What’s in a name?

Lee Copping

Reading Time: Approx 3mins

by Dr Lee Copping

New research from CEM shows that the length of a child’s name is not predictive of future academic attainment.

There are few who would dispute that the ability to write one’s own name acts as a gateway for future literacy abilities. Previous research in education however has suggested that the length of a child’s name may be predictive of future academic attainment (Treiman, Kessler and Bourassa, 2001).

Several studies have suggested that knowledge regarding the letters present in one’s own name form the foundation of later alphabet knowledge and thus children with longer names would have a wider array of letters to draw upon.

However, recent work (Puranik and Lonigan, 2012) has demonstrated that children grouped by length of the number of unique letters in their name show no significant differences in measures of later literacy development, whereas groupings based on name writing ability (scored on a developmental scoring scale of 1 to 9) did, with more proficient writers performing better. However, this study was small in size and limited to children in the United States.

Using large, nationally representative data sets over multiple geographical locations, a team here at CEM examined the length of a child’s name and the child’s ability to write their own name, in relation to later academic skills. CEM is uniquely placed to contribute to this debate as our assessments are used with over one million children internationally each year. This enables us to examine these relationships in detail and validate name writing tasks as a diagnostically useful tool for teachers and educational practitioners.

In this study, we analysed the PIPS Baseline assessments (Tymms, 1999a) of nearly 15,000 children who were assessed between September 2011 and July 2013 from schools in England, Scotland and Australia. The assessment includes an item assessing the quality of name writing ability. Each child writes their name on a piece of paper which is then evaluated on a six point scale. This item has been shown in previous research to be a reliable predictor of future reading and mathematical abilities at age seven (Tymms, 1999b). The average age of the children sitting the start of year assessment in this study was 5.06 years.

For the purposes of this study, the child’s name writing ability was taken from the beginning of the year and their abilities in reading, mathematics and phonology were taken from the end of year assessment. In the English sample (where greater demographic data were available), any potential effect of age, ethnicity and socioeconomic status was considered when examining the relationships between name writing ability, length of name, reading, mathematics and phonological awareness.

Our analysis showed that across the three national samples, the length of a child’s name had no substantial effect on the ability to write one’s name or on the end of year scores in reading, mathematics and phonological awareness. These relationships remained unchanged when we controlled for participant age, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. In contrast however, the ability to write one’s own name showed substantial relationships with reading, mathematics and phonological awareness. These relationships reduce in strength only slightly when age, ethnicity and socioeconomic status are controlled for. While the ability to write one’s name at the beginning of the first school year is a robust predictor of attainment at the end of the school year, the length of a child’s name has no effect on these same variables.

Our analysis suggests that the ability to write one’s own name is a robust predictor of future academic performance and is a suitable measure for use in assessments.

Whilst we cannot draw conclusions regarding the underlying mechanisms of why this should be the case, nor can we rule out explicitly that children may or may not use letters in their own name as a framework for future learning, we can show that the actual number of letters present in a name is not predictive of future attainment.

It is also interesting to note that the ability to write one’s name is as predictive of mathematics as it is for future reading ability. Whilst more data would be required to explain this finding in detail, we may tentatively conclude that, at this age, the ability to write one’s own name is perhaps indicative of more general underlying cognitive ability rather than just proficiency in literacy alone.

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About the authors

This work was carried out by a team of researchers at CEM consisting of Lee Copping, Helen Cramman, Helen Gray, Sarah Gott and Peter Tymms.

Dr Lee Copping is a researcher and test developer, and has worked at CEM since 2013. His current areas of interest focus mainly around issues in the assessment of academic abilities and fair access to education. Lee’s research background is in evolutionary and developmental psychology and he completed his doctorate in 2014.

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