids might like to hear Ira Sleeps Over, noting the nickname of Ira’s teddy bear. Older kids might want to know that Grover Cleveland had 20 nicknames, more than any other president. They included Dump Prophet, Buffalo Hangman, Grover the Good, Old Veto, and Perpetual Candidate.
Student Assessment / Reflections
Anecdotal notes—these are particularly helpful for students who appear to have little letter-sound knowledge on traditional screening or testing instruments. Notes might be taken on an alphabetic knowledge screening instrument for individual children.