University of Virginia
Physics Department

Names and Symbols of Elements

A Physical Science Activity

2003 Virginia SOLs



Students will


Motivation for Learning

Driving Question

Do we always use full names for everything we talk about? Why do we use abbreviations sometimes? How do we get these abbreviations? How do we abbreviate names of elements?


Background Information

This activity is designed to help students understand and learn symbols for chemical elements. This is mostly a suggestion for ways to explain chemical symbols to students and ways to have the students practice matching the symbols to the names so they can become familiar with the symbols for common elements. Symbols are used to abbreviate the names of the elements. The symbols can contain one letter (capitalized) or two or three letters (only the first letter is capitalized). These symbols are then used when writing chemical formulas for compounds.


Student Activity




  1. Have a general discussion with students about abbreviations of words in general. Maybe brainstorm as a class and write complete words with the abbreviations next to them. Talk about where these abbreviations come from. Most of them will come from letters actually contained within the word. (Street = St., Avenue = Ave.). There are, however, abbreviations that we use for words or phrases that come from the word in another language (And so on = etc. (for et cetera), that is = i.e. (for id est)). It would be helpful to make sure some of these are included since many chemical symbols come from the word in another language (Iron = Fe (for ferrum)).
  2. Call on several students to come up to the board and write their first initial. Try to get at least two students who have the same first initial (like James and John). Lead the students to the fact that we wouldn't be able to identify each person by just one initial. Some students could just keep one letter, but others would need to have some other distinction. For these students (like James and John), we would need to include another initial.
  3. At this point James and John would write their last initials behind their first initials. The students should all be able to be distinguished by the initials on the board. If you happen to have two students with the same first and last initials, you would need to use a middle initial. This would help explain why every symbol doesn't have the same number of letters and also why all the symbols don't use the first two or first three letters (like magnesium = Mg and arsenic = As).
  4. Next, there needs to be a discussion of word origins and the reason why some symbols include none of the letters in their names (like iron = Fe and silver = Ag).
  5. Once you have explained where symbols come from and why we use them, students can play games with them so that they can learn the symbols for some of the more common elements.
  6. One way to get the whole class involved is to give each student a card with either the name of an element or the symbol of an element. The students would then have to roam around the room to find their missing partner. You could set this up as a game and split the class up into teams, keeping score for the correct number of matches and/or how quickly the matches were made.
  7. Another option for students working in pairs or small groups to continue practicing with this matching is to set up a game of concentration in which the pairs you match are the name of the element and its symbol. (This idea is well-demonstrated and already set up to play at the following website: A concentration board might look like the following:

The game of concentration can be played with one or more people. The cards are all turned upside down at the start of the game. Each player during his or her turn will flip over two cards. If the two cards are a matching pair (element name and symbol), the player takes those cards. If the two cards do not match, they get flipped back over for the next player. The students will try to remember where each of the cards is so that they will have a better chance of making a match. The object of the game is to gain as many cards from matches as possible.



  1. Have students make up their own concentration games to challenge each other.
  2. Have students come up with other types of games or activities for practice (For example, a crossword puzzle or a word search where the clue is the element symbol and the element name is the answer).
  3. Have students make up words using the letters that are in the symbols. (For example, give the elements chlorine, iodine, carbon, and potassium. The symbols for those elements are Cl, I, C, and K. That would spell ClICK. Neon and Argon would spell NeAr.) Once the students got used to the symbols, you could even give them in a different order so that the students would have to rearrange them to get the word.


Students with Special Needs

Each student should be able to participate in this activity.

Click here for further information on laboratories with students with special needs.



Assessment may be made informally during class discussion or on an individual basis with a quiz.

  1. Give students the name of a common element (which you have discussed previously) and have them give you the symbol, or vice versa.
  2. Have students explain why the symbols might be what they are - especially the ones that don't use letters from the name.