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What’s in a Name

By Justin Stygles
 | Apr 24, 2019
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My students are not a fan of my name. Throughout the year, I find a number of variations to my last name in writing and speech. I own it. Stygles, as in /Sty/ /guls/, is not an easy name to say or read. Ask Alexa. She’ll get my name wrong too! I have one of those great names that has a single vowel. Even then, the /e/ is relatively silent and the “y” functions as an /i/.

Nonetheless, I expect my students to learn my name in spelling and pronunciation. Maybe I seem “mean” because I won’t let kids call me Mr. S., but I believe teachers who abbreviate their names by reducing long names or complicated pronunciations to the initial consonant or initial vowel sound are denying students exposure to unique oral language. We are a country constructed with Spanish, Arabic, Pacific Islander, Polish, and Russian surnames, among hundreds of others. Learning the sounds of these unique surnames provides decoding insight into the English language and many others we can experience or learn.

Students who are raised in culturally homogenous communities tend have limited exposure to first and last names from various origins. Growing up in a military family provided me the opportunity to learn correct pronunciation of African American and Latinx names, much of which has carried over into my career as a teacher in terms of oral readings, pronouncing names, and helping students clarify the names of characters from various cultural backgrounds.

While teaching in rural, relatively isolated schools, I’ve realized exposure to and interaction with diverse languages, other than localized lexicons, is limited. Students in these districts have fewer opportunities to practice phonetics such as letter sounds and spelling patterns.

For example, having known an Eoin, I understood how to pronounce the Irish name, “Owen.” I have seen students and teachers trip over this name in reading. I happened to “know” the pronunciation from my interest in horse racing. Otherwise, I’m sure I would have pronounced Eoin incorrectly. Likewise, learning -guez or -eaux, of Spanish and French origin, through experiences in foreign language acquisition, and the racetrack, supported my ability to read and say people’s names correctly, thus respectfully. Had somebody allowed me, or a student of mine, to say, “Mr. D.” instead of Dominguez, a learning experience would be lost.

As school districts become increasingly diverse, I think we have a responsibility as teachers to learn and impart the proper pronunciation of names, even if we must ask the student—an opportunity to foster the student’s sense of belonging and show you value his or her culture and identity. Furthermore, if we intend to teach our students appropriate letter–sound correspondence, syllables, and morphemes, we can start by modeling how to correctly pronounce names, or, again, the courage to ask when uniqueness appears. In doing so, you demonstrate that you too are a lifelong learner who is not afraid to admit a mistake.

Although my name isn’t pleasant, there are some pronunciation rules that can be transferred to other words. There as so many other names out there that create special learning circumstances. So why abbreviate a 13-letter or a four-syllable last name to a single consonant sound? Children who are learning to pronounce sounds will benefit from practice and error more than denying an experience entirely. I feel teaching students to say the full name of their classmates and teachers is a critical exercise in language development.

Justin Stygles is a fifth-grade teacher in Wiscasset, Maine. He's taught for 15 years in various settings. You can follow him on Twitter at @justinstygles.

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