Tag Archives: name study


star name 2

As this new school year gets underway, one big question that parents, teachers, and administrators ask themselves is how much and what approach to phonics should be taught to kindergarten children. I would answer them with this question: What better way is there to interest a 5 year old in letters, sounds and words than starting with his/her own name?

All of us learn best when we can build on our past knowledge or our schema. Just about all children have a special connection to their own name and that interest gives us a perfect starting place for teaching about the letter-sound connection. That is a basic premise behind what is sometimes referred to as “Star Name” activities. With a bow to Patricia Cunningham whose writing introduced me to this name study and to my former colleagues at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn who were always coming up with new ways of extending this activity, I would like to share this intellectually challenging and fun name study with you.

There are, of course, many variations on doing a name study, but here is one way to proceed:

∗ Write each child’s first name on a piece of sentence strip that is just about the size of the name. Use longer strips for long names and shorter strips for short names. This helps children notice the connection between the way a long name like Abraham looks and sounds compared with the way a short name like Ann looks and sounds.

∗ I put the name strips in a box or bag and each day I picked out a name at random. Well, actually it always wasn’t really random. I did think ahead about the potential learning opportunities for particular names and what children were ready for at that time. (Some teachers prefer picking names in alphabetical order.)

∗ The child picked is the “Star Child” for the day.

∗ I pinned a construction paper star on the child, carefully writing his/her name on it while the children observed how I checked and formed each letter. (Some teachers use a paper crown rather than a star.)

∗ The “Star Child” sat in a ‘seat of honor’ and the children interviewed him/her. Some teachers let the class decide on three questions to ask at each interview. For example: Do you have any brother or sisters? What is your favorite color? Do you have any pets? The teacher records each interview on chart paper. This can be copied into a class “Star Name Big Book” with the child’s picture on the interview page. Children and parents love reading and rereading this book .It makes for a perfect shared reading experience because of the repetition of questions.

∗ Write the child’s name again on a large piece of paper, saying each letter as you write it. Together with the children, discuss observations. You might talk about upper and lower case letters, count how many letters are in the name, notice repeating letters, notice the size of the name, etc.

∗ Here’s a fun letter-scramble game to play after you discuss what children have noticed about the name. Cut out each letter or have pre-written letters on large index cards. Call on children to “be” the letters. Tape a letter on the front of each child’s shirt or let them children hold the letters in front of themselves. Mix them up. Have children come up and put the name back in the correct order. Sometimes it is less intimidating and more risk free if children volunteer to do this in pairs so that they can help each other. The “star child” can be the name checker!

∗ Be sure to reserve a bulletin board for your Star Name display. Tack the child’s name strip onto it. Each day you will be adding a new name to this display.

∗ Culminate each star name session with each child writing the star name on one side of a drawing paper with crayon and then drawing a picture of the star name child under it (or a picture of something they enjoy doing with the Star Name child, perhaps playing in the schoolyard or building with blocks together.) They then write their own name on the back of the paper. All the pictures can be stapled together with a pretty cover made by the star name child and taken home by the star name child as a class gift to be shared with families.

∗ Here is a suggestion from a P.S. 321 teacher, Glenda Lawrence. Draw a frame on the white board/ chalkboard or tape a frame on a magnetic board and jumble up all of the magnetic letters in one of the names that have been studied. Challenge children to put the name back in order. It’s informative to see what strategies children use to “decode” the name. Does a child understand that the capital letter begins the name and then does he use this information to check with a posted class list of names? Does he count the number of letters in the name and check a class list to see what names have that amount of letters? Be sure to have a large class name list nearby. Encourage children to share their strategies and you begin writing these straregies on  chart paper. Refer to these periodically. Children will probably be coming up with new strategies as the study continues and you will add them to the chart, always rereading the list of strategies.

Each day, pick a new name out of the box and follow the same routines. As you accumulate more “Star Names”, you can lead the children towards making more complex observations.

Examples of what these observations and activities might be are:

∗ Both Gina and Gail have names that begin with a “G” but the “G” makes a different sound in each name.

∗ Alexandra’s name begins with an A and ends with an a but one is uppercase and one is lowercase.

∗ Lee has the shortest name in the class. It has only 3 letters.

∗ David, Daniel and Devon all have names that begin with “D.”

∗ We can think of lots of words that rhyme with Jan’s name – man, pan, can, fan… ∗ You can rearrange the names on the Star Name bulletin board into groups according to some common attribute (e.g. number of letters, syllables, etc.) and let the children “guess the rule”. After doing this a few times, children can have turns to organize names according to their rule.

∗ Introduce Venn diagrams and let the children decide where the names should go. For example, one of the circles in the diagram can be labeled “names with 5 letters” and the other circle can be labeled “names that begin with D.” A name like David would have to go in the overlapping part of the diagram because it has 5 letters and begins with “D.”

