Our Service Goals
In 1998, the East Bay Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication launched a community-service project to introduce northern California K-12 students to basic technical writing techniques.
The project developed opportunistically, from local classroom visits to sharing teacher resources online worldwide and professional development
hosted by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at the Edward Teller Education Center.
This page explains the project's approach to literacy support and links to its free shared resources.
Why Build Nonfiction Literacy Skills in K-12 Classrooms?
Effective nonfiction literacy skills are important for all K-12 students for two reasons:
Being able to read and write nonfiction text is now crucial for adequacy as a parent and citizen as well as for success in college and almost any career
(as reflected, for example, in many
Project Lead The Way units).
- Scientists and engineers of all types often spend about
of their professional time reading or writing technical prose, so literacy skills amplify their other quantitative and analytical strengths
(National Research Council, Framework for K-12 Science Education, 2011).
- Many technician, trade, or service jobs demand surprisingly high literacy levels to work well, to understand or give instructions, and to interact safely with colleagues (including such diverse areas food technician, medical translator, and crime-scene investigator).
- Revealing the psychological, linguistic, and engineering principles at work in effective technical writing, while new to many students, supports their general reasoning skills, promotes social responsibility (about good communication), and strengthens the performance of those for whom English is a
- Hence, adapting real-world writing activities (such as crafting the hazard descriptions and protective instructions on Safety Data Sheets) for classroom use provides a practical, relevant path for improving student nonfiction writing, an approach that this project extensively exploits.
- The Common Core State Standards
for literacy clearly expect all students to develop basic reading and
writing skill with nonfiction text during elementary and middle school,
to be able to draft useful instructions and meaningful descriptions
by high school, and to apply solid technical writing techniques to
diverse academic projects throughout their high-school (and college)
- Likewise, the Next Generation Science Standards
based on National Research Council guidance, identify eight crucial
science and engineering practices relevant to all technical disciplines.
Three of these practices explicitly involve student literacy:
- constructing explanations,
- arguing from evidence, and
- sharing information.
- The convergence of CCSS and NGSS on the key value of nonfiction
literacy is noted and explored for 124 pages in a 2014 report from
the U.S. National Academy of Sciences called
Literacy for Science:
...literacy and science need not compete for priority.
Rather...natural synergies exist that benefit both disciplines
at the same time to the advantage of both students and teachers. [p. 4]
This project displays and cultivates these science/literacy
synergies to give teachers an informed, coordinated sense of direction
as they coach technical writing techniques and to help students
build their nonfiction literacy life skills.
Thematic Overview of Technical Writing
Introducing your K-12 students to the actual communication challenges faced by
scientists and engineers in the world beyond school is a valuable but
CCSS, which takes on this challenge,
is a large and complex document, sometimes confusing
in spite of, or perhaps because of, much redundancy across the
school years that it spans. In spreadsheet format I counted 114
rows of requirements, at least 60 of which strongly pertain to
"literacy [reading or writing] for history, social studies,
science, and technical subjects" (to use the official CCSS terms).
Finding reliable ways to implement these CCSS science-literacy demands
(as well as relevant, supportive professional development) would be
easier if there were a solid but simplified conceptual approach to
nonfiction literacy, something thematic yet still deeply practical.
Fortunately, several decades of empirical research on
effective nonfiction text design have made such a thematic overview
possible, and it appears below.
The Big (Usability) Picture
One of the really clever features of the CCSS approach to
nonfiction literacy, to what the rest of the world calls
"technical communication," is that it not only reflects authentic
practice but it also applies professional techniques to build
writing skills in school.
Engineers already know a lot about design--about planning and creating
effective artifacts efficiently (bridges, medical devices, software).
And human-factors psychologists already know a lot about making
designed artifacts usable (household appliances, airplane cockpits or, again, software).
Applying these same insights to the problem of communicating about
science leads straight to three themes that summarize the whole CCSS/NGSS
approach to writing instruction:
- WRITER RESPONSIBILITY--
Nonfiction writers need to actively help their readers succeed.
Writing is text engineering.
is central to nonfiction writing success.
Most students do not approach technical writing as design nor
do they see
text as its goal. So this provides a new
(and very helpful) vocabulary with which they can analyze
how they write about the world. It also gives them a fresh perspective on
writing performance (as
that few encounter in English Language
Arts class. Thus science offers not just the realm where
students can try this new approach to nonfiction literacy,
but also the research base from which the approach arises.
Six CCSS/NGSS Implementation Themes
Six themes unify and summarize virtually all of the
apparently diverse CCSS/NGSS science literacy elements.
THEME 1--Audience Analysis
You always write for someone.
THEME 2--Task Appropriateness
Choose the techniques and content most relevant to
your reader's tasks or problems.
