How to teach acronyms
Summary: How to present and practise the meaning and use of abbreviations like "ASAP", "IoT" and "VIP"
Most Business English and English for Specific Purposes textbooks have a short section or two on acronyms such as “CIO” and “asap”, but I find that most ESP classes benefit from much more than that and that General English classes can get almost as much out of the topic. One reason for spending classroom time on acronyms is that they are becoming more common and hence a bigger problem for our students every day. However, the use of English acronyms across the world also makes life easier for students and teachers, making for a great way of introducing the words that form the acronym. For example, many students may not know and be fascinated to learn that the full job title of the CIO in their company could be either “Chief Information Officer” or “Chief Investment Officer”, making it a memorable way of teaching both “CIO” and the words “chief””, “investment” and/ or “officer”.
As you can see from these examples, this article uses a very wide definition of “acronym” to mean all words where you just use the first letter of each word, including both ones which are pronounced like words (“NATO” etc) and ones which are pronounced letter by letter (“BCC” etc). I always teach both kinds of words mixed up together, and all the information and teaching ideas below work for both.
What students need to know about acronyms
Most of what students need to know about acronyms can be summarised by three questions:
What does… stand for?
What does… mean?
How do you pronounce…?
(The questions themselves are also obviously useful to present and practice).
Students might also need to know something about the formality of some of them, e.g. that “asap” is quite informal and so rude in requests and that Latin abbreviations like “P.S.” are usually fine in any situation.
Introducing the “What does… mean?” question is particularly important for Latin abbreviations, because even many native speakers don’t know what “e.g.”, “A.D.” and “P.S.” stand for, and it won’t necessarily help students to know. Just the meaning is also probably enough for acronyms like “PIN”, and there isn’t much point spending time on the pronunciation of most acronyms unless students have problems pronouncing the English alphabet and/ or many of the acronyms would be pronounced differently in L1. You therefore need to be selective about which acronyms you choose and be careful about not presenting too much (useless) information about each of those acronyms, which leads me onto what not to do…
How not to teach acronyms
As mentioned above, as much as I appreciate there being exercises in textbooks on acronyms, I’d rarely follow the way the textbook’s method of presenting and practising them, because many books use these ineffective ways:
Testing students on what acronyms stand for even when most native speakers wouldn’t know and when the students could quite happily use the acronyms correctly without having to know the meaning of the letters (e.g. using “LED” without needing to know that it means “light emitting diode”)
Simply asking students what acronyms stand for without any lead up (which is probably impossible, and if it isn’t impossible it is probably useless because it means the students already knew what they stood for before the class started)
Presenting and/ or testing students on (too many) acronyms which they know little or nothing about, e.g. including many acronyms that students don’t know the use of, don’t know the meanings of, don’t know the words of, perhaps won’t understand those words when they find them out, and maybe don’t even know the existence of
Presenting acronyms which are only important for English speaking countries that the students have no particular interest in (e.g. teaching what “NHS” and “NI number” stand for even though that class has no particular interest in the UK)
Teaching acronyms which students will never come across (often just in order to have enough on one topic to make up a whole exercise)
Some better ways of presenting and practising acronyms are given below, starting with how to select the best ones to do so with.
How to choose acronyms to present
The best acronyms to present are probably:
Acronyms which students already often see and/ or often use (perhaps including in their own language) and which contain words which are useful for students to know so that they can be used and understood in other context (the word “estimated” in the acronym “ETA”, etc)
Acronyms which students are likely to come across and for preferably which knowing what they stand for will help make the meaning clear (e.g. “to be confirmed” for “TBC” and “personal assistant” for “PA”)
Acronyms for useful expressions that students might not know and are likely to be able to use ( “btw” for the useful expression “by the way”, etc)
Acronyms which students know the expression for but are actually are (nearly) as common in acronym form (“omg” for “oh my god”/ “oh my goodness”, “imo” for “in my opinion”, “BR” for “best regards”, etc)
Acronyms that cause particular problems such as ones which are different in L1 and in English or ones which have formality/ politeness differences that students might not be aware of (“ASAP” vs “as soon as you can”, etc)
As a way of testing students on expressions which they usually get wrong when they use the full form (e.g. saying “headquarter” rather than “headquarters” for “HQ” and “human resource” instead of “human resources” for “HR”)
Acronyms which students already know how to announce in English (e.g. “BBC”), particularly if you are using acronyms to teach pronunciation of the English alphabet
Please note that acronyms used below are chosen to help explain the points in this article and so are not necessarily ones I would particularly suggest presenting to your students.