∗ Play, “I’m thinking of…” as in “I’m thinking of a girl whose name begins with the letter S, ends with h and she has two a’s in her name. It’s a 5-letter name. Can you guess who she is?

∗ Play “construct a person”. (A version of hangman!) where the teacher puts lines for each letter in a name and children have to guess if a particular letter is in the name. If it is, then the correct blank is replaced with that letter. If it isn’t, then a part of the person is drawn. The goal is for the class to figure out the name before the person is completed.

The activities are endless. You will no doubt think of many more, as will your children.

It’s wonderful to see children begin to make important connections. One child was trying to read a word and got stumped by the letter g. He looked at it, paused, and then said, “I can’t remember the name of it, but there are two of them together in the middle of Maggie’s name.”

If you have done a name study with your class and you have other strategies that you have used, please do share them. We can all learn for each other!

The Name Game! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxQQH75Znfk

What’s Your Name? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAFSTrSNJMg

A Wonderful Hum of Activity: Choice Time!

Since I last wrote about Bill’s kindergarten class, I’ve had the opportunity to visit two of his Choice Time periods.

Oh, what fun I had! Let me share some of the centers that I observed.

The Science Center –The children pretty much set up the center themselves. They took a big plastic bin filled with sand, pebbles, rock and shells off a nearby shelf and placed it on the table. They had all different types of sieves, cups and magnifying glasses. But one thing that’s REALLY special is the microscope that’s hooked up to a computer screen! I was so fascinated by the enlargement of materials and the children had some wonderful conversations. One of the girls at the center was practically jumping with excitement.” I never ever went to this center! Look how many pebbles I got (in the sieve). I never knew science was so much fun!” Bill put out paper, pencils and crayons for the children to record their observations. The paper had a drawing of a microscope as part of the border and I noticed that, after a while, the girls became involved with coloring in the picture, taking some of the focus away from their detailed drawings done from observation and I wondered if this would happen if there were colored pencils available but not crayons. It’s just a thought that I had. I’ll see what Bill thinks about this when we have time to talk.

The Block Center: This year, when Bill set up his room he devoted much more space to the block center and this has had a noticeable impact on the quality of building being done and on the collaborative work that the children engage in. They spend more days working on structures and each day revise and add to the work done by the previous builders. It will be interested to see how the building work starts to reflect the playground trips that they will take as part of their playground study. I think that it might be a good idea for Bill to set up a display of playground books in the center as “inspiration”.

Dramatic Play: Rather than have a traditional “kitchen” set up, Bill stacked hollow blocks against the wall by his meeting area. There’s also a small bookcase that has bins with various ‘props’. The day that I was there, the children first seemed to be building a house. Then one of the boys discovered a sailor hat in the bin and before you could say “presto”  the house turned into a boat, a sort-of houseboat! This changeable environment allows the children free reign in setting up scenarios. Having this center located on the rug also frees up more space in the room for other activities and it gives the children a large area for their dramatic play.

Star Name – Bill has been doing a name study based on the work of Patricia Cunningham. The Star Name Study Center gives children the opportunity to play around with names and letters. They have class lists with photos of each child, blank books, letters, pencils, marker, and paste. I remember observing this center in Bill’s class some years ago and he added alphabet grids for the children to use along with clipboards. I saw the children using these grids to ‘survey’ the class…How many names from our class go in the ‘A’ box?, etc. The children were not told what to do with the grids. They came up with this survey idea on their own. I wonder if he will add something like this to the center this year? When I was teaching kindergarten, I had mystery name puzzles in little clear plastic zip-up bags at the center. I’ll ask Bill if he thinks his children might find the puzzle idea interesting. Perhaps they could make up their own name puzzles on thin cardboard!

Duplos– I was particularly interested to observe this center. It’s an area where I often experienced difficulties. I found that children used the materials to make weapons and that they had a tendency get out of control. Many of the teachers who I work with face the same problem with Duplos and Legos.

On the day of my visit, it was all boys at this center (3). They seemed to be totally engrossed in their constructions. It was parallel play but they were conversing with each other. After a few minutes, one child realized that he wanted a ‘door’ that was part of the other’s construction and it looked like there might be an explosion! However, he stopped arguing and came up with the idea of building a door. This was so interesting to see. I think that as teachers, we sometimes tend to jump in to mediate before giving children time to work things out on their own.

I asked the boys if they would like some sticky notes to write signs for their building and this idea took off for a few minutes.

About midway through the center time, the boys lost interest in their constructions and began throwing the Duplos at each other and around the carpet. Bill had to stop in to calm down the situation. I don’t think it was unusual for this to happen with these particular materials at this time in the school year. I’ve found that if this construction is done on a table, rather than on the floor, the children stay more focused for longer periods of time.

