How to teach abbreviations
Summary: Ways to present and practise short forms of words and expressions such as "info", "lab", "50p" and "PS".
As well as being among the most easily teachable kinds of language, abbreviations like “Just a sec’” and “Can you also CC my boss when you send me the info?” are great ways for students to use more of a range of language, to avoid repeating the same phrases, and to sound friendlier in more casual situations. They are often also particularly interesting for students, because they may have heard or used abbreviations like “CEO” for years without ever wondering what the longer form could be or wrongly assumed that “Re:” in all their emails must have come from “Reply”. Some classroom time spent on abbreviations can therefore be a great way of teaching the longer expressions and the words that make them up, e.g. teaching “estimated” to students who have already come across “ETA” in their work.
In this article and in my classes, I use a very wide definition of “abbreviation” as anything that is shorter when spoken and/ or written than the word or expression that it comes from. Abbreviations that you might want to plan to bring up or which might come up more naturally in class include:
- Acronyms (including initialisations) such as “ASAP” for “as soon as possible” and “USD” for “US dollars”, and similar words where the letters replace parts of a single word such as “PJs” for “pyjamas”
- Words which have the end cut off, such as “uni” for “university” and “memo” for “memorandum”
- Words which have the end cut off and another sound added in its place, such as “footie” for “football”
- Words which have the middle taken out, such as contractions like “I’m” for “I am” and “Dr” for “doctor”
- Words which have one of those changes plus other changes in spelling and/ or pronunciation such as “sarnie” for “sandwich” and “cozzie” for “swimming costume”
- Words replaced by letters that sound like them, like “CU” for “see you”
- Numbers used to represent (parts of) words that sound like them, like “Q4” for “fourth quarter” and “l8er” for “later”
- Letters used as symbols, like “XXX” for “kisses” and “XOXO” for “hugs and kisses”
- Shortened foreign phrases which can replace longer English ones, like “RSVP” for “please let me know if you can come or not” and “e.g.” for “for example”
Most of the ideas in this article work for all those kinds of abbreviations, but there is also a more specific article on this site called How to Teach Acronyms.
I also often teach other shorter and/or more casual forms that don’t come from the longer form at all like “zapper” for “remote control” and “biro” at the same time as actual abbreviations, particularly if my students are using abbreviations from L1 that other nationalities might not understand such as the Janglish expressions “remo con” and “ballpen”.
Suitable topics for lessons on abbreviations include:
- Business (“COO”, “admin”, etc)
- Sports (“ref”, “RBIs”, “goalie”/ “keeper”, etc)
- Crime and punishment (“DPP”, “PI”, “ex-con”, etc)
- Emailing (“BCC”, “ATB”, etc)
- Technology (“IoT”, “vlog”, etc)
- News and politics (“PM”, “ICBM”, etc)
- Engineering and architecture (“cm”, “r”, “H&S”, etc)
- Health and medicine (“ADHD”, “abs”, etc)
- Food and drink (“spag bol”, “a cuppa”, “fish’n’chips”, etc)
- Life in a particular country (e.g. “NHS” and “ABSO” to talk about the UK)
- Cultural differences such as in the use of shortened names (“Rob”, “Bob”, “Robbie” and “Bobby” for “Robert”, etc).
