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Bad with Names: Why Proper Names Deserve Instructional Attention

Posted by Elfrieda H. Hiebert on 28 January 2020

Rare words typically make up only 5% or less of the total words in texts but it’s often the rare words that get students anxious about reading.  Some rare words fit the stereotype of being long with multiple word parts (e.g., interdisciplinary).  Some are highly concrete (e.g., orangutan) and can be learned quickly, while others are connected to root words students learn early on (e.g., plantlike).  Multisyllabic words and words with known roots will often be part of reading instruction.  But there’s one large group of rare words that is frequently overlooked in reading instruction—proper names.  In our study of texts from K through college1, we found that an average of 30% of rare words were proper names. 

In considering proper names in texts, it’s also important to recognize that proper names are among the words that occur with relative frequency in texts.  A study from Freddy Hiebert and William Nagy2 showed that, among the 20,000 most-frequent words, about 9% are proper names.  More than a third of these proper names are categorized as first names (e.g., Harry)and a further third are categorized as geographical or names of groups (e.g., Canadians).

The graph below from the Hiebert and Nagy study shows the distribution of relatively frequent proper names across grade levels. While the number of first names and geographical/group names varies across grade bands, the number of surnames and character names rises steadily across the grades.

Bad-w-Names-Distributions-of-proper-names-over-Grade-Bands.png

Hiebert and Nagy found that some names were consistently common in lower-level texts (e.g., Mary, Tim), others were more common in higher-level texts (e.g., Lyndon, Byzantine), and others were stable across all grade bands (e.g., Victoria, Viking). These names have expected frequencies of at least one occurrence per million words, placing them among moderate- to high-frequency words. However, they are not included within the 2,500 word families that comprise the bulk of the lexicon of school texts, and are not considered part of the core vocabulary.

Proper names start in beginning-reading texts as mainly first names, with five or fewer letters on average. But as students get older, they encounter more surnames, geographical and group names, and historical and literary character names, which are longer on average, with more complex referents. Given the increasing difficulty of both the length and meanings of proper names, including proper names in vocabulary instruction could be helpful in supporting students’ text comprehension.

1Pugh, A. & Hiebert, E.H. (December, 2019).  What is the task represented by rare vocabulary in school texts?  Presentation at the annual conference of the Literacy Research Association, Tampa, FL (available at:  https://www.academia.edu/41286983/What_is_the_task_represented_by_rare_vocabulary_in_school_texts).

2Hiebert, E.H. & Nagy, W.E. (July 2019). Proper names in the language of school text: Where and when do students see them? Presentation at the annual conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (available at:  https://www.academia.edu/41704394/PROPER_NAMES_IN_THE_LANGUAGE_OF_SCHOOL_TEXTS_WHERE_AND_WHEN_DO_STUDENTS_SEE_THEM).