Also, it’s helpful to give them a large cardboard to work on and encourage them to come up with an idea for working together. (i.e. a space station; a playground; a city, etc.) They can have other materials to supplement their construction such a sticky notes, crayons or markets for writing on the cardboard, little figurines and even some books as ‘reference’. Doing this will often encourage more collaborative and inventive play. If it’s on a cardboard, it can be brought to the share meeting after Choice Time, a sort-of mini- celebration.


Easel: When I was there last week, there were two children working at the easel. Only black and white paint were out. I wondered about limiting the colors at first, but it actually was quite fascinating to see what the children did with only these two colors. There was a lot of mixing, forming all different grades of grays. Bill had a sponge available at the easel for cleaning the brushes, but Sophie chose to use it for creating all kinds of textures on the paper! The limitation of having only the black and white seemed to open up more experimentation. I can’t wait to speak with Bill to find out if that was his purpose or if the experimentation was a surprise.

Art Center: This was quite interesting because I noticed a different quality of work each week. I’m not sure if it reflected the children who were there or the choice of materials. Let me explain a bit.

During my first Choice Time visit, one boy was intensely working on a “Pirate Map.” He told me that he always plays pirate games and he loves pirates. As he was drawing, he talked his way through the process (“Here’s where he starts. Then he has to go around the island. This is the first treasure. Let me get a yellow crayon for the treasure. Okay. Here’s the second treasure. That’s the big treasure.” He literally spent the entire period working on his map.

At the same table a girl was twisting and gluing paper to make an intricate pop-up picture. She proudly brought it over for me to see. I wondered if she could make a pop-up playground. She wasn’t sure if that would be possible but she thought that she could try it next time. I’m not sure if she followed up on that. I think it could be a brought up at meeting time as a challenging activity that children might want to try. Perhaps she could give a demonstration on how to make a pop-up picture and help out at the center if children seemed interested.

When I returned to obseve this center on my second class visit,  the children were tracing, using cardboard shapes and cutouts. The work at the table seemed, to me,  significantly less personal and creative. Children were limiting themselves to tracing the shapes and coloring them in. The creative and individual use of materials that I saw on my previous visit was not in evidence on this day.


Cooking: Bill, like many teachers today, is alone in the room with 24 children. This makes doing activities like cooking or woodworking a real challenge. On this particular day, a mother came in to make gingerbread cookies with the children. She made the dough ahead of time and brought it to school with flour, rollers, and cookie cutters and with all sorts of goodies for decorating the cookies. The children were quite excited and involved with this activity. They were making enough cookies to share with the class.


I spoke with Bill about how I believe that the process is even more important than the final product. I suggested that if he could get one parent a day to help out (he thought that he could do that), then he could make something that is worked on all week. For example, I remember making a carrot cake with my class. On the first day the children washed and scraped the carrots. On the second day the children at the center grated the carrots. On the third day the next group began making the dough. The dough was completed on the fourth day and baked. On Friday, children cut and served the cake during Choice Time, made individual booklets about carrot cake, washed all of the utensils, took a survey of who did and did not like carrot cake. It was a class effort. There are many different recipes that can be broken up this way.

When I shared my thoughts about the cooking center with Bill, he excitedly came up with the idea of spending a week making an apple pie. Bill took my suggestion and ran with it! It’s so wonderful that, even though he’s been in the classroom for quite a few years, he’s still open to suggestions and to growing professionally.

We haven’t spoken yet, so I don’t know if the apple pie  happened yet. I’ll update you on this after Bill and I meet.

The Light Box Center: This is an area where Bill and I have different opinions. In his class, the light box is used for tracing pictures, the kind of dinosaur or animal pictures that come from commercial coloring books. The child picks a picture, tapes it to the surface of the box, puts tracing paper over the image and traces along the lines. Then afterwards, many of the children color their traced picture just as they would color in a picutre in a coloring book.

I see the box as an opportunity for children to experiment with color, design, shadow, and translucency. When I visited a school in Reggio Emilia, I saw children using natural materials that seemed to come from the park near the school, moving them into designs on the box and watching how the designs changed as they leaves and pine cones were reconfigured. At a kindergarten class in a school in Brooklyn, I observed children cutting out shapes from different colored tissue paper, layering the paper on the light box and getting excited as they manipulated the papers to change the colors.

The two children at this center most definitely were very involved and focused on their tracing. I asked one of the children what she liked about this choice center. She said that she liked it because she didn’t have to think about anything. She just did it. When she said this, Max, who was working with her, shook his head in agreement.

I shared this child’s comment with Bill later on. I found the lack of thinking disturbing. Bill, however, had a very different take on this. He suggested to me that I consider how the mind is resting while the body is learning a new skill.

I’m curious to hear what other educators think of this. This could prove to be an interesting discussion.