How to present and practise acronyms
As mentioned above, students have often come across acronyms like “GDP” and “IMHO” without knowing what they stand for. I therefore tend to use acronyms in class a lot to explain words and expressions like “gross” and “in my honest/ humble opinion” as they come up in the lesson, for example eliciting what “GDP” might stand for and what “gross” must mean as part of its name. This means that in most of my classes acronyms get mentioned at least once every couple of lessons before I even start planning a specific lesson on the topic.
Another way I use acronyms to teach other language is to teach pronunciation of the English alphabet, particularly with students who mix up ones like “J” and “G” due to L1 interference.
For an actual lesson on acronyms, presentation is probably the most difficult stage to get right. The most challenging part of planning such a lesson is walking the fine line between something that is too difficult (because students would need to know all the acronyms already to be able to do the activity) and something that is so easy that students instantly forget what you have just presented. Practising is easier to plan, because by that stage you can often do something similar but just with less help for the students. The activities below are therefore often possible to use at both the presentation stage and at the practice stage, with the teacher simply needing to plan the right level of help at each stage.
Acronym meanings multiple choice
As mentioned above, the very worst way to present acronyms is to give students a list of useful ones and ask them what they all stand for and/ or mean. This can be a little easier and more useful if the acronyms are given in context, but it is difficult to give enough context for students to guess the whole thing without further help. However, with context and/ or using acronyms which students are already at least slightly familiar with, students should be able to work out which of the options that you give is the most likely, e.g. that “CC” in the sentence “Please CC my boss when you send me the report” means “carbon copy”, rather than “computer communication” or “corporate currency”. This is also good for dealing with common problems with the longer form, by giving options like “HQ stands for A) headquarter B) headquarters C) headsquarter”.
Presenting acronyms in this kind of multiple choice way can easily be followed up or replaced by the more fun Acronyms Call My Bluff game below.
Acronyms Call My Bluff
Students are given different useful acronyms and true information about what they mean, stand for, etc, and make up two false definitions to try to trick other students with. This can be done as an improvised speaking game, but it is usually best to give students ten minutes or so to write down their trick definitions before they test each other on the meaning, pronunciation, what they stand for, etc. This game is particularly good for practising the phrases that they will need in their own lives to explain acronyms from their own country, field, company etc such as “It stands for…”, “It means…”, “It is pronounced (letter by letter)” and “It is similar to…”
Split the list into acronyms
Another way to make presenting the acronyms easier is to give students the expressions in full word form and ask them to write just the acronyms. Obviously this is much too easy if you just give them “Federal Bureau of Investigation” and ask them to work out that the acronym is “FBI”. However, if you give students a whole list of such expressions on a single line and ask them to split them at the right place, they can work out that “missing in action dead on arrival intravenous” splits into “MIA”, “DoA” and “IV”. This works best if some acronyms that students know (something) about such as “HQ” and “PR” are sprinkled amongst the ones that students have no idea about.
When they have then checked their answers to this, you can then test them on their memory of what “MIA” etc stand for.
The teacher dictates expressions such as “estimated time of arrival” and asks students to say or write only the acronyms (not the full words) down. This can be done one by one (e.g. the teacher saying “oh my goodness” and the students shouting out “omg”) or as a list said one after another with no break as in Split the List into Acronyms above (e.g. the students writing down “NEET”, “CEO”, GNP” etc as the teacher says “not in education employment or training chief executive officer gross national product…”). This can also be done as a pairwork activity. After checking that they got the right acronyms down, students can then be tested on their memory of what those acronyms stand for (probably with some kind of help such as mixed words needed).
