NameCoach takes uncertainty out of name pronunciation

Commencement carries a great deal of significance for graduates and their families. Given the weight of this special day,  the Northwestern community welcomed a new resource to help improve the experience at select spring ceremonies.  With the help of NameCoach, a name pronunciation tool, students voice-recorded their names online so speakers could easily learn, practice, and remember how to say them. Now, after a limited summer pilot, NameCoach has arrived in Canvas.

With the goal of creating a more inclusive campus community and classroom, NameCoach directly address the problem of name mispronunciation. Rather than repeatedly putting students on the spot or subjecting faculty to trial and error, students and faculty will have access to NameCoach in every Canvas course.  Jaci Casazza, University Registrar, believes NameCoach will help bring a greater comfort level in faculty-student interactions. 

NameCoach Pronunciation Tool

"As we roll this out to faculty and students for use in the classroom, it’s our hope that both groups will feel more comfortable from their first moments of interaction," according to Casazza. "For faculty, the awkwardness of mispronunciation can be reduced.  For students, especially those with names more difficult to pronounce or less common in English, use of this tool can make them feel included and welcome from the beginning.”

Name Familiarity in Diverse Communities

Calling on students by name is often known as the “cold call,” but for some students, the real cold call is a failed attempt at their preferred name. Other students may not even be called on at all. In an interview with Colorín Colorado, NameCoach founder Praveen Shanbhag talks about the impact of hearing family names repeatedly mispronounced throughout his life. “I was working on my PhD in philosophy at Stanford when my sister graduated from college," Shanbhag recalls.  "Our parents immigrated to the United States with a number of aspirations for their children, one of which was getting a college degree… Many relatives had traveled from afar for her graduation, and yet, when it came time for her to cross the stage, her name was butchered, marring the big moment we had all come to see…”

Supporting Inclusive Teaching

These failures are rarely from a lack of desire or effort. “Most of us want to pronounce names correctly,” according to Shanbhag, who experienced the problem first-hand as an instructor at both Stanford and Foothill College. With that understanding in mind, he saw the value of a tool to make name pronunciation easier. “This problem could be solved if people could just hear how to say a name on demand, like hearing vocabulary words pronounced on language-learning software.” 

University Registrar Jaci Casazza first brought NameCoach to Northwestern for spring convocations for the School of Professional Studies and the Medill School of Journalism and Integrated Marketing Communications. In advance of graduation, the schools contacted their students about the option, and readers were able to listen to the names pronounced to practice before the big day. “The results were overwhelmingly positive,” according to Casazza. “On such an important day, both readers and students were thrilled.” 

A Call to Faculty

Northwestern is committed to becoming an inclusive community.  We hope that the newly implemented NameCoach tool will help faculty teach more inclusively in a diverse environment and help students feel acknowledged and respected. There are two ways faculty can help make this goal a reality:

  1. Encourage students to use NameCoach: Once created, a student’s recording will be available in all of their future Canvas courses for use by you and other faculty.
  2. Use NameCoach: Learn how to say your students' names. Learn how to encourage the participation of all students and to make all students feel welcome in the classroom.
Calling for Feedback

Properly used, NameCoach has seen strong acceptance and positive feedback from students and faculty at peer institutions. The Educational Technology Advisory Board reviewed NameCoach, and supports its use, but also expressed some concern that students’ expectations of faculty properly using their names may not be met. The goal is both for students to record their names in NameCoach and to know this process has made a difference.

The next Canvas satisfaction survey (November-December 2017) will have several questions about the use of NameCoach, but you don’t need to wait until then to provide comments. 

Has NameCoach had an impact in your classes? In your teaching? How? Please write to to share your thoughts on NameCoach’s contribution to an inclusive atmosphere at the University.

Learn more or get started with NameCoach.