What I totally love about working with Bill is that, even if we disagree on something, I know that everything he does in his class is well thought out and purposeful. He is always considering what is best for the children. Bill understands that children are making important scientific and mathematical connections as they pour, separate and observe the sand and pebbles in the science center. They’re learning about balance, shapes, and measurement as they construct with unit blocks. The children who are making Star Name books are working with letters and sounds. At all of these activities, they are practicing collaboration and sharing.

Bill has also created a marvelous feeling of harmony and community in the room. Clean up time, so often a teacher’s nightmare, was so interesting to observe because, without being told, children offered to help each other get their centers put away – no fuss, no tantrums, no mess!

As I stood to the side, watching the children at their centers, I pulled Bill aside and asked him to enjoy with me the wonderful hum of activity in this room!

A Learning Partnership

It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle
that the modern methods of instruction
have not entirely strangled the holy
curiosity of inquiry.
Albert Einstein

This week, two lovely new kindergarten teachers and I met to plan their weekly schedule. They gave me a list of all that they were required to cover – math, writing workshop, reading workshop, word study, handwriting, science, social studies, shared reading, read aloud, morning meeting, five ‘prep’ periods, lunch, and time to take the class to the bathroom (there’s no bathroom in the classroom or on their corridor). I said that an hour daily of Choice Time and outdoor playtime were early-childhood priorities.

I could fill a notebook with complaints about the insanity of stuffing so much into a child’s day. I’m actually hearing from many teachers that in some schools administrators expect kindergarten teachers to shorten or actually eliminate any opportunity for explorative, child-directed indoor and outdoor play in their schedule.

The conundrum for me, in my role as a staff developer, is how to be sure that Choice Time and outdoor play are not excluded from the early childhood classroom at a time when there is so much emphasis on early, rigorous academics and quantitative assessment.

I believe that teachers can ‘defend’ the importance of investigative play in their early childhood programs by:
• Setting up interesting, child-directed centers
• Including appropriate materials in each center
• Adding and taking away materials over the course of the year so as to provoke children’s curiosity and creativity
• Developing centers that support an ongoing science and/or social studies inquiry project
• Including materials that allow children to integrate, in a natural way, reading, writing and mathematics
• Observing children at play, conversing with them about their activities, recording observations and using these documents to plan instructional ‘next steps’

To illustrate, here are just a few possible centers:

Many kindergarten classes begin their year with a name study. Every few days, a different child becomes the “Star Name Child” whose name then is the focus of inquiry. A Name Study Center would be a logical place where children could continue this exploration. This center might first open with lists of class names, alphabet stamps and ink pads (don’t forget to first demonstrate how to use this material), small Xeroxed photos of all the children in the class, glue sticks, pencils, markers, different kinds of papers and blank books, perhaps alphabet grids and clip boards so children can go around the room to do ‘name surveys’ (who’s name goes in the A box, the B box, etc.). One day the teacher might join the children at this center and help them make a name concentration game to add to the area. Children very likely will invent their own name games, especially if they are given new materials…perhaps old playing cards covered over with blank paper, maybe an old game board (I always saved these and found new uses for them at one time or another) and dice or spinners with alphabet letters on them. As more and more names are ‘studied’, the teacher could add name puzzles (or children could make these on their own). Adding carbon paper makes writing names and name books even more exciting…almost like magic!

As the year progresses, this Name Center might morph into an ABC center, especially if the teacher presents this change as an exciting class alphabet inquiry project. This might begin by having the entire class discuss all that they know about the alphabet. Chart this and keep adding (and taking away) information as the study progresses. ABC charts and alphabet books could be added to the center. Magnetic letters, too, help children explore the alphabet. I added the overhead projector to this center. How exciting it was to put the magnetic letters on the projector and see letters, names and words swirling around the room!

This investigation could spread to the classroom library. Children who pick the Reading Center could be given some empty book baskets and lots of ABC books. Their challenge might be to sort out the books by different categories that they come up with…ABC label books? ABC animal books? Silly ABC Books? ABC Pop-up books? Children might come up with their own totally surprising categories! After they have looked at the books together and sorted them, they could make labels for the baskets and add these new book bins to the classroom library. They might even want to make ABC posters or pictures and decorate the library.

I’m suggesting some center possibilities, and I’ll add more about other centers on upcoming blog entries, but I would not be surprised if children, with their own sense of playfulness and inventiveness, add their own ideas to enhance, improvise and extend these centers if the teacher enjoys and encourages innovation and creative thinking. The classroom becomes a learning partnership between the children and the teacher, who has become an active researcher, constantly learning more about the children in the classroom and about the exciting art of teaching.

CLICK HERE to make a comment. I invite all readers (teachers,students, parents, grandparents, etc.) to leave comments.  It would be wonderful to hear what you have to say so we can have more of a dialogue on the subject.