Five Strategies for Learning Names

Happy January!

What’s your strategy for learning names?


Learning your students’ names quickly helps set a great tone for the semester.

Here are five ways to get it done:

Set a goal

I was born good at names. It’s a little eerie sometimes. Also, most classes I’ve taught are relatively small. In that kind of situation, I’ll usually know people’s names within the first two sessions without trying particularly hard.

But my goal is always to know my students’ names by the end of the first class session. I expect them to work hard – I can push myself, too.

You should set a goal that works for you, but make it as soon as humanly possible.

Feeling like you need some external motivation? Schedule a Name Test for yourself, and make it as public as you dare!

Use Two-Sided Name Placards

Yes, do some typical introductions and warm-ups. But don’t stop there.

On the first day, hand out card stock and dark markers. Ask students to write down the name they wish to be called on both sides. This helps the entire class learn names, including the students who sit in the back, and including the teacher.

Collect the placards at the end of each session so they’re always available in class. Plan to use them for at least the first five weeks of the semester.


Quiz yourself in both directions: face-to-name and name-to-face. Read down the roster, picturing each individual’s face. When you work with students’ assignments, attendance, grading, etc., deliberately picture each student. In class, look systematically around the room, recalling each individual’s name. At home, picture where each student was sitting and recall their names.

None of this takes a designated block of time, just a minute or two of your attention.

During your practice, make sure you don’t rely on identifying students by their hair, makeup, jacket, or other features of style they may choose to change at any time. You also can’t assume they’ll always be in the same seat – you need to know them wherever they’re standing or sitting.

If coming up with any particular name gives you trouble, practice repetition in multiple modalities: say it, write it, think it, spell it out loud, trace it on your palm with your finger, place it into a short tune or rhyme – play to your strengths!

Know Your Error Style

What types of name errors do you tend toward? And how does it manifest: blanking? garbling? slow recall? mixing up faces?

I’m a garbler, so mnemonics are my friend. My classic name problem is to mix up and/or reverse syllables in new-to-me names.

Since I know this is my error style, I recognize names that will give me trouble right away and immediately start building mental structures to keep me on track.

It’s often simple things, like “me in the middle” or remembering that this friendly person ironically has a syllable that sounds like mean in her name (not neam, but mean). 

If you mix up faces, ask permission to take photos, perhaps of rows of students at a time. Use the photos to study.

If you panic and blank, just going through the motions of studying may help you feel more confident, which may in turn help you blank less. You should also experiment with practicing in other modalities (see above) – maybe one clicks more readily for you than others do.

Double-Check Your Pronunciation

Names are important to people, even if they don’t say so. Take an extra few minutes to check your pronunciation. It’s really not awkward because the only reason anyone would check is because s/he cares. Even if it’s already halfway through the semester – just check.

How do you check? First, listen. How do the students and other teachers pronounce the students’ names? Do any differ from how you say them?

Then, directly ask individuals. You just quietly ask. Here are a couple of examples:

“I hear different people say your name differently. How do you say your name? What do you prefer?”


“This is how I say your name. Is that right? How can I say it better?”

You can be less direct too, perhaps asking everyone to re-introduce themselves to build classroom community, or by making a public “test the teacher” activity.

If you can just feel the pronunciations sliding through your head, ask again. Simply say that you’re having trouble with this name, but that it’s important to you to get it right. Try saying a name two or three different ways and asking which is best. Write your understanding of the pronunciation and ask, “Like this?” Write it down for yourself in IPA. You can even ask if you can make an audio recording of the student saying his or her name properly.


Names matter. They’re worth the work it takes to memorize them. My best semesters have been ones where there’s a sense of community in the classroom, and it’s incredibly hard to have that when you’re not fluent in their names.

Get them quickly, and get them right!

Have a great semester!


Photo Credit: k4dordy on Flickr

You’re reading Five Strategies for Learning Names, originally posted at


Assisting the Teacher: Actively Circulating

I’ve decided to write a series of posts in a new category: ESL Assistant Teaching Tips. I’m writing from the point of view of an assistant ESOL instructor in academic English classes at a community college. For background, here’s why I love assistant teaching, and here is what the basics of the set-up look like. I hope that other assistants will find this useful, and that this wonderful classroom model will spread!


