Supporting an Inclusive Environment Through Correct Name Pronunciation : Nurse Educator

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Supporting an Inclusive Environment Through Correct Name Pronunciation

Najjar, Rana PhD, RN, CPNP; Noone, Joanne PhD, RN, CNE, ANEF, FAAN; Reifenstein, Karen PhD, RN

Author Information
Nurse Educator 48(1):p 19-23, January/February 2023. | DOI: 10.1097/NNE.0000000000001285


“I feel the weight of others passing their inability to learn my name onto me like a heavy stone. On it is an inscription that says, ‘your problem, not mine,’ and I have grown exhausted from the message. It's time to change the conversation around ‘difficult’ names and to explore our accountability for learning the names of those around us.”1 The Future of Nursing 2020-2030 Report2 identifies a diverse nursing workforce as a critical component to achieving health equity and recommends the elimination of practices within nursing education that contribute to racism and discrimination of students, faculty, and staff. As faculty and programs strive to increase the recruitment and retention of diverse students, creating a just and equitable learning environment is integral to achieving inclusion and belonging.

Research indicates that naming practices influence a student's sense of belonging and individuality in the classroom.3,4 The most basic and significant initial step that educators can take is to learn how to pronounce a student's name correctly. This immediately conveys respect and fosters a more inclusive learning environment that welcomes all.5,6 Educators are considered the authority and wield power in the classroom. They can choose to use their power to perpetuate coercive practices and societal inequities or transform the learning environment into a space supportive of diversity. This article presents the importance of correct name pronunciation as an inclusive approach, discusses strategies, and shares experiences of a faculty development approach on name pronunciation as a promising practice.


An individual's fluency in a wide range of phonetic sounds depends on life experiences that can create linguistic barriers and challenges in maintaining a polycultural environment. Polyculturalism extends a multicultural viewpoint in considering that culture is dynamic, fluid, and changing as people and cultures interact and learn from each.7 The ideology of the melting pot or blending of different ethnic and cultural identities into one, along with Anglo-conformity, is interwoven into the history of the United States. Historically, most enslaved Africans were brought to this country against their will, stripped of their name, and forced to adopt Anglicized names. This practice of renaming was intentionally and methodically designed to disconnect an individual from their identity, community, and history. It is an exertion of power used to expunge a person's ethnic identity.8,9 Conversely, immigrants were forced to assimilate by “Americanizing” names and shedding identities to increase chances of success and earning potential.10,11 We need to shift from a “melting pot” to an ideology that supports the integration of different cultures in which individuals can choose to retain their cultural identity and be treated equitably.

Microaggressions are “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons.”12 These acts demean and invalidate the individual or group's identity, culture, and experiences. In qualitative interviews with 37 medical and nursing students, participants identified that the experience of microaggressions by students is associated with feeling isolated and undervalued and negatively impacts their learning.13 More recently, Pusey-Reid and colleagues14 highlighted the severity of continued microaggressions in the classrooms experienced by Black students and the impact this type of discrimination has on learning and feelings of isolation and safety. They urge leaders and educators in nursing to identify and address elements of microaggressions in the learning environment and cultivate safety and belonging for students.14

Name mispronunciation is considered a microaggression, an exclusionary practice known as “othering.”15 Although all names may be mispronounced, for students of color, it can compound the strain students may already be experiencing from language and culture discordance with faculty and peers3,4,16,17 and create a barrier to forging trusting relationships in the learning environment.17,18 In addition to mispronouncing a student's name, harmful practices include renaming, insinuating a name is difficult to pronounce, or laughing off or minimizing the mispronunciation of a name.17,19 These practices are disrespectful, show a lack of cultural awareness and language sensitivity,20 and are considered an abuse of power.8,15Table 1 summarizes the types of microaggressions associated with name mispronunciation. Zamudio-Suarez5 notes that international students may come from cultures where professors are highly respected and are not likely to correct a mispronunciation of their name. On the other hand, when faculty learned students' names, students felt valued and empowered, which increased their sense of belonging.5 In a scoping review of 30 studies on inclusivity in baccalaureate nursing programs, Metzger and colleagues23 found several studies that identified learning names positively influenced students' sense of belonging.

Table 1. - Types of Microaggressions Associated With Name Mispronunciation
Microaggression Example
Renames person15,21 A student has an unpracticed first name. The faculty member states, “I'm just going to call you Suzy.”
Mispronounces without checking18,22 The moderator at a national conference introduces the keynote speaker, mispronouncing the speaker's name each time it is said. The moderator makes no attempt to state it correctly.
Calls attention to name15 Students, Ally (who is White) and Crystal (who is Asian), are both introduced in the clinical setting. The preceptor greets Ally and then says to Crystal, “I'm glad you don't have a difficult Asian first name to pronounce; I'm not good with names.”
Apologizes but makes no attempt to learn name21 A faculty member is introducing a guest speaker with an unfamiliar last name (surname). The faculty member ignores the speaker's last name and states: “I apologize but I am going to ‘mess up’ your last name. So let me introduce James, who is our guest today.”
Treats people with unfamiliar names differently15 At an awards ceremony, the moderator introduces all awardees by first and last name, except for one awardee with an unfamiliar last name; the moderator calls this awardee by first name only.

