How to do acronyms wrong

How to do acronyms wrong

GCSE, ICT, UCAS, BSc… these are just a few of the acronyms we hear very often in school and beyond. Many of us use these acronyms in our daily conversations, whether this be over text or face-to-face, without really thinking about it. We’ll LOL (Laughing Out Loud) to a funny message or end a conversation with a TTYL (Talk To You Later).

However, are these acronyms as effective, in regard to time and ease, as we think? Some people believe that using them in education can have many downsides. We’ve done the research and outlined both sides of the argument for you to make an informed decision about incorporating them into your teaching.

So, are acronyms helpful and timesaving? Or do they simply cause confusion and misunderstandings?

Using Acronyms in the Right Way

A refresher: an acronym is an arrangement of letters formed from the initial letters of other words. For example, ASAP stands for As Soon As Possible. It is often pronounced as a word and not letter by letter.

Acronyms take up less space in a text and are typically pronounced with fewer syllables. For example, it is much more efficient for a teacher to ask “Who’s preparing for their GCSEs?”, than “Who’s preparing for their General Certificate of Secondary Education?”. When acronyms are used to shorten long technical terms, they can make something much easier to read. The reader will have clarification of the terms and not have to waste time re-reading a complicated term that may even be difficult to pronounce. However, a useful tip to keep in mind when considering acronyms is to only abbreviate a term you use more than 4 times. If a term is not used often enough in teaching or writing, students may find it hard to remember what the term means.

There are ways to use acronyms to make revision more efficient. You may be familiar with ROYGBIV, the acronym used to remember the colours of the rainbow; Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. Teachers can find ways to make remembering concepts easier by introducing acronyms. Discuss with your students what they are finding especially difficult to revise or remember and come up with an abbreviation that is easy for them to use.

When Acronyms Go Wrong

Unfortunately, there may be times where we overestimate someone else’s familiarity with the acronyms or abbreviations we are using.

Firstly, acronyms can slow understanding. If a listener is unfamiliar with the acronym, then they may spend extra time trying to figure out the meaning of the letters. This can cause a disruption in teaching if students have to ask for clarification. The best way to avoid this is to clearly define the acronym when it is used for the first time and make sure it is understood before moving on. This can ensure that all students are aware of what is being discussed and can stay focused.

Another downside to using acronyms is that they may have multiple meanings. For example, whilst some people may think PC stands for personal computer, others may use it for police constable, or even politically correct. It all depends on where someone’s exposure to this acronym occurred and how this influences the associations they make. These ambiguous acronyms that are more open to interpretation can cause confusion if the meaning and the context is not made clear. Make sure that, in this particular case, the acronym you’re using is clear and unmistakable to avoid confusion.

Don’t Overuse Them

Throwing a few acronyms into your teaching, here and there, can help save a lot of time, especially when you’re sure that your students understand their proper meanings. However, there is a fine line between efficacy and going overboard.

For example, try and avoid using informal acronyms in the classroom such as LOL or BRB, as this can confuse students. They may begin to believe that they are appropriate terms to use in their essay writing, or exams, and this is certainly not what we want.

Remind your students that they should define all acronyms when they are initially mentioned and should only use them where absolutely necessary. For example, if a student is writing a Biology essay, it is often useful to abbreviate DNA instead of saying deoxyribonucleic acid.

Final thoughts

We have become so used to using acronyms that we often forget to define them when teaching or whilst in conversation. To avoid any confusion or misunderstanding, it is helpful to outline the meaning of the acronym you’re using. This will make both the teaching and learning process easier for everyone involved. Use acronyms where necessary and in place of long complicated terms but be sure to avoid the informal text language when talking to students.

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