On Monday, I talked about the interruption conundrum: to interrupt, or not to interrupt?

Spoiler: interrupt!

In this post, I’ll break down how this not-very-extroverted person goes about circulating so actively so much that she thinks of it as “crowd surfing.”

The short version is: I don’t stand by and wait for more than a minute or so at a time. If I’m not being flagged down, I’m either quietly walking or verbally checking in.

Step 1: Greet Everyone and Check In

When I walk in in the second hour of class, everybody is usually working. In one classroom, I enter from the front, and I find this very uncomfortable. In the other classroom, the door is in the back, so people don’t know I’m there unless they turn around or I greet them.

Most days, I circulate around the room quietly and interrupt students individually or in pairs in order to greet them by name. It’s a quick hello and social question, asking about their weekend or something like that. I listen to their answers. If they’d been absent the class before, I ask if everything’s OK. They seem to respond well to that. I then remind them that I’m here to answer any questions or help however I can.

It’s important to me that we have this little connection. Honestly, I sometimes skip this step in the class with the door in the front. And it shows – I feel more connected to the other class. No more skipping the greeting, Emily!

Step 2: Walk Around Quietly

If nobody has any questions for me right away or they’ve just started working on something, I just walk around quietly. I look at their work, and I’m not shy about stopping to read and telling them that they’re on track… or making a suggestion to get them back on track.

I’ll sometimes ask how it’s going, especially if someone seems to have less done than the other students. Usually people nod or say “fine,” but occasionally I get a panicked “bad!” and then I talk that person through tackling the longest assignment they’ve ever written in English.

Step 3: Ask If I Can Check Anything

Once students have some work down, be it textbook work, an outline, or a draft essay, I ask each person if there’s anything I can check for them.

If it’s a small amount, I read and check it all. If there are errors, I point them out but I don’t give the answers.

If it’s a large amount, I ask if they have any specific questions.

If they seem to want me to spend 20 minutes checking all their work, I’m up front that I can’t. I encourage them to ask me only the most important couple of questions so I can check in with the other students, too.

I cycle between Step 2 and Step 3 for much of class, and I also get flagged down a lot.

Step 4: Build Up, Chat, Farewell

As class comes to a close, I make sure to point out to students what they’re doing well, to build up their confidence and their positive associations with writing.

I always stay a few minutes late in case people want to chat a bit – sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. I don’t chat a lot about my personal life, though I share a few bits about my family and other interests. I mostly just want everyone to finish class feeling  hopeful… and enthusiastically encouraged to utilize the college’s writing center!

I also make an effort to say good night to everyone and wish them a nice evening or weekend as appropriate. If they have a big assignment or exam coming up, I wish them luck. It’s a little thing, but like with the greeting, I think it just helps us feel connected.


It’s not rocket science!

But it is a lot of interrupting and a lot of initiating, both of which I’ve been a bit ambivalent about, especially as the mere assistant.

Over the last few semesters, I’ve decided that the interrupting is worth it and the initiating is definitely part of my role even though I’m not in charge.

Does crowd surfing come naturally to you?


You’re reading Assisting the Teacher: Actively Circulating, originally posted at




Activity Corner: Fourth Week Survey


One of my departments has all of its teachers do a really, really smart thing.

About a third of the way into the semester, teachers hand out an anonymous survey to their students. The results are for the teachers’ eyes only, for the sole purpose of getting the lay of the land and seeing if any changes can be made to improve the semester.

The types of questions the department suggests:

  • Do students feel they can succeed in this course? What support do they need?
  • How is class time going? How could the teacher make it more effective?
  • How is homework going? How are the assignments, directions, and deadlines?
  • How are major assignments going? Are students prepared in class to complete them? What could be improved?
  • Are students getting feedback? Is it understandable? Is it helpful? How could it be improved?

Remember to ask for specifics and for suggestions. They might not all be workable, but at very least they help you see the students’ point of view. Point out that general statements like “this class is too hard” are not useful, especially coming from anonymous sources, because you have no idea what is too hard about it.

Now, with a survey like this comes the fear of negative feedback. What if everyone hates my class? And since this is during the semester, you’d still have to work with a group of people who may have told you you’re not doing as well as you thought.