What students need to know about abbreviations
All the things you could possibly tell students about abbreviations include:
- The longer forms of abbreviations, e.g. that “ad”, can also be “advert” and “advertisement”
- What they mean, e.g. that “i.e.” means “In other words,…” or “That is to say…”
- Any differences in formality, e.g. between “email” and “mail”, and between “Prof. Jones” in an email and calling someone “prof” to their face
- Other differences in the use of abbreviations in different contexts, e.g. that “PET bottle” is very technical in English and so is only used by experts in the fields of plastics or packaging, that “anime” only means Japanese (style) animation, and that “fig.” is only used with a number as in “fig. 1” (not “If you look at this fig,…” X)
- To avoid abbreviations of English words that are used in L1 but are not used in English, e.g. that “for example” is never abbreviated to “(for) ex.” in English (even though “ex. 1” is okay for “example 1”) and that the casual form of “website” is “site” rather than the Konglish expression “HP”
- Pronunciation of the abbreviations, e.g. that “NATO” is “neitou” but that “BCC” is “be see see”, and that the final sound in “sci fi” is “ai” despite it coming from the short “i” sound in “fiction”
- Different possible meanings and longer forms of abbreviations, e.g. that “PM” means both “Prime Minister” and “in the afternoon” and that “vet” is short for both “(army) veteran” and “veterinarian”
- Plurals (of the abbreviations and longer versions), e.g. that “MBAs” is “Masters of Business Administration” (not “Masters of Business Administrations”, etc) and that “pp” means “pages” (for Academic Writing classes)
- Abbreviations which are only written, e.g. that “5F” is always “fifth floor” when spoken, that few people say “Tues” for “Tuesday”, and that I don’t think anyone tries to pronounce “ROTFL”
- Changes in fashion, e.g. that “YOLO” has quickly become naff and that anyway people of a certain age sound silly using it
You probably don’t need to teach punctuation/ formatting/ the use of symbols, as there are so many acceptable variations (“Mr”/ “Mr.”, “ASAP”/ “asap”, “PM”/ “pm”/ “p.m.”, “Just a mo’”/ “Just a mo”, etc) and it is often difficult to make any useful generalisations (e.g. about why “and” is different in “P/L” and “M&A”). In addition, students won’t need to be told all the information above for all abbreviations. For example, there are some abbreviations which students might only need to know the meaning and use of, not what the longer form is. This is most common with abbreviations of foreign expressions which are used as a standard part of English such as “i.e.” and “op. cit.” For example, students need to know that “e.g.” means “for example”, but almost certainly won’t be helped by knowing what the original Latin words that make it up are.
How to present and practise abbreviations
Abbreviations which are most worth presenting include:
- Ones which would replace things that students often make mistakes with (for my students, ones such as “TV” or “telly” to stop them saying “televi” and “app” to stop them saying “appli”)
- Ones where both the long version and the short version are useful (e.g. “btw” for “by the way” and “FYI” for “for your information)
- Ones which have useful words in the long version and they possibly already know the short version of (e.g. to teach “stock exchange” from “NYSE” and “FTSE index”)
- Ones where the short version will help make their speaking and writing in casual situations friendlier (“info” for “information”, “BR” for “Best regards”, etc)
There are four major approaches to presenting those abbreviations for the first time, all of which can also be used at the practice stage:
- Students try to guess, work out and/ or remember what the longer versions of the abbreviations are
- Students try to guess, work out and/ or remember what the meanings of the abbreviations are
- Students try to guess, work out and/ or remember what the abbreviated forms of some words and expressions are
- Students use (sentences including) the abbreviations, then later try to remember what the abbreviations, meanings and/ or longer forms are
With some abbreviations such as “Just a mo’”, it should be possible to give students enough context that they can work out what the abbreviations mean, especially if they are already familiar with the longer form (or at least something similar, e.g. already knowing “Just a minute”). With other abbreviations, students might need a bit more help, for example:
- Choosing from multiple choice options
- Choosing from a list of possibilities at the bottom of the page
- Choosing from a list of possible continuations
They are also likely to need something a bit more fun, such as one of the ideas below.
Make a pack of cards with the longer form of the abbreviations all split into two, usually meaning the left-hand cards having the abbreviation and the right-hand side having the continuation that would make the longer form, e.g. “Re” on the left-hand card and “-garding” on the right-hand one. You can also include context to help match the two sides up, e.g. “I am writing to you re” + “garding our meeting next week”. Another way to make the task more manageable is to keep some of the cards on one side attached together. For example, one left-hand card could have “kilo” and “lab” above and below each other, and the card on the right could have “-gramme” and “-oratory”, plus maybe a continuation of one more abbreviation to make the matching up more like a real jigsaw puzzle (e.g. “-oun” to go with “n-” on another card).
