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Instruction - Writing


T. R. Girill
STC Fellow


Linked from the table below are high-school-level, classroom-tested, skill-building exercises that teach how to write good instructions (and, in a separate, parallel set, good descriptions) through a coordinated sequence of worked and scaffolded examples and student activities. Also included are the overt instruction- and description-writing guidelines on which these exercises depend. This chart shows the general lesson geography:

Technical Writing Activities for High School
Instructions Descriptions
Overt guidelines Overt guidelines
Detect weaknesses facing users Draft and revise (scaffolded) Rebuild a description from its parts
In text (kitchen recipes) In graphics (artist tips) On a larger scale (home repair) Draft instructions from trial run Draft illustrated instructions Role recognition (household objects) Rebuilding (large parts, shorter text) Rebuilding (small parts, longer text) Revising wisely (heads, figures)

Shared Features

These exercises respond to the unmet need that I found for a realistic, work-relevant way to learn technical writing by students who are not facile writers already. The examples introduce specific, practical techniques for constructing good instructions and descriptions. They tap familiar, gender-neutral topics that nevertheless are rich in applied science and involve solving genuine, real-world writing problems. They are ordered, paced, and scaffolded to gradually build basic writing skills while promoting general cognitive maturity at the same time.

The summary table below links to two versions of each exercise:

  • A plain version suitable for classroom use as is (sometimes accompanied by a separate plain student outline), and
  • An annotated (teacher) version that:
    • spells out the goal of each exercise and the writing issues that it addresses,
    • compares the exercise with others in this set,
    • provides explanatory science background and topical references,
    • suggests effective, relevant teaching strategies, as well as extended student activities, and
    • notes the specific California English-Language Arts content standards(s) that the exercise most strongly supports.

Topical Indexes

Besides finding these exercises sequentially or by name in the table below, you can also use any of three indexes to look up specific exercises by the thematic task(s) or by the California content standard(s) to which they are most relevant.


In June, 2005, the Board of Directors of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) recognized the value of this material with an International Pacesetter Award "for delivering excellent education." In 2007 sharing these resources was further recognized as one of STC's top 1% of community service projects with a Distinguished Service Award.

Resource Development

I began developing these exercises and activities during 2000-2002 while presenting technical writing workshops to grade 10 and 11 students at the Media Academy, then an academic program and now its own small school, located within Oakland's Fremont High School (California). The teacher annotations on each set of writing guidelines and on each specific exercise give more design and presentation details on the the approach that I pursued. Over subsequent years, I have included many refinements. I have usually used these exercises weekly in the order in which they appear in the chart below. But you will find it easy

  • to subdivide or combine lessons to suit the time constraints of your current bell schedule, and
  • to speed or slow the presentation rate (daily, weekly, opportunistically) to suit the needs of students with different backgrounds and abilities.

Permission Policy

The East Bay STC chapter's Technical Literacy Project shares these cases because intellectually sound, grade-appropriate materials for teaching technical writing in high school are scarce. Finding or developing your own exercises may take more time than you have, so we invite you to borrow or adapt some or all of the material here for your classes. Refining and extending them is always ongoing, of course. Your comments and suggestions are welcome (to

Permission to download and reproduce these exercises for nonprofit educational use is granted without fee. All other copying or reproduction, especially for commercial use or resale in any manner, form, or medium, requires explicit, prior, written permission from:

T. R. Girill
Chair, Technical Literacy Project
East Bay Chapter, Society for Technical Communication

Comparison of Shared Exercises

For an overview of the features, quality, history, and reuse policy for these exercises, see the introduction to this section above. For elaboration on the specific traits of any exercise listed in any row below, follow the link from the "annotated" entry in the first column. To print this table as a separate file, click here.