My advice is: handle it. You’re an ESOL teacher – you’ve handled awkward in the past, and you can handle awkward this semester, too. It’s just not that big a deal.

And the rewards are significant: free professional development, very possibly a topic to present on at the next local ESOL conference, and most importantly, the potential to make a comeback and teach an epic class that really reaches your students.

Even if your department doesn’t nudge you in this direction, give it a try! Don’t wait till next semester to make positive changes!


Photo CreditAshley Van Haeften on Flickr

You’re reading Activity Corner: Fourth Week Survey, originally posted at

Activity Corner: Exit Tickets

(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I described some of my favorite activities from time to time. See all my ESL Activity Corner posts here.)


Did your students learn what you think they learned today? Ask them a brief question at the end of class, and have them hand it in on a post-it on their way out the door.

Checking for Understanding

You can use exit tickets to check for understanding. For example, if one of the session’s main objectives was working on thesis statements, exit ticket questions might be,

What is a thesis statement?

Write one example of a thesis statement.

If you’re working on the grammatical form of Present Continuous, you might say,

Write a sentence in Present Continuous.


Supporting Metacognition

Alternatively, the exit questions can be metacognitive:

What was the point of today’s lesson? might elicit interesting and/or sassy responses.

What was the most difficult part of today’s lesson? might also be illuminating.

Another useful one might be, Do you need to improve any technology skills to be more comfortable in this class? Which ones?

After handing back a major assignment, something like this might help a few people find time to head to the tutoring center: Are you satisfied with your essay grade? If not, what is your plan to get additional help to improve your results?


Some teachers use this activity at the end of every class session, and others just sometimes. Give it a try and see what you find out!


Photo Credit: Dean Hochman on Flickr

You’re reading Activity Corner: Exit Tickets, originally posted at

Student Questions Matrix, Part 3

This is Part 3 of a series on Student Questions. See Part 1 (intro) and Part 2 (the axes)

In this post, I’m going to look in more detail at the three action steps I outlined for handling student questions.

The Graphic (click to enlarge)


Answer Now… And You Might Still Get Derailed

It’s possible that an important and relevant question can still take over your whole lesson. In my opinion that’s OK, assuming the question is indeed both important and relevant.

I was recently talking to an EAP teacher much more experienced than I am, and she had just come from teaching a class session in which she’d had to chuck her entire lesson plan. What happened was simple: the students didn’t have the prerequisite skills she’d thought they had.

You can’t teach adjective clauses if they don’t know what an adjective is, or what a clause is. You can’t have them evaluate and edit thesis statements if they don’t know what a thesis statement is. I don’t know what topic her class was on that day, but she realized she had to back up, and she did so.

Adhering to your lesson plan in the face of students being utterly unprepared to succeed at it is not a badge of honor. It’s a waste of time. Let the important and relevant questions inform and guide you.

On the other hand, tossing aside a well-considered lesson plan because one student decided to ask a series of inconsequential questions important only to his/herself is not being a responsive teacher. It’s letting the whims of the boldest determine what everyone else experiences.

I like that this matrix helps me quickly evaluate when it’s legitimately time to set aside my lesson plan, and when it’s best to set aside the question of the moment.

The Parking Lot

I’m a big fan of having a Parking Lot in the classroom. It’s just a place to write down “not today” questions so you can process them when you’re not on the spot. I feel that an important part of lesson planning is checking on Parking Lot questions to make sure I address whichever ones are within the scope of my class.

That said, there is no rule that every question that finds its way to the Parking Lot has to end up as part of a future lesson. Especially when there’s an academic syllabus and predetermined course objectives involved, some questions are just not going to be a part of any lesson that semester. 

I do think it’s important to acknowledge the Parking Lot questions specifically in class. Parking Lot should not become “the place for stupid questions.” If you’re now addressing a question of Yasmine’s from last month’s Parking Lot, say so! If you’ve decided not to address Ranya’s question during class because that very topic will be introduced in the next level next semester, say so! 