This is another activity that sounds much too easy but has a suitable variation that makes it challenging and useful enough to be used quite often. Obviously students could match “AI” to “artificial intelligence” and “VR” to “virtual reality” in seconds, however much you mix them up. I therefore ask students to instead match the expressions to their meaning, e.g. “VR” to “almost looks like real life” and “AI” to “like a brain but manmade”, first of all with no help and then using the context of the sentences that they have been given to help. With these kinds of acronyms you can then get them to try to work out that “V” = “virtual” etc, but this activity is also useful with acronyms that they never need to know each word of such as “NB” = “please note that…”, “CV” = “resume”, “VAT” = “sales tax” and “CC” = “forward”.
Another possibility is to get students to match acronyms that have the same or similar meanings, e.g. “A&E” with “ER”, “CC” with “BCC” and “LOL” with “ROTFL”. After a brief attempt to do so with no help, give them what each word stands for to aid them in matching them up. After matching, they can then be tested on their memory of acronyms with similar meanings, what (some of) the letters stand for, etc.
All these activities can be done as a pairwork activity with the things to match and their accompanying clues split between Student A and Student B worksheets, with students trying to do the activity without showing their worksheets to each other.
This activity is the closest to the task that is criticised above of just asking students what acronyms stand for. It therefore only really works with mostly acronyms that students know at least something about and that you want them to know about in more detail. Under a list of acronyms, give a mixed up list of all the words that make up those acronyms such as “P/T”, “PMT” and “PR” and around 10 or 15 more acronyms at the top of the page and “part pre public menstrual relations tension time” etc at the bottom of the page. As with these examples, you need acronyms that have some letters in common but it is usually okay if some of the letters only have one option in the list. If that would be too easy, you can always add some distractors which aren’t needed in their answers (such as “moon” to make working out what “PMT” trickier). You can also give them definitions of the meaning of each acronym (“PR: news releases etc to get good publicity for a company”, etc).
Students are given sentences or a whole text in which there would normally be acronyms but with the acronyms all rewritten as full expressions. They work together to try to find places where they could put acronyms, such as putting “BR” into an email containing “See you then, best regards, Alex”. As with this example, this only works if the expressions which could be acronyms are not written in capital letters, even if that means writing them with incorrect punctuation (“british broadcasting corporation”, etc). After trying with no help, students can be given hints such as the list of acronyms that can go somewhere in the sentences.
This can also work with a teacher or another student reading out the sentences for the people listening to write down or shout out suitable acronyms for, making it like Acronyms Dictation above but with the acronyms given in context.
I’ve never tried this activity, but it could be useful with students who are likely to panic if they are given anything more challenging. Students are given the full words version of acronyms mixed up and have to write the correct acronym for each, e.g. working out that “America of Voice” is “VoA”. This works best if they already know the acronyms but not what they stand for, if the acronyms only make sense in one order (“America of Voice” and “of America Voice” not making sense), and/ or if the mixed expressions are given with some kind of context (e.g. giving “PLC” in the sentence “Before that I worked for five years in British Cows company limited public”).
Acronyms speaking activities
Another way of making presentation of acronyms more manageable is to switch straight to the practice stage and then test students’ memory of the language that they were just using. For example, they could discuss what to do about problems like “The HR Department can’t cope with the number of CVs arriving every day”, with the acronyms being explained (in brackets) in or after the sentences, in a gloss at the bottom of the page, or by the teacher during or after the activity. After the speaking activity finishes and they ask any questions that they have about the sentences, they are then tested on the acronyms that they just saw, perhaps with one of the activities above such as Finding Acronyms.
Other speaking activities that could work in this way include statements with acronyms to agree and disagree with (“VAT in this country is too high. Lower VAT and high income tax would be better”, etc), topics including acronyms to give opinions on (“modern EDM”, “BO”, etc), and discussion questions including acronyms (“Do you think MPs are overpaid?”, etc). In addition, you could also get them to discuss the actual use of acronyms, for example deciding on a company policy on which acronyms should, can and shouldn’t be used in work emails, manuals for consumers, etc.