An acronym can be a useful shorthand for structuring a piece of writing. But that’s all it ever is: a shorthand or a shortcut.

Unfortunately, like a lot of shortcuts, it gets you to your destination a bit quicker, but neglects the necessary process of sometimes difficult learning that in the long term leads to better understanding.

Imagine you ask for directions to the beach whilst on holiday and are told “left, right, straight on at the crossroads and left again at the post office.” This might be all very well in that particular seaside town in getting you where you want to go, but it doesn’t allow you to learn any generalisations about where the beach might be found in any other town: downhill, for example, or at the end of the river. Finding the beach in another town and simply turning left, right, straight on at the crossroads and left again at the post office will likely leave you stranded and confused.

Or imagine you’ve learned to tie your safety knots for rock climbing. You know the rabbit goes round the tree 3 times and up through the hole but you’re unlikely to be able to explain why it needs to, let alone work out what knot needs to be tied in a new or different situation. When you come to tying a new knot half way up the wall, you’ll very likely want to have a bit more of an in-depth understanding.

What both these examples have in common, I think, is that using a shortcut leads to a gain in the short-term but doesn’t actually require you to think about anything much, beyond memorising the instructions in the moment. When it comes to a new situation, or even one that’s only marginally changed, however, it becomes of very little use. That’s because, I think, by using a shortcut or acronym, we end up teaching the wrong way round. We bypass the necessary stage of converting strategy into procedural knowledge in the long term memory (writing an essay or answering an extended exam response numerous times will help achieve this and encourage that knowledge to be flexible) and go straight to the structure to help students remember it – before they’ve learned how to do it. Constant practice of extended writing (modelled, co-written, etc.) is much more useful in helping students embed the process.

I used to teach with lots of acronyms for essay writing: PEE, PEEL, PEAL. Along the way I’ve seen other increasingly elaborate ones: PETAL, PEWET, IQUACK. As you go further down the acronym rabbit hole, they quickly become retronyms – acronyms where the word itself becomes more important than the thing it stands for, in the hope it will then be more memorable. The problem with this, of course, is that as Daniel Willingham has pointed out, “Memory is the residue of thought” (we remember what we think most about). Thus, if we think about how to construct an essay or plan a tense piece of creative writing, we remember how to do that; if we think about PETALS and PAF, petals and paf is what we remember.

When teaching with acronyms, I often found myself asking questions like “what’s the acronym for doing this piece of writing?”. Once I’d teased the blood out of that particular stone, students would often say something like “so what do I write?”, at which point I’d then give them a sentence starter. Why did students end up in that position of learned helplessness? Because I wasn’t requiring them to think.

People that disagree with me would likely say, “but students find it easier to write when they have something to hang their writing onto.”  That might be true. In fact, if you were to compare the writing of two classes after one lesson where one had an acronym-based writing frame and one didn’t, the first class might even be likely to do better to begin with. But if we are to avoid getting to the situation where, even in Y11, students are saying, “so, what do I write?”, we need to be prepared to let students struggle for a bit in order to encourage them to think and, through thinking, to learn.

If we ask students to take a step back, to think and to assess the situation they are in, they’ll probably have all sorts of inventive ways of approaching the problem we’d never even thought of. Not only does this help them reach a more fulfilled sense of self-expression, it also prepares them for the unseen exam questions they’ll be required to tackle on exam day without our help.

Where acronyms have their place is, I think, as a last-ditch attempt for some students. The very low ability, or those about to crash and burn in the April of Y11, say, would most likely reap some benefit from an acronym or two, in order to let them get through the exam. Furthermore, it could be a useful way to help students remember the process – once the process has been learned. Getting expert learners to design their own acronyms for revision, say, might be a high-challenge task, as long as we remember that process is usually a more useful thing to drill into students than structure.

But for the majority of students, we must put them in the learning pit and require them to think. Let’s ask them difficult, probing questions, let’s give them the space in our curriculums to experiment and take the time to get it right and let’s give them something interesting to think about. We are all passionate about our great subjects; let’s not reduce those subjects in our students’ minds to a series of 3 letters, even if those 3 letters do spell a funny word.

By Iain Blackwell

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