These themes capture the most basic insights of text usability:
readers of nonfiction (especially in science, engineering, and medicine)
are text users who bring problems or tasks to their reading and
expect writers to address those needs overtly.
The next two themes summarize proven ways for writers to
respond to this responsibility.
THEME 3--Content Management
Provide examples, comparisons, or specifics to make
your instructions or descriptions effective.
THEME 4--Visual Text Features
Choose media and graphical features to enhance your words
The first two themes expose writer goals while the second two
focus on how to pursue those goals. This is where the last few
decades of empirical research by scientists across the spectrum
from psychology and linguistics to software engineering yield
reliable text-design, drafting, and revision techniques. Summaries
of these science-based writing techniques are available online
(for example, see
and in professional
guides such as Michelle Carey's Developing Quality Technical Information (3rd ed., IBM Press, 2014).
Teachers need to cultivate these skills in their students,
a pedagogical concern addressed by the last pair of CCSS/NGSS themes.
THEME 5--Externalizing Helps
Externalizing techniques helps writers;
externalizing goals helps readers.
THEME 6--Iterative Improvement
Improved writing comes through planned, repeated revision
Here again, empirical successes in real science and engineering
(such as checklists to improve surgery outcomes or
iterative design to improve prototype products) reveal
ways to help students achieve better results.
Likewise, real-life failures (such as a
show the consequences of incompetent nonfiction writing.
characterizing a text project in these terms (responding to
reader needs, designing more effective prose, making
hidden moves explicit) offers a more science-based,
more authentic approach to writing than most students have
ever tried before. The positive results appear not
only in science class (in notebooks, lab reports, project
talks, and technical posters) but in a lifetime of better
communication about technical topics as professionals and as
Resources for Teaching Technical Writing
To teach effective technical writing in science classes calls for a good
thematic sense of direction (above). But it also calls for some specific
teaching techniques hooked to relevant student projects.
Even with a big-picture
viewpoint and the six
implementation themes in mind, you still need to fit literacy practice
into your busy day. Hence, practical CCSS/NGSS text design
activities must meet
Here are five science-student writing projects that meet both of
They involve student technical writing that occurs
(or could easily occur) already, and
The writing also has obvious, important, real-world
counterparts (not like the famously contrived but seldom seen
You and your students already use (and probably draft) lots of
instructions for lab procedures and equipment. You can make this a
Common-Core skill-building activity by dissecting the strengths and
weaknesses of those instructions, externalizing their pitfalls and
their best improvements. An overt good-instruction checklist not only
makes this easy, it also shows students how technical professionals
(aircraft pilots, surgeons, construction managers) improve their
own reliability. See the good-instruction guidelines at
to get started; see Atul Gawande's
The Checklist Manifesto
for authentic context.
Descriptions of tools used, phenomena observed, and plans made
are vital in every student report or presentation. And of course
your textbook is full of model technical descriptions. Armed with
a checklist of good-description features such as
students can revise their own draft descriptions and those of others.
Not at all pedantic busy work, this is just how professional journal
articles, clinical reports, safety alerts,
and crime-scene analyses are really crafted.
As with well-designed instructions, this approach stresses
usability for readers and the iterative refinement of drafts.
Field notes, lab notes, or just personal summaries of what
they read or hear all afford an excellent opportunity for students
to practice daily the use of visual and structural features (lists,
headings, tables, diagrams) to help manage content effectively, as encouraged
throughout the Common Core standards. You can easily scaffold such
improvements (for example, see
Each kind of student note-taking has a real-life counterpart. And
the impact of notes drafted with usability in mind ranges from
general self-help (faster, easier intellectual success) to specific
technical triumphs (notebooks usable by others are crucial for
collaborative projects and to support patent applications).
Project abstracts--short, tightly organized work summaries--are
the most disciplined writing assignments that most students undertake.
Whether for your review or for official use by science-fair judges,
abstracts are a great way for students to focus on audience needs,
a key Common-Core theme. A top-down design template can externalize what
a good abstract requires:
Once they leave school, your students will find many chances to
apply their abstract-crafting skills: journals demand them,
databases circulate them around the world, and medical doctors
even prescribe treatments based on them.
Technical posters have long been an essential part of science-fair projects. Now they are an increasingly common way for student
researchers to share their efforts with classmates and even with
working professionals. As scaffolds such as those at
poster design applies familiar Common-Core communication principles
to a very unusual set of size, distance, and social-context
constraints. Yet this odd situation exactly parallels how real
scientists, engineers, and medical practitioners share their own
recent results at any technical conference.
So here are five nonfiction literacy activities already at hand within
typical science classes. All of them, properly scaffolded, can
offer your students
- practice in designing usable text,
- a way to meet the CCSS/NGSS writing standards, and, best of all,
- robust preparation for life after school.