A recent study evaluated nursing students' perception of inclusive strategies in which participants identified learning names as one of the most essential practices for fostering a sense of belonging, self-efficacy, satisfaction, and confidence in learning.24 Payne et al25 examined the impact on college students of an exercise called What's in the Name. This exercise requires each student to state their name, and if mispronounced by the professor or peers, the student is asked to correct the mispronunciation. Once the student's name is pronounced correctly, they are asked to share the meaning of their name and the story of how they were given a preferred or nickname. In this study, students overwhelming wanted to use their given name rather than their nickname after the exercise. In reflecting on this exercise and the class, which used a model of transformative pedagogy, the students stated that using their given name allowed them to reclaim their identity, providing them with a sense of empowerment.25

Cooper et al21 examined the impact of faculty knowing students' names using name card tents and active learning. They found that students who thought the faculty knew their name felt valued, were more motivated to complete course work, and were more comfortable seeking help or talking with faculty. They also thought faculty cared about them, which helped build a relationship with the faculty and peers and create a more inclusive classroom. Being intentional about correct name pronunciation is recommended as a strategy to promote a sense of belonging and demonstrate one's commitment to an inclusive learning environment.21 Empirically strong evidence may be lacking, but promising and best practices exist to promote correct name pronunciation.


Simple and brief strategies to improve a sense of belonging are associated with positive academic outcomes.4 In a survey of 171 students in an undergraduate biology course, students overwhelmingly valued teachers knowing their name, attributing this to feeling more valued, cared for, and invested in the course, and more willing to seek assistance from the faculty. Respondents believed this simple strategy helped improve student-teacher relationships and build a sense of community in the class.21

Self-awareness of the Problem

It is essential to recognize educators' power and influence within the educational system to create an inclusive learning environment. A first step in implementing strategies is acknowledging the responsibility one bears when pronouncing a name. The blame rests solely on the individual mispronouncing the name rather than the person having their name mispronounced.15 Setting the tone for cultural acceptance and relevance requires changing our language around name pronunciation. For example, instead of stating a name is hard or difficult, Camara1 suggested using the term “unpracticed,” thus encouraging others to practice and to commit to learning the name. According to Cornwall,16 most linguistic barriers can be overcome with motivation to learn, curiosity, and practice. Implementing recommended strategies is part of being accountable for demonstrating respect for others and creating a sense of community and belonging.16

Be Intentional and Try

Thought leaders who have had their names mispronounced report their appreciation when the attempt is made to learn to pronounce names correctly, even if mistakes are made.22,26 A suggestion is to apologize for name mispronunciation and use phonetic spellings to assist with learning names.

Prepare and Use Aids

Another recommendation is to take a learning approach and role model to students ways to create an inclusive environment by using multiple opportunities to practice name pronunciation.27,28 This includes reviewing the list of students' names at the beginning of the term and during important events (eg, white-coat ceremonies, honor society induction, and commencement events); practicing the names; and providing opportunities for students to share how they pronounce their names prior to an event.23Table 2 provides some examples of free web-based applications that assist with learning name pronunciation.29,30 Another strategy implemented by the authors is to invite students to record and send an audio voicemail or text of how their name is pronounced. These files can be saved in an electronic folder for practice.

Table 2. - Resources for Correct Name Pronunciation
Resource Description
Tools to learn pronunciation
Pronounce Names30
Names can be entered into the website to learn how to pronounce them correctly in multiple languages. Audio and phonetic pronunciations are available. Names can be added if they are not available.
Digital tools for sharing correct name pronunciation
Names can be audio recorded and/or spelled phonetically to link into an email signature and social media sites. Gender pronouns, meaning of the name, and ethnicity are options that may also be available.
Learning Management System (LMS) Tools30 Explore if there are tools in the LMS that are associated with name pronunciation, eg, a place to add phonetic spelling of the name and record its pronunciation.
Icebreakers7,30 Use an icebreaker that explores names. For example, ask people to introduce themselves and share anything they would like about their first, middle, and last names (surname) or nickname. Allow options to not participate or pass.
Videos for faculty development21 Personal stories of people's lived experience can promote discussion and empathy and prompt implementation of name pronunciation strategies.

Simple aids, such as name cards, can facilitate learning students' names.31 It is recommended that students phonetically spell their names.27 Other aids include web-based resources and online tools as shown in Table 2. Free web-based applications can allow audio or phonetic name pronunciations to be recorded and linked to email signatures and social media sites.32,33 Options can be added and include phonetic pronunciation, gender pronouns, the meaning of the name, and ethnicity. Some web-based aids can be integrated into the Learning Management System (LMS) and commencement applications. Some LMSs, such as Sakai, incorporate phonetic and audio pronunciations into an individual's profile. Aids should be adopted universally to normalize the use of the tool and not draw attention to individuals with unfamiliar names.31 The Supplemental Digital Content Table (available at: provides examples of use of these aids for email and an LMS.

Icebreakers and Learning Activities

Using an icebreaker for name exploration assists in learning the names of students and how to pronounce them. For example, asking individuals to introduce themselves and share stories or information related to their name, middle name, surname, or nickname helps build a sense of community. While there are other more focused activities related to names, this icebreaker allows students the choice to share something more personal about their name and provides permission to opt out. Other activities include more focused discussions on students' name stories that may require more preparation and facilitation. For example, Baima and Sude8 have a Whole Name Exercise that asks participants to share their full name (all the names that they have), the story of how they got their name, and how their name has served them in life. This exercise is accompanied by a facilitated opening and discussion.8 During any icebreaker or similar activity, it is important to structure the activity to support the intended benefit, so it is recommended to facilitate such exercises with sensitivity.8,34 These include allowing students to opt out or pass and address any microaggressions that may occur during the activity.

Be an Ally

Allyship occurs when people with societal privileges act in solidarity with historically and systemically excluded groups of people to challenge systems of oppression.35 In this manner, it is recommended to role model correct name pronunciation and then address any mispronunciations in a private manner.22,26

Provide Faculty Development

Another recommendation is to provide faculty development to create more systemic awareness and adopting of strategies. Sharing available resources and role modeling use of aids and allyship are ways to infuse strategies within an organization. Sharing personal stories of people's lived experiences with being renamed, or name mispronunciation, can help improve understanding and build change.20,22 Gerardo Ochoa,22 a college administrator, shares his powerful personal story in a TEDx talk. Such videos can be a springboard for faculty discussion.

Implementing and Evaluating a Promising Practice

A 1-hour webinar was delivered to 42 faculty and staff members called What's in A Name that reviewed the impact of name mispronunciation on belonging and tools to promote structures for correct name pronunciation. The webinar began with these questions and discussion: “Can you share any experiences that you have observed when someone has mispronounced a person's name?” and “What happened?” This was followed by viewing of a TEDx talk of a personal story of a college administrator and their lived experience,22 helpful and unhelpful responses to name pronunciation, and strategies to promote correct name pronunciation. The last portion of the webinar was dedicated to sharing resources for implementing name pronunciation tools within email and the LMS that allow for audio recording of a name and phonetic spelling.

A survey administered after the webinar had 28 respondents with a 67% response rate. Twenty respondents stated they felt the content covered in the webinar could be applied to their practice, 24 indicated they would change their practice regarding name pronunciation immediately, and 4 indicated they would change their practice in the future. Respondents believed the personal story provided in the video was impactful in promoting discussion and recommended this training be incorporated into faculty orientation. Participants were also asked to describe the strategies they would utilize. One respondent stated:

In practice asking the patient to pronounce their name is very helpful; in our program, asking the student to help me pronounce their name is a strategy that tells the student your name is important to me and I want to honor it by pronouncing it correctly.

Another participant shared, “When I break students into 4-person discussion groups on [videoconferencing system], I tell them to learn to pronounce each other's names first and then discuss the patient scenario they are assigned.”

The participants who attended this webinar are most likely interested or engaged in diversity, equity, and inclusivity initiatives, indicating the overwhelmingly positive response to the survey. Nonetheless, this promising practice provides evidence that faculty and staff are willing to change their practices if they have awareness and training on promoting inclusion and belonging in the learning environment. Learning how to pronounce a student's name may seem minor, but evidence indicates it can be pivotal for harnessing student engagement and motivation in the learning environment.


Incorporating approaches to correctly pronounce the names of students and colleagues is a simple tactic to promote a sense of belonging. It is recommended that such approaches be incorporated systemically as individual and scattered implementation may not contribute to creating an overall inclusive learning environment. It is important to recognize the power faculty hold within academic institutions and their role in incorporating critical intentional actions that can promote and maintain a respectful academic environment of inclusion. As nurse educators and promoters of social justice, we must maintain a critical consciousness around culturally relevant issues and continuously provide students with agency over their growth and learning.


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diversity; faculty development; inclusion; name mispronunciation; nursing education

Supplemental Digital Content

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