Exercise Role (Topic) Science Applied Here Instructional Design Features Connections to Real Life
Ex. 0
Guidelines for good instructions
(rules of thumb for all instruction cases)
Patricia Wright:
Between-subjects studies show significantly more text revisions and more consistent revisions with overt guidelines.
These guidelines make text usability explicit for students.
Introduces basic audience analysis and self-editing of instruction drafts. Regina Bailey:
Extracting DNA from human cheek cells nicely illustrates applying these guidelines (both positively and negatively).

Ex. 1
Fully Worked Cases
Good instructions
(cooking new potatoes)
Introduces kitchen recipes as a surrogate for laboratory or software instructions. Introduces the same text usability issues as instructions in industry but without any special vocabulary.
Ex. 2
Poor instructions
(chili mac)
Kalpana Shankar:
Ethnographic studies reveal the value of text revision even in biology lab notes.
Builds text revision skills by externalizing how to detect and correct flawed instructions. Teaches editorial skills routinely used by working scientists and engineers.
Ex. 3
Safety warnings
(microwave boiling water)
Introduces the role and value of warnings within instructions. Shows risk management as a benefit of well-designed instructions.
Microwave kettle is example.

Ex. 4
Scaffolded Cases
Two-stage editing
(cranberry sauce)
Uses comparative word count as a simple usability metric. Introduces iterative (multi-stage) text revision with feedback on each stage. Shows the practical problems of omitted unit conversion.
Ex. 5
Two-stage editing
Uses comparative word count as a simple usability metric (again). Introduces "cherry picking" of easy problems to disclose further, latent ones. Same as Ex. 2.
Ex. 6
Discovering latent problems
(stuffed squash)
Again practices iterative refinement (Ex. 4) by cherry picking easy problems first (Ex. 5). Same as Ex. 2.
Ex. 7
Discovering latent problems
(butterscotch brownies)
Same as Ex. 6.
For a similar, more abstract case, see Ex. 12.
Same as Ex. 2.

Ex. 8
Integrating Graphics with Text
Worked case, good art
(rubber cement)
Edward Tufte:
Effective technical illustrations apply good human-factors engineering.
Applies basic usability principles to technical art. A simple case that introduces the design issues posed by most real illustrated instructions.
Ex. 9
Worked case, poor art
(irregular joint)
Same as Ex. 8. Introduces the need to edit art along with technical text. Shows the practical problems of useless, irrelevant, or omitted technical illustrations.
Ex. 10
Scaffolded unworked case
(oval template)
Same as Ex. 8. Combines the need for risk warnings (Ex. 3) with the need for illustration editing (Ex. 9). Real-life instructions often have text, art, and risk/warning problems all at once.

Ex. 11
Longer, More Complex Cases
Hidden problems
Like Ex. 6 but offers longer, more complex practice. Long cases (11, 12, 13) show that the guidelines are robust, not limited to short, for-school cases only.
Ex. 12
Hidden problems
(computer files)
Like Ex. 7 but longer and more abstract. Long cases (11, 12, 13) show that the guidelines are robust, not limited to short, for-school cases only.
Ex. 13
Hidden problems
(carpet wax)
Again applies comparative word count (see Ex. 4 and 5). This case removes all of the scaffolds inserted to focus student attention in earlier cases. Long cases (11, 12, 13) show that the guidelines are robust, not limited to short, for-school cases only.
Ex. 15
Taking notes to help plan, revise
(Internet fact checking)
Michael Hoey:
Action-item matrix for taking notes on a process applies text-linguistics research to drafting instructions.
Links structured notes to both revision and drafting, so bridges from earlier cases to Ex. 14.
Introduces an authoritative web reference portal (
Structured online fact checking supports both home medical and university research.

Ex. 14
Instruction Drafting
Students draft text
(draw a spiral)
Invites applying Ex. 15 text-linguistics techniques to this less structured case. Uses simple figures to prompt student drafting and revision.
Makes a good collaborative activity for small groups.
Iteratively drafting and revising instructions based on trial runs is typical documentation practice.

You can also display or print all of these instruction-writing exercises together in one large file:

Send website comments or report errors to the Webweaver, Joseph Humbert.

Last updated: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 6:21 AM

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