What’s in a name? Teaching phonics, syllabification, and more!

  • Published on November 3, 2017

The first words children learn to recognise, read and spell are usually their own names. It’s not surprising, these words hold significant meaning and power for them. Why not harness that energy to teach the skills that are basic to literacy development?

Even before they begin formal schooling, children are able to read and spell their own names; and possibly the names of significant others in their lives, including parents, siblings, other close relatives and friends. When we write their names on pictures they’ve drawn, inside the covers of books they own, on letters and envelopes written to them, as well as on their belongings, they come to understand “that word means me”.

However, not all children are exposed to the same opportunities for learning prior to beginning school. It is important that we make connections with the children and help them learn in ways that are both fun and meaningful.

In this post I suggest some strategies that can be implemented in the first three years of school, starting from the very first day when children can write their names to demonstrate their knowledge of letters and sounds and fine motor coordination. Throughout the early years, children’s names can be used as a starting point in teaching phonics, initial sounds and syllabification.

The ideas suggested in this post are presented in more detail in a new resource uploaded this week:

phonics syllabification
Teaching phonics and syllabification

Suggestions for before, or in early days of, school

Teaching letter sound relationships

An easy way to teach young children to recite the letters of their names in sequence, is to utilise their love of music, singing and recall of lyrics. Even if sung out of key, children enjoy special songs about them and their names. Simply adjust the tune of B-I-N-G-O to the children’s names as you sing.

After just a few repetitions, they are able to join, and even sing their names independently. If you sing while writing their names, they will begin to recognise and name each letter too. This is a great activity for parents to do at home or for carers at centres before children even begin formal schooling.

Suggestions for the first days of school

Who is here?

A simple way of finding out who can recognise their name in print is to make a Who is here? chart. Laminate a large copy of each child’s name and put a small amount of reusable adhesive on the back. As children enter in the morning they find their names and place them on the chart. This is also an easy check to see who is and is not at school.

Who am I?

A great activity for the first day of school is to ask the children to write their names or to draw a picture of themselves and write their names on it.

Getting to know each other

Calling the attendance roll is a great way of helping children get to know each other’s names. Even if you are no longer required to do the roll orally, the benefits of doing so remain. You say the child’s name. The child stands and says, “Good morning, everyone.” The class says, “Good morning, (name).”

Beginning formal phonics instruction

Words that begin like my name

When introducing children to the names of the letters and their sounds, use the names of your children whenever possible. For example, the first letter often introduced is “S”. You might have a Steven, Sam, Sarah or Sacha in your class. Explain that today is going to be; for example, Sarah’s day, and encourage children to think of as many words as they can that begin with “S”, like Sarah’s name. Write them on a chart.

Another suggestion for using the first letter and sound of a child’s name is by giving them an alliterative positive description; for example, Sensational Sarah, Terrific Trey, Brave Brandon, Likeable Liam. Children could illustrate these with a self-portrait.

Developing phonemic awareness

Words that rhyme with my name

Some of the children may have names for which you can find rhyming words. Sometimes the spelling of these names and words is regular. Sometimes it is irregular. Either way, the opportunities for teaching and learning are there.

For example (from the resource):

rhyming names

Investigate grapho-phonics and spelling with one-syllable names

Investigating the letter and letter combinations used to spell one-syllable names is a great way of introducing both regular and irregular spelling patterns, especially for long vowel sounds, consonant blends and digraphs.  It is likely that with a class of approximately 25 students, a great number of both regular and irregular spelling patterns will be present.

You may be able to discuss:

  • CVC words; for example, Pam, Ben, Tim, Tom.
  • Long vowels with ‘e’ on the end: for example, Jane, Luke, Rose, Eve.
  • Other spellings of long vowels, digraphs and blends; such as, Trey, Jean, Bryce, Brooke, Hugh, Sloane.

Introducing syllables

The knock-knock syllable name game

This activity could build upon the attendance activity suggested above, or could be an activity on its own. Children sit or stand in a circle. The teacher nominates who will be first, then children take turns around the circle. The game begins like a Knock Knock joke, but the class repeats the child’s name, clapping the syllables instead.

Knock knock

Breaking words into syllables

It is always best to start with the familiar and build on that understanding. Teaching syllabification using children’s names makes perfect sense.  They are already well-practised at listening to the names and breaking them into chunks orally. Breaking them into chunks visually builds upon that foundation and is an excellent way of introducing syllabification as a tool for reading multi-syllable words.

Children will already have been introduced to vowel and consonant sounds and their visual representation through working with one-syllable names and other words. When you are working with two-syllable names and words, each syllable can be treated individually for purposes of analysis.

Words are usually broken into syllables in regular ways:

  • between two middle consonants; for example, Bran/don
  • before a single middle consonant; for example, Ro/bert; even when the consonant changes the vowel sound; for example, Sa/rah.

