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What is an Acrostic?

    what is an acrostic

    When you think of an acrostic, do you think of a simple poem, where each line starts with a different letter of your name? (Because same.) However, there’s a lot more to this creative form than meets the eye. Get ready to take a deep dive and learn all you need to know about acrostics.

    Acrostic Definition

    An acrostic is a form of creative expression in which the first letter of each line, word, or paragraph spells out a word, phrase, or message relevant to the overall piece. Most commonly seen in poetry, acrostics are easily identified by their unique structure. This clever use of structure adds an additional layer of meaning (and sometimes surprising complexity) to the poem, engaging both the writer and the reader in a playful exploration of language.

    Most acrostics use the traditional structure of having the first letter of each line to spell out a specific word or phrase. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t play around where the “revealing” letters are placed. In some cases, authors place the letters at the end of the line or even somewhere in the middle! This diversity allows writers to get creative and add a fun layer of complexity and depth to their work.

    That said, regardless of where the letters are placed, they must be capitalized so the reader can “decode” the message.

    Acrostic Pronunciation

    Acrostic is a three-syllable word, with the most emphasis on the second syllable.

    The correct pronunciation of “acrostic” is as follows: uh-KROS-tik

    Different Types of Acrostic Poems

    Acrostic poems come in various forms, each offering a distinct approach to crafting poetry.

    Let’s start with the classic acrostic. In this traditional form, the initial letters of each line spell out a word or phrase. When people refer to an acrostic, this is likely the form they are talking about.

    Soft whispers of warmth in the air,

    Preparing the world for a beautiful bloom.

    Rain comes and goes,

    Inviting Earth to awaken again.

    New beginnings, fresh and bright,

    Giving life in the wake of winter’s end.

    More complex acrostic forms, such as those with different locations of the letters that spell out the word or phrase, have specific names.

    • Telestich Acrostic: A telestich acrostic could be considered the inverted form of the standard acrostic. Rather than the first letter of each line spelling out a word or phrase,  this type of acrostic relies on the last letter of each line to reveal the message.
    • Double Acrostic: This form of acrostic combines elements of both the classic and telestich forms. In a double acrostic, the initial letters of each line spell out a word or phrase AND the final letters also form a related word or message. Essentially, one word can be read vertically down the left side of the poem while another word can be read vertically down the right side of the poem. Talk about double the fun (but also double the work)!
    • Abecedarian Acrostic: Rather than trying to spell a specific word with the initial letter of each line or stanza, an abecedarian acrostic follows the order of the alphabet. The first line must start with an “A,” and each line after that starts with the successive letter. You know what that means—26 lines of poetry coming your way!
    • Mesostich Acrostic: A mesostich acrostic is a type of acrostic poem in which a word or phrase is spelled out by letters appearing in the middle of each line rather than at the beginning or end. This form of acrostic poetry adds an additional layer of complexity and creativity to the structure of the poem. Don’t worry, the message-revealing letters are still capitalized, so you’re not tasked to find a needle in a haystack.

    What it’s NOT: Acrostic vs. Acronym

    At first glance, these two terms may look quite similar. However, they mean two completely different things. While they both involve highlighting specific letters to make a new word, that’s about all they have in common. Let’s take a closer look at their differing uses, purposes, and structure. 

    An acrostic is a form of poetry or prose where the initial (or sometimes final or middle) letters of each line, paragraph, or stanza spell out a word, phrase, or message. This literary form is primarily used for artistic or creative expression, allowing writers to convey hidden meanings or messages within their work.

    An acronym, on the other hand, represents a phrase or thing—the word itself, the acronym, doesn’t have to be a real word at all (though clever acronyms can come together to make real words). It’s a word formed from the initial letters of a phrase or series of words, with the letters pronounced together as a single word. Acronyms are typically used for brevity and convenience, especially in technical or specialized fields, to simplify complex terms or concepts. Take “NASA,” for example. While “NASA” itself isn’t a real word, it stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration and is often used in place of the administration’s (longer) official name.

    Other widely recognized acronyms include WHO (World Health Organization), USA (United States of America), FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions), POTUS (President of the United States), and FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation).

    How to Write an Acrostic Poem

    Crafting an acrostic poem can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. The level of complexity also depends on which style of acrostic you are trying to write. While classic acrostics are undoubtedly the easiest to master, the other structures offer a fun and creative challenge! (Just be sure to draft it in pencil or on a computer; you’ll likely need a lot of “do-overs” until you find the perfect flow!)

    No matter which type of acrostic you are trying to write, it’s going to entail some creativity, attention to detail, and a willingness to experiment with language.

    Follow the step-by-step approach below to craft your very own acrostic poem (or teach others how to).

    1. Decide what to write about: While your overall topic or theme doesn’t have to become the “hidden” word in your poem, it does help you have a sense of direction as you get started.
    2. Brainstorm associated words: Reflect on the chosen topic or theme and brainstorm words or phrases that relate to it. These will provide a bank of ideas for your poem.
    3. Choose an anchor word or phrase: Select a central word or phrase that will serve as the hidden message of your poem. This word or phrase should directly connect to your overall topic or meaning.
    4. Write your word or phrase vertically: This will help you establish the structure of the poem, requiring you to start or end each line with one of those letters. If you’re feeling fancy and want to tackle a mesostich acrostic, write the word in the middle of the page, leaving room on both sides for other words.
    5. Return to your word bank: Pull from your word bank for inspiration. As you start to place words in your poem, be sure to organize your thoughts into a coherent structure. Whether you opt for literal or figurative language, each line should contribute to the overall message of the acrostic.
    6. Fill in the gaps: Continue writing your poem by filling in the gaps with other words or phrases to fill out each line. While you certainly don’t have to incorporate a rhyme scheme, it certainly adds an additional challenge.
    7. Revise and refine your work: Review your poem and make any necessary adjustments to improve clarity, coherence, and poetic effect. Once you get to this step, you may find that you have to go back and repeat an earlier step—and that’s okay.

