Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5
Curriculum Unit

What's In A Name? (4 Lessons)



The Unit


MacDonald. Carpenter. Underwood. Green. These are typical American names that reflect a family's British origins—but they tell us little about the people who currently bear them. How times have changed! In the Middle Ages, a person's second name served a useful function. In some cases, it revealed where he lived; in others, it told who his father was, what he did for a living, or even what he looked like.

In this unit, students will learn about the origins of four major types of British surnames. They will consult lists to discover the meanings of specific names and later demonstrate their knowledge of surnames through various group activities. They will then compare the origins of British to certain types of non-British surnames. In a final activity, the students will research the origins and meanings of their own family names.

Guiding Questions

  • What are the origins of British surnames?
  • What did these names once tell about the people who bore them?
  • What similarities exist between British and non-British surnames?
  • How can we find the origins of our own surnames?

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how and why surnames came to be
  • Describe four types of British surnames and give examples of each
  • Compare the derivations of British and certain non-British surnames
  • Tell the origin and meaning of their own surnames

Preparation Instructions

Become familiar with the materials used in the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark websites you plan to use. Download and duplicate charts used in the activities. Secure several copies of a local phonebook for the Assessment exercise in Lesson 3.

You can find additional background information about surnames at the following sites:

The Lessons

The Basics

Grade Level


Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • History and Social Studies > Place > The Americas
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Medieval World (500 CE-1500 CE)
  • History and Social Studies > Place > The Middle East
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Asia
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Interpretation
  • Logical reasoning
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions