The techniques and principles of effective nonfiction communication
that we routinely apply at work, to help scientists share research
or to explain technology to its users, also have an important outreach
role for middle and high schools. Language arts lessons and exercises
based on empirically grounded technical communication techniques
offer an innovative, world-relevant way to help struggling students
read and write better.
The East Bay STC chapter launched its Technical Literacy Project
in 1998 under the leadership of senior member Lenore Weiss.
STC had long encouraged local and regional writing contests to promote
technical writing among precollege students. Lenore and other chapter
members with teaching and community-service backgrounds soon realized,
however, that contests only encourage writers who are already good,
but they do nothing to teach basic text design and revision skills
to students who lack them. Thus began a series of adventures with
teachers, media specialists, and curriculum planners in several
East Bay schools to bring specific technical writing techniques
into the classroom in teachable, learnable ways. The project has
evolved opportunistically. Visits to local classes led incrementally
to multi-year collaborations with a science teacher at Montera Middle
School and an English teacher at Fremont High School (both in urban Oakland, CA). Since then, EBSTC
members have worked in classrooms in several
California school districts directly helping hundreds of students
build their literacy skills through technical writing. In recognition
of its continuing quality, this project received a Pacesetter Award
from the STC Board of Directors in June, 2005.
How to Volunteer.
Interested EBSTC members are always encouraged to join in this continuing
literacy outreach effort. The possibilities for participation are
diverse and change with time. Contact the current project coordinator,
T. R. Girill (firstname.lastname@example.org)
to explore how to mesh your strengths with project needs in satisfying
How to Borrow.
Exercises developed for and used by the EBSTC literacy project are
freely available for nonprofit educational reuse from this web site.
See the "Resources Available" column at the right for a summary
of material that you can borrow, with interactive links (or contact
T. R. Girill, email@example.com,
about getting paper copies). Writers, teachers, and students from
anywhere are encouraged to read, try, and adapt the resources on
Project Founder Lenore Weiss
Why would you want to teach your
English or science students how to write good instructions or descriptions?
Here are three important reasons:
Current California Language Arts content
standards clearly expect students to develop basic reading
and writing facility with nonfiction prose during middle
school, to be able to draft useful instructions and descriptions
by high school, and to cultivate solid, complex technical writing
skills during their high-school years. Likewise, casual review of
language-arts questions on the California High-School Exit Exam
(CAHSEE) shows that at least
three quarters involve carefully analyzing, thoughtfully reparing,
or even drafting nonfiction descriptions or technical instructions.
In the 21st century, effectively reading and writing technical (nonliterary)
text is not just a prerequisite for success in college, but for
survivial in many diverse real-world jobs. Besides careers (engineer
or editor, for example) in which writing nonfiction for others is
crucial, many technician, trade, and service jobs now demand surprisingly
high literacy levels to work adequately, to interact safely with
colleagues, to stay up to date, or to obtain needed certification.
Even fast food restaurants often have detailed operations manuals
as large as phone books, which employees are expected to master
on their own.
(3) Cognitive Maturity.
Perhaps the best reason for technical communication in the school
classroom is that it helps students become better citizens, not
just better employees. Overtly studying and practicing technical
writing reveals the linguistic and rhetorical machinery by which
language works, reinforces basic analytic skills, and vividly shows
how responsible writers can help their readers solve problems. Exposure
to the psychological and engineering principles of text usability
is a new and positive experience for most students, especially for
those writing far below grade level or for whom English is a second
Linked to this page is a cluster
of resources to help working school teachers (and interested technical
communicators) improve student literacy:
- Classroom tested middle-school exercises
(for grades 7 or 8).
- Classroom tested high-school exercises, separately covering
technical instructions and technical
descriptions (each with plain and thoroughly annotated versions
to help you adapt the material for your own students).
- An online
handbook for teacher professional development
(self-education) about technical writing in science class.
Handbook sections explain the link between good technical
writing and text usability, introduce the cognitive
apprenticeship teaching strategy that our exercises promote,
and connect technical writing lessons with content
standards, support for ESL learners, and even the
glamor of CSI.
- Three additional topical indexes
help you find specific exercises by looking under the task or
content standard that you want to address.
- Background papers on literacy
outreach, which explain the social, psychological, and linguistic
underpinnings of our exercises as well as the specific problems
that our project tries to address.
- An invitation to apply for minigrants.
Each "grant" is a formal agreement by which EBSTC provides pro
bono professional services (not money) to help teachers or
schools plan, prepare, or present technical writing instruction.
Personal coaching and in-class participation have worked best
in the past, but we offer many collaborative choices for teachers
with diverse interests, needs, or styles. If you have questions,
T. R. Girill
East Bay STC
Literacy Outreach Coordinator