The same is true for names with three or more syllables too; such as, My/kay/la, Me/la/nie and Bar/thol/o/mew.

When looking at other words, you will find ways of breaking into syllables that don’t often occur in names; such as:

  • between words in compound words; for example, house/boat
  • before the consonant sound preceding le; for example, mum/ble, a/ble, ti/ckle

Of course, as with much in English, there are always exceptions to any rule.

Breaking words into syllables

It is important to not try to teach everything at once, but to take it in small steps, a little bit at a time, ensuring children understand and are confident before moving onto the next name or activity. A little each day is the best way.

I’m sure that once you get started using children’s names to teach important literacy skills, you will find many other ways of incorporating them into your program. I hope you have found some of these ideas useful. For greater detail and additional suggestions please check out the resource.



I have just uploaded a resource with an example of ways of incorporating a student’s name: Schuyler.

read spell write Schuyler

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    This is brilliant Norah. If I was a young parent with a child I’d certainly be teaching my child from your brilliant lessons. And I never really thought about that old ‘roll call’ which I thought was boring as a child, not realizing it was a great opportunity to learn other student’s names. Great post! 🙂 x

    Thank you for your lovely comment, Debby. It warms my heart. The roll call can be as fun as we like to make it. Sadly, I didn’t experience it as fun myself as a child and never saw anyone else attempt to make it so. I always think, why be bored when you can have fun and why not make the most of every opportunity for learning. 🙂

    That’s good thinking Norah. I never liked it either, particularly because nobody could ever pronounce my last name properly and I used to cringe before hearing it. 🙁

    Oh, that’s a shame that people didn’t take the time to learn to pronounce your name correctly, Debby. Perhaps they needed a song! I used to get embarrassed if I had to say both my names. My first name ended with a vowel sound, and my last began with a vowel sound. It was difficult to say them both without running them together awkwardly. I was happy to change my last name to one beginning with a consonant at the time. Don’t know if I’d make the same choice now. We didn’t think about it as much back then. 🙂

    That’s interesting. But many who had names difficult pronounce did think about it then, lol. I know I did. I used to cringe on roll call because I knew they wouldn’t pronounce my name right, and it wasn’t that difficult. I always thought, one day I’ll get married and won’t have to worry about my maiden name. LOL I married a guy with a 4 letter last name that NOBODY ever pronounces right! Go figure! 🙂

    Now that’s interesting, Debby. I wonder how you pronounce that four-letter last name. It mustn’t be pronounced the way I would have thought. One year I taught a girl who pronounced her name differently from the way her mother did! Poor little thing. How confusing for her. She pronounced it Arly-ah. Her mother pronounced it Ar-LEE-ah. I think it was spelled Aliyah. So it could have been either way. 🙂

    Aw, I would feel for that little girl. I remember that feeling of angst with my last name. When we’re little those mispronounciations can make us cringe, but when we’re older we feel more embolden to speak up and correct. My last name is Gies now, looks easy. Pronounced like the birds – geese. But 90 % people say it like – Guise because it rhymes with fries. LOL And the best is the ones who say Giles. Where on earth does the ‘L’ come from? 🙂 🙂

    Hi Debby. Yes, I would have pronounced it incorrectly too, but now I know. It rhymes with piece and niece with the long ee spelled the same way. Not so difficult really – it’s just the foibles of our language. But the ‘l’? I can’t make that one out either! Have a great weekend. 🙂

    I’m not sure how this would work for ear-training with adult learners, but my parents used a technique to teach my brother Rick to pronounce initial “R” sounds (still saying “Wicky” as he began 2nd grade). They listened for words where medial R’s were pronounce correctly and gave him good feedback for those, encouraging him to emphasize the sound in other words they suggested. Some he got right and for other he still substituted the “w” – but they made faster headway than going straight at “rrrrrr” ick, “rrrrrr” abit, etc.

    That’s interesting, Madelyn. Thanks for sharing your brother’s experience. My son Robert was similar. He couldn’t pronounce his ‘r’s until he was about eight, and reversed his ‘b’s and ‘d’s until about the same time. I can’t remember if he was more successful with the medial sounds, but that’s a great strategy that parents and teachers could try. Thank you for sharing the suggestion.

    I so, agree, Madelyn. It’s far more important to give positive feedback. We learn the wrong things from negative feedback. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Thank you, Madelyn, I’m so pleased you see value in my work.
    I totally agree with your tagline “It takes a village to educate a world!” It is a responsibility of each of us to contribute to an educated society.

    Thank you, Madelyn. I agree – educated and kind. That’s a great combination to aim for. xx

    That’s definitely true, Madelyn, and it’s just what I set out to do. 🙂

    Thanks, Pam. I appreciate your comment. I do hope parents and teachers find them useful

    Thanks, Robin. It’s nice to have you back. I’d love to know which ones you use with your adult students. 🙂

Please share your thoughts. I love it when you do.

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