Tuesday, August 4, 2020

What's In a Name Chart?

Sylvia Ashton-Warner's book, Teacher, first published in 1963, is a chronicle of her experience teaching Maori children in her native New Zealand in the 1940s and 50s. A major insight that Warner discusses in the book is the concept of "key vocabulary." She approached the literacy instruction of her children through the words that had special resonance for them, through their own experience, much of it fraught with poverty and violence. Warner had each child come to her each day with a word they wanted to learn and led the children though various activities to make sure they learned them. These words, drawn from the "inner life" of the child, were powerful to that child and, therefore, more easily learned.

We have all had similar experiences, I'm sure, with children who can read a word like "dinosaur" before they can read the word "they", simply because "dinosaur" is a powerful word for that child, a "key vocabulary" word, if you will. As Invernizzi and Buckrup (2018) put it, "The effects of experience are personal and profound" (p 92).

Over the years, research has demonstrated the efficacy of Warner's ideas. Perhaps none more so than the research of  Treiman and Broderick (1998) who demonstrated that the identity and characteristics of the first letter of a child's name has a significant effect on the child's knowledge of letter names. If we think about it, this makes perfect sense. What vocabulary is more key to the child than that child's own name. Children's strong attachment to their own names may help them in understanding how letters work in words, first within their own names and later, perhaps in other words (Rieben and Perfittii, 2013).

The research brings me to what I consider one of the most powerful instructional tools we can have in the primary classroom - The Name Chart.

As Benito and David and Matilda and Jayden learn to find their names on the name chart, they can also learn the shapes and sounds that those beginning letters make.  Later they may learn that Belen or Diego or Jessica or Morgan have names that start with the same letter. The powerful words on the name chart are a gateway for children to learn the alphabetic principal, that is, letters represent sounds and that those letters may be used in various combinations to make words.

Here are some other recommended uses for the name chart in the classroom.
  • As a spelling aid when doing shared pen or interactive writing activities. "This word starts like Zachary's name."
  • As a game as children come to sit for read aloud. "Touch your own name on the name chart and then sit down."
  • I'm thinking of someone whose name begins with "M." Who can come up and touch it?
  • Clap the names and count the syllables.
  • Do a shared reading of the names .pointing to each name as you read it in order or randomly.
  • Place cards with the names on them in the word study center and have children sort by first letter.
Our own name is our most powerful word. It makes good sense to guide children in their understanding of the alphabetic principal by showing them first how letters work in their own name.

Works Cited

Ashton-W.arner, S. (1986) Teacher.  New York: Touchstone.

Invernizzi, M.and Buckrup, J. (2018) Reconceptualizing Alphabet learning and Instruction. in Cassano, C. and Dougherty, S..ed., Pivotal Research in Early Literacy. New York: Guilford.

Rieben, L. And Perfitti, C.A. (2013). Learning to Read: Basic Research and Its Implications. Mahwah, NJ. Erlbaum.

Treiman. R. and Broderick V. (1998). What's in a Name: Children's knowledge about the letters in their own names. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 70, 97-113.

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