''What's in a name?'' photo (c) 2006, Jack Dorsey - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

One of the keys ways to help students develop their reading skills is to help them find something they’re interested in reading about.

Learning about their names, and the name of their family members and friends, could certainly fit into the “high-interest” category. And there are several websites that are designed to facilitate learning just that. After exploring these sites (or before), students can also talk with their family to learn other stories behind their names.

Here are my choices for The Best Places For Students To Learn About…Their Names:


What A Lovely Name lets you type in a first name and learn about its origin and symbolism. You can actually create a logo for it, and then email the link for posting on a teacher blog or website.

It certainly would make for high-interest reading — a student could learn about his/her name or a family member’s or girl/boyfriend’s name. The descriptions are short, simple, and accessible to English Language Learners. Students could use the information they found to do a little more research (if their name has Hebrew origins, they could learn more about what that meant) and what they learn, or they could just write what the found particularly interesting and why.

The only drawback I saw was that, even though the site appears to have a database of thousands of names, and it definitely includes ones more prevalent in Latino families, there seems to be a dearth of common Asian ones. For those of us with many Hmong, Mien, Chinese, and Vietnamese ELL students (and from other Asian countries) then, using it in the way I suggested isn’t an option. However, you can add names to the database with information, so that in itself be another assignment for an authentic audience.


Public Profiler/World Names is a great web tool that will easily (and for free) let you map the origin of your last name and see how far its spread throughout the world. You can read a BBC news article about it.

It’s accessible to English Language Learners and to everybody else. It can be used in a variety of ways. I’ll be making it into a combination history/geography lesson, for example. Where are the names located and what are some reasons/events do you think got them to go there?


Baby Name Voyager is a fascinating data visualization tool that shows you the popularity of specific names during the last thirteen decades. You just type in a name, and an interactive chart appears seconds later. It’s really pretty interesting.

But that’s not really why I’m writing about it. Even better, you click on a name and you’re given information about it, and offered the opportunity to write about it. Now, for students, this is pretty high-interest stuff — learn how popular your name has been over the past 130 years, learn about its historical roots, and write about your personal experience with it as your name.

There are some caveats, though. It only shows the most popular 1000 names in a decade, and it appears (though I can’t be sure) to show only names in the United States. It seems to have a fairly large number of Latino names, but there are very few Asian ones. So it’s problematic for teachers in a school like mine (one-third Southeast Asian) to use the site.


USA Surnames Interactive comes from National Geographic, and is a little different from the other sites I’ve mentioned. Here, you see a map of the United States, and it shows what names are most common where.

Theory Of Knowledge Class On Names

I also teach a lesson on names in my IB Theory of Knowledge class as part of our study of language. Here are some posts and other resources I use with that class:

“The Politics Of Naming”

New research finds Germans with noble-sounding names are more likely to be managers

It’s good to be the king — or at least to be named “King” is from Salon.

America’s Most Popular Boys’ Names Since 1960, in 1 Spectacular GIF is from The Atlantic.

What’s In A Name? is a great post over at Nancy Flanagan’s blog.

The most common last names in each state is an infographic from The Washington Post.

This fascinating map shows the most popular boys’ names around the world is from Vox.

Some relatively new and cool interactive sites have recently come online…

One is Zato Novo Baby Names, which gives you a time lapse of the popularity of names in the United States over the years.

In fact, Google Maps Mania lists even more, so check out their post.

What your name tells us about your age, where you live, your political leanings and your job is from The Washington Post.

The Chinese Guide to Avoiding a Bad English Name is from The Atlantic.

What’s In A Name? It Could Matter If You’re Writing To Your Lawmaker is from NPR.

The importance of a name is from The Washington Post.

The Most Popular Names by Decade Since 1880

From Visually.

Census Names Explorer lets you find when and where a name was popular, or unpopular, over the last one hundred years.

It really provides a number of possibilities, including trying to be a detective to identify the reasons for a name’s popularity during a specific era. For example, I discovered that my name, Larry, was extremely popular in the late 1940’s, and I wonder if it had anything to do with The Three Stooges back then? When I explored Latino names, there was a huge increase over the past thirty years, obviously connected to the overall Latino population numbers.

The Importance Of Correctly Pronouncing Students’ Names

What your name tells us about your age, where you live, your political leanings and your job is from The Washington Post.

What’s in a Name in an ESL Class, and other resources on the theme of Names is from Lesley’s blog.

How many movies feature a character with your first name? is from Vox.

Ready-Made Lesson: Personal Identity is from Blog de Cristina.


Trendiest Baby Name Every Year Since 1930, in the U.S. is from Flowing Data.

NameGrapher: Explore the historical popularity of United States baby names

Map Reveals the Most Common Surnames in Every Country.

A Century Of The Most Popular Baby Names In America [OC]
by u/chartr in dataisbeautiful


Additional suggestions are welcome.

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