With the absolute best of intentions, we have accidentally turned to a surface-building strategy to encourage our students to write something—anything!—in response to their reading. According to their research surrounding the most impactful literacy strategies, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey reveal that mnemonic devices (aka acronyms) help students to consolidate surface understandings of material.
This makes sense and is incredibly helpful when teaching students what to do or which steps to follow. Why are most of us able to remember the order of the planets or units of measurement? Acronyms! I’m a fan of Roy G. Biv, the same as the next gal, but the problem with acronyms in response to reading is simple: They do not work—for several reasons.
Reason 1: Acronyms aid in building surface learning. The issue, of course, is that students need to analyze their texts in order to complete these tasks—and the acronym is not a learning tool that creates analysis. What does an acronym do instead? Label and confine.
Reason 2: Acronyms are too structured. Real writing does not follow one set structure. Nowhere in the reality of real writing do we operate with the five sentences in a paragraph model. And, we certainly do not write our paragraphs as topic sentence, three details, concluding sentence. When answering a question and then providing evidence to back up what we think (which is essentially the task required in written response questions), we do not randomly insert evidence, follow it up with the phrase, “This proves…” and then basically say the first sentence over again. No way. That’s not how we talk, and it’s not how we think.
Reason 3: They’re not hitting the target. Most responses to reading require students to elaborate, provide multiple details from the text, and communicate genuine thought. This task requires complexity in thought and response, and we’re struggling to find helpful ways to teach the thinking.
What do we find when we Google “constructed response?” A wide variety of anchor charts and clever terms. There are plenty of acronyms out there to attempt to teach this skill. The issue? These acronyms are asking students for one piece of evidence (not several) and often waste precious thinking on summarizing or restating prompts. Students are spending all of their time saying a whole lot of nothing in their writing—and it’s because we’re asking them to. There’s no reason to summarize my paragraph. I wrote a paragraph. It is already short. It doesn’t need a summary. I promise.
Reason 4: Acronyms create choppy, disjointed paragraphs. Ever read a constructed response where the student just slopped a random piece of evidence in out of nowhere? I certainly have; I see this all the time. Here’s the issue: kids see this acronym, and they know they need evidence—so they think it’s enough to simply have it. They aren’t spending any real time thinking or connecting to what they’ve included. They simply check the box of requirements and move on to the explanation (which is equally as jarring and choppy).
Transitions are being forgotten, and honestly, I don’t even know that students realize they should be transitioning from sentence to sentence. We’ve made what should be a coherent, well-developed task into broken, piece-meal thoughts. Why is the writing so choppy and disconnected? Because the thinking is choppy and disconnected.
Reason 5: Every acronym is a new language. If in 3rd grade students learn ACE, but in 4th grade they learn SASS, and in 5th grade it’s APE and in 6th grade it’s RACES…well, to a student, they’ve just learned four different ways their teachers wanted them to write. Students do not see the connection and transfer of these acronyms. They aren’t sitting there going, “Oh right! ACE and APE are the same—proof and cite are synonyms and we’re still doing what we know how to do.” Nope. Not at all.
They’re more likely thinking, “Okay, what does he want me to do this year? I don’t want to disappoint him and get my sentences out of order.” Why do they raise their hands seeking approval for their writing? We’ve trained them to believe there is one right way. We are teaching them to worry about order in place of critical thinking. This will fail us every time.
The acronym is a surface strategy, and surface strategies alone do not create deep literacy skills.