- University of Virginia
- Physics Department
Names and Symbols
A Physical Science Activity
2003 Virginia SOLs
- understand the need for chemical symbols;
- know symbols for commonly used elements;
- investigate word origins and understand how that plays a part in chemical
- 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?
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.
- Index cards with names of elements and matching index cards
with the elements' symbols (Any elements can be used in order to
play the game, but the focus should be on the first 20 - they are
used commonly, therefore students should be more familiar with
- 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)).
- 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.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
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
- Have students make up their own concentration games to
challenge each other.
- 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
- 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.
- Give students the name of a common element (which you have
discussed previously) and have them give you the symbol, or vice
- Have students explain why the symbols might be what they are -
especially the ones that don't use letters from the name.