Note that if you want to include expressions which are abbreviated in more than one place such as “fin tech” and acronyms like “(Washington) DC”, the right-hand card will need to have continuations of both parts, e.g. “-ancial –nology” or “-istrict of –olumbia”.
When they have finished the jigsaw activity, checked their answers and asked you about anything they aren’t sure about, they can be tested on their memory of the short and/ or long versions with another activity such as one of those below.
There are a few teacher-based dictation tasks that work for abbreviations. The first is for the teacher to read out some abbreviations in context and for the students to listen and only write down abbreviations that they hear (not any other words in the sentences). Perhaps after working together to try to guess what the abbreviations mean, they then hear the sentences another time but with everything in full and write down the expressions that match the abbreviations that they wrote down before. The first stage is much too easy if you only use acronyms, but it’s good to mix up more challenging ones with easier ones to spot such as acronyms, ones they already know the short version of, and abbreviations of expressions that they already know the long version of. You could also have another stage where you read out the sentences with short and long form straight after each other.
In a similar but livelier game, students can listen to whole sentences and either shout out a long form from a list that they have been given when they hear a short form of it in a sentence, or shout out an abbreviation from a list when they hear a long form in context. For example, they race to shout out “kilogrammes” if the hear the sentence “I put on four kilos over Xmas” or they try to be the first to shout out “kilos” if they hear “I put on four kilogrammes over Xmas”.
It is also possible for students to match the abbreviations that they hear in context to the meanings (rather than the longer forms/ continuations) on a worksheet, but I prefer to do this as the pairwork dictation task explained below.
The third teacher-led dictation game works both as a shouting out game and as a calmer listening and matching activity. Students hear half a sentence that ends with an abbreviation, e.g. “If possible, I need the info” and match it to one of the continuations (starting with the ending of the abbreviation) that they have on their worksheet, e.g. “-rmation by the end of the week”.
Another game that almost counts as a dictation is for a teacher to explain an abbreviation bit by bit until someone in the class guesses what the short and/ or long version is. For example, if the teacher says “F. For. Y. Your. I...”, the students race to guess that it is “For your information”. Other ways are for the teacher to say “Member. Of the European…” and students to rush to shout out “MEP” before the teacher finishes the explanation, and if the teacher says “memo plus R, A, N, D, U,…” students put up their hands as quickly as possible to guess that it is “memorandum”. The teacher can also include other clues such as “It is a kind of group email, often to everyone in a company telling what to do or what not to do”, perhaps before giving the clues about the actual abbreviation.
Abbreviations pairwork dictations
Variations on the activities above can also be done as pairwork, for example having the starters like “It only cost my 99p” on a Student A worksheet and the continuations with the longer forms like “-ence for a bun and cup of tea” on the Student B worksheet for students to match (without looking at the other person’s worksheet).
Matching up short forms and long forms is much too easy to do as a pairwork stage without the race element that the teacher-led version above has. Instead, I like to get my students to match the abbreviations and their actual meanings, e.g. matching the “NB” from “NB: all claims must be signed by a line manager” on the Student A worksheet with the “Please note that” in “Please note that no vegan dishes will be provided, so you will need to bring your own” on Student B’s materials. This should again be done without showing their worksheets to each other.
As with the activities above, bluffing games are just as useful at the presentation stage as for later practice. All consist of students mixing up true and false information about abbreviations and their use, meaning, longer forms, etc and seeing if other students can work out which bits are true. False information that may fool another team include:
Where the longer form is split to make the abbreviation (e.g. “labo” for “laboratory” X)
If an abbreviation is possible in English or if another more informal form is used (e.g. “punc” X for puncture instead of “a flat”)
What the longer form is (e.g. “watery convenience” X for “WC”)
Where the abbreviation comes from and/ or is used (e.g. saying that “barbie” for “barbecue” is a South African abbreviation)
In a similar way, students could write or say abbreviations for two or more related words and test other students on which are not used (in speech), e.g. that we can say “50p” for “50 pence” but “50c” is not a spoken form of “50 cents”.