Also, if the Parking Lot in your syllabus-based class keeps getting filled up with questions that are important but not relevant to the pre-defined course objectives, or important and relevant questions that you don’t have time to address, that’s concrete data for course planning. If the course is mostly in your hands, you can get to work planning what comes next and how to change the current unit next time around. If it’s an EAP class, you can bring the data back to your department. It might bring about adjusting the scope of that particular class, offering additional department-supported tutoring, etc.

After Class

Since not every question is germane or even appropriate for every class, it’s kind to offer to discuss with students outside of class. Personally, I offer students limited time after class to ask me questions. Keep in mind I’m an adjunct, I teach night classes, and am a bit of a night owl by nature. Here are three big reasons talking after class works well for me:

  1. traffic for the full two hours before my night classes start is miserable and students and I just can’t predict how early we’ll arrive;
  2. my children are quite young, and it’s easier for my family if I’m out more when they’re in bed than when they’re awake, and
  3. since night classes end so late, the only in-person questions I receive are genuinely important to the students, and the students are generally as efficient as possible so they can go home and get some sleep.

And there’s always email and the phone if they can’t stay late.

Next Week

Part 4 is coming up next week, with a discussion of using this little matrix in your direct instruction to promote metacognition, and also some strategies for fielding the Green Zone questions.


You’re reading Student Questions, Part 3, originally posted at

Student Questions Matrix, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a series on Student Questions. See Part 1 here.

Today I’m going to look more deeply into the questions of what (to me) makes a student’s question important and/or relevant.

The Graphic (click to enlarge)


The Axes

As you can see, the two axes I use are importance and relevancy. But let’s unpack what I meant by those.

Firstly, I liked both categories because I see them as flexible and subjective. What’s “relevant” in a syllabus-based EAP class might be much more narrow than in a community education life-skills class. What’s “important” in a free basic life-skills class in an English-speaking country differs greatly from advanced academic speaking taught as a foreign language.

Importance to me is about significance in the context of the topic and the students. Is it crucial to the content? Is it vital to the people studying it? It’s two measures disguised as just one.

Looking at importance re: content, if students in an intermediate grammar class are having trouble even recognizing Present Perfect, that’s very important. Recognizing a specific two-word verb tense is crucial for mastering Present Perfect and most of the English verb tenses. By contrast, if those students are trying to figure out the difference between “I already ate” and “I’ve eaten already,” I wouldn’t categorize it as particularly important because there is no functional difference in that example. It’s a rather insignificant detail, not the crux of the matter. I might advise them to focus on something where there is a functional difference, like “I was there” vs. “I’ve been there.”

The other side of importance is how important something is to the students. The sounds /r/ vs. /l/ might be very important to your Mandarin speakers but not at all to your Spanish and Arabic speakers. English-language traffic signs would be vital for the very safety of beginners in the USA, but not particularly crucial for beginners in a classroom in South Korea.

Relevance to me is a question’s connection to the material at hand. If you’re teaching Present Continuous in the context of household chores and then a student asks a question about the three present forms of “to be,” that’s extremely relevant, as it’s a building block of the verb tense. However, if in that same lesson a student asks about the passive voice in past tense from the US Constitution, you’re looking at a legitimate and potentially important question that’s still really outside the scope of where the class was headed that day. Relevancy is generally separate from importance.


One other point to mention is that some extreme outliers in these categories warrant different treatment.

Looking back at the traffic signs example for learners new to the USA, if you realize your students can’t interpret a WALK/DON’T WALK signal, this is not just important; it’s potentially life-and-death. To me it seems worth risking a tangent to make sure none of your students get flattened on their way home. (Teachers of new beginners, have you been in this type of situation, where a real safety concern comes up? What do you recommend for handling it?)

Another extreme can happen when a question is only important to one person in the room. At a really fantastic Microsoft Access training I attended at the Science Museum of Minnesota, one of my classmates kept asking detailed questions specific to her organization’s database needs. It was like she was trying use our class time as her own personal one-to-one consultation with the teacher. The instructor (I think rightly) did not address these questions at all during class time.


Imagine a high-intermediate ESL course on the first day of a unit focusing on Present Continuous in the context of leisure activities.

Here are four example questions based in that imaginary context. I see each of these as a different category of question. What do you think?

