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From Name Stories to Word Stories

Lesson Question:

How can researching the origins of first names help students introduce themselves to one another and to some important concepts of word study?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

This beginning of the year "ice breaker" activity asks students to research and share the stories behind their names, and also prepares them to apply some of the same research strategies they used when investigating their names to their vocabulary studies.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:

  • use various research sources to research the origins of their first names
  • use Visual Thesaurus maps to explore words related to names
  • introduce themselves to their peers via name research findings
  • model their word study research on their name study research


  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers with Internet access
  • large drawing paper (one sheet per student, optional)
  • markers (one per student, optional)


Modeling Name Research:

  • Write the name "Nevaeh" on the board and display its NameVoyager graph from the Baby Name Wizard site to show students a visual of how its popularity has peaked throughout the last decade (and was uncharted before the 1990's).

  • Ask students to consider the name's origin by examining its letters. If they reexamine the name N-E-V-A-E-H as an anagram, what do they discover?

  • Double-click on the NameVoyager graph for "Nevaeh" and reveal its origin as H-E-A-V-E-N spelled backwards.


Every Name has a Story:

  • As the warm-up demonstrates, every name has a story. The information on the Baby Name Wizard site tells us two stories about the name Nevaeh  — the story of its recent popularity and the story of its origin.
  • As a beginning of the year (or semester) introduction activity, ask students to research and share the stories behind their own names by choosing one or more of the following activities:

Sharing Name Stories:

  • Have students introduce themselves and reveal at least one interesting fact or tidbit they discovered in their name research that they did not know previously. (You may want students to use markers and large drawing paper so that you can create a wall display with the students' names and name research.)
  • As each student introduces himself or herself, write that student's first name on the board. When the list of names is complete, you could have students comment on any patterns or commonalities they see or learned through the introductions.


From name research to word research:

  • In a subsequent lesson, use students' experiences with name study as a springboard for word study. When introducing new words, research words' origins (on sites like the Online Etymological Dictionary and the history of their usage using Google's Ngram viewer.

  • For example: If you are introducing the word technology, students could discover its ancient Greek roots (tekhne meaning "art, skill, craft" and logia meaning "study of") through a search on the Online Etymological Dictionary. And then they could track how its usage has grown throughout the last century on Google's Ngram viewer. So, even though the word originates from ancient roots, technology's current usage is relatively young.
  • Another example of word research with the Ngram viewer could involve contrasting usage histories of multiple words with the same root – e.g., telescope, telegraph, telephone, television. In this way, students can see how one ancient root (the ancient Greek root tele- meaning "far") can spawn many words and how often those words are used is related to societal or technological changes.

Extending the Lesson:

  • If students create visual displays of their name research findings, you could have students share the research in small groups or in a "gallery walk" format (where students post their name research on the classroom's walls and students circulate around the room reading the research and leaving feedback on sticky notes).
  • If students could rename themselves, would they? Ask students to research interesting names on the Baby Name Wizard and present a rationale for their choice.


  • Assess students' name research. Did they consult the Baby Name Wizard and conduct interviews to discover the origins of their names? Did they share their name research findings with their peers in an engaging manner?
  • Assess students' synthesis of research methods when researching word origins and Google Ngram graphics. Do they see parallels between name study and word study?

Educational Standards

Language Arts

Standard 5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Level III (Grades 6-8)
2. Uses word origins and derivations to understand word meaning (e.g., Latin and Greek roots and affixes, meanings of foreign words frequently used in the English language, historical influences on English word meanings)
3. Uses a variety of strategies to extend reading vocabulary (e.g., uses analogies, idioms, similes, metaphors to infer the meaning of literal and figurative phrases; uses definition, restatement, example, comparison and contrast to verify word meanings; identifies shades of meaning; knows denotative and connotative meanings; knows vocabulary related to different content areas and current events; uses rhyming dictionaries, classification books, etymological dictionaries)

Level IV (Grades 9-12)
2. Extends general and specialized reading vocabulary (e.g., interprets the meaning of codes, symbols, abbreviations, and acronyms; uses Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon roots and affixes to infer meaning; understands subject-area terminology; understands word relationships, such as analogies or synonyms and antonyms; uses cognates; understands allusions to mythology and other literature; understands connotative and denotative meanings)

Standard 8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes

Level III (Grades 6-8)
1. Plays a variety of roles in group discussions (e.g., active listener, discussion leader, facilitator)
6. Makes oral presentations to the class (e.g., uses notes and outlines; uses organizational pattern that includes preview, introduction, body, transitions, conclusion; uses a clear point of view; uses evidence and arguments to support opinions; uses visual media)

Level IV (Grades 9-12)
5. Makes formal presentations to the class (e.g., includes definitions for clarity; supports main ideas using anecdotes, examples, statistics, analogies, and other evidence; uses visual aids or technology, such as transparencies, slides, electronic media; cites information sources)

See also the Common Core State Standards for ELA and Literacy (PDF, pages 29, 53, and 55)

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 29th 2011, 11:00 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I did do this with a class, and we discovered that one girl's name was an Indian word meaning, beloved one. I'd not been able to help her find the origin through any book resources, but a colleague knew someone with the name, and I asked her.

My own curiosity about my name began when I was 9 and my mom had twin boys. Both were given two names. My older sister had two names. I just had the one. Therefore, of course, I'd been adopted!

I did know the meaning of it, but wondered why I got just the one. My mom would only say that they liked it: "That's why." End of discussion.

Later on, I learned, after my grandfather died and I was in university, that I was named after his mother, a promise my mother made when she was in hospital, in trouble, with me not yet born.

If she'd name me after his mother, he'd give me 'the box'. That box was what his mom had carried her belongings in from Virginia to Illinois in the 1850's, and was thought to be a treasure.

Because the box was lost in a flood, I was never told that when I was younger. It was when the box was found that the story emerged, and I was married and living in Canada before I got it.

I loved it; my mom was disappointed in it. But it is authentic Pennsylvania Dutch toll wear, so quite an interesting antique to be named for.

One thing still bothered me. His mom's name was Mary Anne Cecelia Jane Methaney, but only the Jane of the first names appeared on the box. I always regretted that she hadn't put two names there!

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