Abbreviations freer speaking activities
This is perhaps the activity I use most of all the ones in this article, including at the presentation stage. Students are given phrases including abbreviations (with explanations of the abbreviations after each phrase, at the bottom of the page or from the teacher if they need it) and are asked to discuss the statements or questions, e.g.
Giving advice on some of the problems there (such as “ER/ A&E departments are increasingly over-crowded but there is no extra funding available”)
Agreeing or disagreeing with some of the statements there (such as “Skipping brekkie is the easiest way to slim”)
Discussing the questions there (such as “Should the government make it impossible to employ temps for a long time without making them permanent members of staff?”)
Holding a meeting including at least three of the items there (e.g. “cutting admin”, “the MENA region” and “investing in AI”) on its agenda
Abbreviations strangers on a train
This activity most works best as a final practice stage, but could also work as an initial presentation if students know lots of other abbreviations and/ or you particularly want to practise clarifying questions like “Sorry, what does… stand for/ mean?” Students are given different abbreviations and should try to slip those abbreviations naturally into a conversation, e.g. with a stranger who they start chatting to on a train. At the same time, they should try to spot which abbreviations they think their partners were told to use. To make spotting those abbreviations more difficult, everyone should also try to use other abbreviations that they know but weren’t told to use as distractors. After a fixed period of time, the students are told to smoothly finish the conversation. They then get points for having used the abbreviations that they were told to, guessing what abbreviations their partner was told to use, not having anyone guess what abbreviations they were told to use, and/ or wrong guesses from their partner(s) about what abbreviations they were told to use. To make for a reasonably smooth conversation but spotting the abbreviations possible, it’s best if each student has a mix of abbreviations that would easily fit into such as a conversation (e.g. “a.m.”) and ones which they will need to be more careful to bring in without being too obvious (“the HR department”, etc).
Make cards with a short form on one side and a longer form on the other, e.g. “o.n.o.” on one side and “or near offer” on the other. This can be done by making a two-column table in Word, cutting horizontally to make cards, then folding along the vertical lines between the two parts to make the cards two-sided. Ask students to spread the cards across the table, either side up. Students take turns guessing what is on the other side of the cards and turning over to guess, with one person continuing until they make a mistake. The cards which they have guessed correctly stay turned over to be guessed in the opposite direction next time.
This game can be played with a board and the same rules as Othello (from which it takes its name). However, I tend to do it much more freestyle, with students doing whichever cards they like each time, in which case I usually ask them to count how many cards they manage in a row and give points for the longest string of correct guesses (often around seven cards in a row).
Even compared to the other activities in this article, you need to be careful with this one to only choose abbreviations for which the longer form is also useful, so a card with “pm” and “in the afternoon” is fine but “et al” and “et alia” is not suitable. If possible it’s also good to make cards where both the longer form and the shorter form are tricky in some way for the students, e.g. “mobile” and “mobile phone” if students tend to say “handy” and don’t know what the longer form of “mobile” is. However, it is also fine to have a few cards where the conversion in one direction is a bit easier, which can be a nice confidence booster for the students and speed the game up.
In this slight variation on the traditional spelling game Hangman, students only need to successfully guess the abbreviation to win the game, even though all the letters of the longer form are filled in as they choose them. For example, the letters “RE_EREE” are put in if they ask for the letters “E” and “R” but they have to get “ref” to save their man and win that round of the game. You could also give bonus points for getting the longer form too (without any further letter clues after the short form has been successfully guessed).
If you want to include more speaking, the person who has the teacher role can also give other hints on the abbreviation’s use, meaning and/ or formality such as “It’s a business term” and “The short form is also used in our language”.