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Discussing Your Name to Develop ESL Presentation Skills


Many international students come to the university in the USA with very little public speaking experience. Few have given presentations in their native language, and fewer still have given a presentation in English. Ice-breaking activities become necessary then, to help students gain confidence in their speaking ability and for them to get to know each other personally. Helping to foster interpersonal trust between students and teacher is the first step towards students conquering their tendency toward silence. I have found that giving students the opportunity to speak about things they know well in the first weeks of the semester helps to establish a community of learners in my classroom.


An activity that I like to use to get students comfortable with public speaking is a discussion/presentation lesson about names. So many ESL students come from cultures where their names have deep meaning, and this topic generates a surprising amount of conversation between students from different language backgrounds. It also is a great tool to bring more reticent speakers into the conversation, since the individual nature of the discussion demands that each student participate. Also, students are given many opportunities to practice their eventual presentations, so those who are less confident with their English ability have time to feel more secure with what they are going to say.

Materials Needed

  • Paper
  • Markers and/or pens

The Lesson

Step One

I give each student a piece of paper on which to write his/her name. Many choose to write their names in their native language on one side, and in English on the other. Encourage them to write big, as this functions as a visual aid later on.

Step Two

When they have finished, they break into small groups and discuss the following questions:

  • What is your full name?
  • How do you write it in your native language?
  • Do you have a nickname?
  • What does your name mean?
  • Who gave this name to you?
  • Do you like your name? Why or why not?
  • Has your name ever caused you any problems?
  • What happens to your name when you get married?
  • Have you ever thought about changing your name? If so, what would you change it to?
  • How would you decide what to name your children?

The results of these discussions are fascinating. Some students talk about how difficult their names are to write due to the complicated characters in their language. Other students have talked about difficulty with Americans not differentiating their first names from family names, or how they chose the nickname that they use in the US.

Step Three

After they have finished their group discussions, I model the kind of presentation that they are preparing for by answering the questions above in a coherent fashion about my name. Students appreciate this since it gives them an idea of how to structure the speech, and they are also eager to learn about American customs about name selection and change.

Step Four

After presenting and discussing the information in small groups, the students are encouraged to organize simple one to two minute presentations about the meaning of their names. They have about five minutes to organize what they are going to say, practice saying it out loud, and anticipate any vocabulary that they may need for the presentation.

Step Five

Finally, the students stand up in front of the class and speak for one or two minutes about their names. They use the paper that they created in step one as a visual aid to show to the class.

Step Six

As each student finishes his or her presentation, the rest of the class is encouraged to ask questions and make comments pertaining to the content of the presentation.


By this time, because of the practice in a small group environment, the modeling, and the individualized practice before the actual presentation, the speeches are structurally strong and extremely interesting. The students really enjoy learning about each other, and it builds community within the class. The whole activity works very well for the students to get to know their classmates, to talk about something personal, and to establish early confidence in public speaking.