    The key to writing any acrostic is to continue playing around with the language until you get a poem that you’re proud of!

    Tips for Teaching Acrostics

    Not sure where to begin with teaching acrostics? Here are some tips to make the learning process more engaging and effective:

    • Start with simple examples: Introduce students to the concept of acrostic poetry using simple examples that demonstrate the basic structure and technique. As students showcase understanding, introduce more complex forms of this creative expression.
    • Provide prompts and inspiration: If you want students to explore acrostic poems, it might be helpful to give them a starting point. Offer students a variety of prompts and thematic inspirations to spark their creativity and encourage experimentation.
    • Emphasize creativity and self-expression: Encourage students to express themselves freely through their poetry, embracing individuality and originality in their work. Remember, this form of poetry might look simple, but it can be a challenge.
    • Incorporate visuals: Bring students’ acrostic creations to life by having them illustrate their poems with drawings, symbols, or collages. By combining these two elements, you can underscore the connection between poetic language and visual arts.
    • Explore cross-curricular connections: Bridge the gap between subjects by having students create acrostic poems related to other content areas, such as current events or historical people,  places, or events. Encouraging students to make connections is a creative way to promote learning across disciplines.

    Fun ways to implement acrostics in your curriculum

    If you’re looking for fun and creative ways to incorporate acrostic poems into your curriculum, give these ideas a try:

    • Acrostic icebreaker: If you’re tired of kicking off the year with the same old icebreakers, consider having each student share a bit about themselves using an acrostic poem. When read vertically, the first letter of each line will spell their name, and each line will reveal something about themselves that they are comfortable sharing with the class.
    • Acrostic literary analysis: Have students analyze literary texts by creating acrostic poems based on characters, themes, or key concepts from the literature. This activity encourages critical thinking and deeper engagement with the text while allowing students to express their interpretations creatively.

                For more creative writing literary analysis ideas, read this post.

    • Collaborative poem: Encourage collaboration by having students work in small groups (or as a class) to craft acrostic poems about a particular topic. Students can work together to brainstorm ideas, arrange words, and craft their poems.

    Examples of Acrostic in Literature

    1. “A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky” by Lewis Carroll

    When put together, the first letter of each line of this poem spells out “Alice Pleasance Liddell,” as a nod to Carroll’s (supposed) real-life must for his “Alice in Wonderland” protagonist. This would make sense as the whimsical and nostalgic (and slightly melancholic, as some would say) poem appears at the end of Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.

    A boat beneath a sunny sky,

    Lingering onward dreamily

    In an evening of July —

    Children three that nestle near,

    Eager eye and willing ear,

    Pleased a simple tale to hear —

    Long has paled that sunny sky:

    Echoes fade and memories die:

    Autumn frosts have slain July.

    Still she haunts me, phantomwise,

    Alice moving under skies

    Never seen by waking eyes.

    Children yet, the tale to hear,

    Eager eye and willing ear,

    Lovingly shall nestle near.

    In a Wonderland they lie,

    Dreaming as the days go by,

    Dreaming as the summers die:

    Ever drifting down the stream —

    Lingering in the golden gleam —

    Life, what is it but a dream?

    2. “Georgiana Augusta Keats” by John Keats

    This classic acrostic form by John Keats spells out the name of the poet’s sister-in-law, Georgiana Augusta Keats, whom to poem is about. With each line, the poem expresses the author’s great love, gratitude, and appreciation for her.

    Give me your patience, sister, while I frame

    Exact in capitals your golden name;

    Or sue the fair Apollo and he will

    Rouse from his heavy slumber and instill

    Great love in me for thee and Poesy.

    Imagine not that greatest mastery

    And kingdom over all the Realms of verse,

    Nears more to heaven in aught, than when we nurse

    And surety give to love and Brotherhood.

    Anthropophagi in Othello’s mood;

    Ulysses storm’d and his enchanted belt

    Glow with the Muse, but they are never felt

    Unbosom’d so and so eternal made,

    Such tender incense in their laurel shade

    To all the regent sisters of the Nine

    As this poor offering to you, sister mine.

    Kind sister! aye, this third name says you are;

    Enchanted has it been the Lord knows where;

    And may it taste to you like good old wine,

    Take you to real happiness and give

    Sons, daughters and a home like honied hive.

    3. “Stroud” by Paul Hansford

    Paul Hansford showcases his skills in this double acrostic poem. When read vertically, both the first and last letters of each line come together to spell “Stroud,”  the English town of the same name that the speaker seemingly describes.

    Set among hills in the midst of  five valleys,

    This peaceful little market town we inhabit

    Refuses (vociferously!) to be a conformer.

    Once home of the cloth it gave its name to,

    Uphill and down again its streets lead you.

    Despite its faults it leaves us all charmed.

    Additional Resources for Teaching Acrostics

    Introduce poetry with this ultimate poetry resource made for teachers.

    Incorporate acrostic poetry into this complete 4-week poetry unit for Middle Schoolers (and this poetry unit plan for high schoolers)

    Listen to this soothing reading of Lewis Carroll’s famous  “A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky.”

    This video combines learning about the power of spoken word poetry with how to write acrostic poems!

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