LOL: It’s Funny Until it’s Not

A graphic of a pink cloud with the letters LOL in white.
LOL! Funny, except when acronyms create a barrier to learning.

What is your story of a misunderstood emoji or text message abbreviation? My uncle, upon learning of a significant and upsetting event, signed off his text message with ‘LOL’! Whilst confusing, it was bemusing that he would ‘Laugh Out Loud’ at this unfortunate scenario. Of course, it transpired that he thought LOL stood for ‘Lots of Love’.

Although this example is a simple and funny example of potential barriers to communication, it is symbolic of the challenge some learners face. Symbols, icons, emojis, labels, vocabulary, acronyms, abbreviations, and more are often taken for granted, But they may act as a barrier to learning for some. For reasons including word knowledge, world experience, background, language, context and learning ability, some learners may find such terms or symbols a barrier to accessing meaning.

Small, easy-to-implement strategies have the power to diminish potential barriers for these learners. A range of experimental studies, scholarly articles and studies support the strategies below.

Practical Strategies

CAST recommends the following strategies to minimise potential barriers for some learners;

    • Pre-teach vocabulary and symbols, especially in ways that promote connection to the learners’ experience and prior knowledge
    • Provide graphic symbols with alternative text descriptions
    • Highlight how complex terms, expressions, or equations are composed of simpler words or symbols
    • Embed support for vocabulary and symbols within the text (e.g., hyperlinks or footnotes to definitions, explanations, illustrations, previous coverage, translations)
    • Embed support for unfamiliar references within the text (e.g., domain-specific notation, lesser-known properties and theorems, idioms, academic language, figurative language, mathematical language, jargon, archaic language, colloquialism, and dialect)

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide a single, global guide to web accessibility that meets the needs of individuals. Recommendations cover a wide scope and greater detail than those above. Although designed to support creators to make web content more accessible for people with disability, the features are useful options for all learners. Refer to WCAG Guideline 3.1 for information regarding the goal of making text content readable and understandable.

Find more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning in the Universal Design for Learning section of this website.