  1. Can you explain gerunds?
  2. It’s “-ing” so it’s Present Continuous, right?
  3. Why is “stop” followed by a gerund or infinitive?
  4. “What are the -ing spelling rules?

You might disagree with me, but this is how I see it:

  1. Can you explain gerunds? – Reasonably important for high-intermediate students to know, but not relevant to today’s lesson on Present Continuous
  2. It’s “-ing” so it’s Present Continuous, right? – Important to know and highly relevant to today’s lesson. Those helping verbs aren’t just there for fun!
  3. Why is “stop” followed by a gerund or infinitive? – Not important for this level and “why” isn’t a constructive question here. English is often arbitrary! It’s not at all relevant to today’s lesson.
  4. What are the -ing spelling rules? – I might get myself in trouble here, but to me spelling is of lower importance than structure and usage. The spelling rules are certainly relevant, though. Hopefully this one can come out of the Parking Lot within the next couple of class sessions!

Next Week

Next week I’ll be posting Part 3, which will go into more detail about the action steps from the graphic.

You’re reading Student Questions, Part 2, originally posted at


Student Questions Matrix, Part 1

I’ve been thinking a lot about student questions lately. How do we balance questions with the syllabus? One student’s needs with the rest of the class’s? And once we figure all of that out, what are some great ways to use student questions?

It turned into an infographic and a four-part series. Welcome to Part 1!

My Old De-Facto Mental Model

I vividly remember several instances of student questions hugely derailing my class sessions when I was first teaching.

Questions during class used to feel a bit like being in a batting cage. Questions were fired at me and I remember feeling like was my job to swing at each one and hit as many as I could. A good teacher would be able to answer all of those questions, right? So I should try to do that, right?

Would a good teacher answer all those questions right there on the spot regardless of what they were, what unit the class was in, and who was in her class?

Probably not.

I think that a big part of my mental model was unconsciously seeing questions on a spectrum between “I cannot even begin to answer this” and “I can easily answer this.” Notice how each side started with “I.” In the name of helping my students, I was pretty preoccupied with myself.

A New Mental Model

Thanks to a lot of great teacher education and lots more opportunities to teach, I’ve been using a more intentional and constructive way to view questions as they come at me.

The x-axis is relevancy: how relevant is this question to the current lesson?

My y-axis is importance: how important is this to how many of the students in the room?

(See Part 2 for more details on the axes)

Also, having a Parking Lot in place that is part of my lesson planning and in-class routine is essential.

Without further ado, here’s my little graphic laying out the matrix and three action steps:


The setting where I use this has been in my English for Academic Purposes classes. It helps me navigate my two-fold responsibilities: I’m beholden to a syllabus and to my students. But I think that in a less academic or even a much more student-led context, the same basics can be used. The two axes are fairly subjective and adaptable.

More in this Series, Coming Up!

See Part 2 (the axes), Part 3 (action steps), and Part 4 (metacognition and activities) here in the next few weeks. [I will update these links when I post the new articles.]

Also, thanks for reading! I’d love to hear in the comments how you handle student questions in your own classrooms. I’m especially curious how it goes in classrooms that are more student-led than my academic classes have been.

You’re reading Student Questions, Part 1, originally posted at

The Parking Lot

5559534294_9cc4b03624_bThe Parking Lot is a simple, clever way to respectfully handle student questions that cannot or should not be answered right away.

On the side of the board or on a piece of flip-chart paper or a page in your LMS, you write “Parking Lot.” At the beginning of the semester, you explain that all questions are welcome, but that you can’t always accommodate every single one the moment it is asked. These questions will be placed in the Parking Lot so that they are not forgotten and can be addressed at a better time.

Why wouldn’t we answer a great question right away? It might be…

  • too big
  • not level-appropriate
  • addressed in a future unit
  • too specific to one student
  • asked in the last 3 minutes of class

The Parking Lot validates students’ questions and gives teachers a degree of control over how much and in what way student questions change the lesson plan.

Note: if you use a Parking Lot, you must follow through. Incorporate it into your routines: refer to it in your lessons and make it a part of your lesson planning checklist. If it becomes the euphemism for “this is where questions go to die,” students will likely feel insulted if you place their questions there. I know I would!

Photo credit: 12/52 Chalk by Scott Akerman on Flickr

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