Series: Book Ideas

The Math in Learning Names

Do the children in your classroom know each other’s names? At winter break, are they still pointing to “that girl?” Doing activities in the early weeks of school that use the children’s own names will do wonders for building your classroom community. At the same time, you can be doing math—as well as literacy!

For example, begin each morning with a greeting routine that has children sort themselves according to a particular “rule” for the spelling of their names. This is a binary sort that has one group showing the characteristic and the other one not showing it. Some possibilities:

  • Those who have a double consonant in their name such as Michelle, Tommy, or Anna
  • Names that end in “a” or “y” or some other letter
  • Names that have 2 or 3 vowels
  • Children whose names begin with a particular capital letter

Of course, a key feature of making math games for young children encourage mathematical thinking is to get them talking about what they find. To begin, children in the “have” group should say their names one by one and explain why they belong.

My name is Ava and I have 2 ‘a’s.

My name is Jaime and I have 3 vowels in my name: a, i, and e.

But don’t stop the conversation there. Have the children think about how many are in each group (the haves or have nots). Record the findings for one day’s rule and compare with the sizes of the groups using other sorts. You and the children are likely to start coming up with all kinds of interesting sorts (and getting to know each other’s names). You will also learn many new sets of ways in which we are all the same and all different.

For read-alouds, there are all kinds of wonderful stories that can get children thinking about their names from many perspectives. A great story to begin is either the classic children’s story Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel or Kevin Henke’s Chrysanthemum. Both stories can launch good discussions about how we feel about our name—or how we feel when someone makes fun of our name. But then do the math: show the children on a grid chart or on an overhead projector how long Tikki Tikki Tembo’s name is. Write out Chang’s name and discuss how it is much shorter. Alternatively, build “name towers” out of connecting cubes and compare them. Have the name towers displayed going from most to least letters. Talk about which children’s names are long or short in comparison with their classmates. Develop a bar graph showing the number of letters in the children’s names.

Here’s another idea to keep children thinking about what their name is worth. Assign a value, such as 1 cent for each consonant and 5 cents for each vowel. Children can calculate the “value” of their name and then share and discuss the results. Talk about how a shorter name, such as Eva, can be “worth” more than a longer name such as Tracy. If children enjoy this activity, as homework you can have them figure out how much each family member’s name is worth or, alternatively, change the values of the letters.