T. R. Girill
Linked from the table below are high-school-level, classroom-tested,
skill-building exercises that teach how to write good descriptions
(and, in a separate, parallel set, good instructions)
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
|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)
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.
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
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org).
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,
||Science Applied Here
||Instructional Design Features
||Connections to Real Life
|Guidelines for good descriptions
(rules of thumb for all description cases)
Between-subjects studies show significantly more text revisions
and more consistent revisions with overt guidelines.
These guidelines make text usability
explicit for students.
- basic audience analysis,
- writing for a purpose,
- self-editing of description drafts.
|CDC's "sudden unexplained infant death" reporting form nicely
illustrates applying all of these guidelines (both positively
|Why write descriptions
(fist on the card)
|Audience analysis gains an overt, widely applicable technique
by introducing contrast classes as an empirical way to
discover what details are relevant for each useful description.
||Surveys the make/install/discover/understand spectrum of description
Practices contrast class analysis in a simple, concrete way.
|Connects good technical description with two practical situations:
- crime scene investigation,
- decoding complex utility bills (especially for ESL readers).
Role recognition of description parts
|Applies contrast class analysis to the features of a technically
interesting but familiar object (paper clip).
||Role recognition and signal hunting
- reveal descriptive features at work,
- promote writer responsibility for installing those features,
- build the general skill of learning well from examples.
|Exposes the underlying science (and hence the descriptive
challenges) of common devices.
| Ex. 2
|Role recognition of description parts
Uses this technical artist's specific design moves to introduce
benefits of drawn illustrations for descriptions.
|Same as Ex. 1.
||Compares drawings with photographs as supplements to scientific
and engineering (including home-improvement) descriptions.
Rebuilding a description from large parts
|M. Hoey and E. O. Winter (linguists):
Reconstructing technical text from jumbled parts practices the
same planning, design, and evaluation skills needed when drafting
descriptions from scratch.
|Builds and publicly reinforces (helps you easily coach) description-relevant
skills even when students could not write the text chunks from
which they reconstruct this case.
Comparing alternative (rewritten) versions of one paragraph
introduces students to making text usability tradeoffs.
|Building a useful, coherent (long) description from information
fragments is a common real-life editorial project.
| Ex. 4
|Rebuilding a description from small parts
|Same as Ex. 3.
||Same as Ex. 3.
||Like Ex. 1, this case exposes the underlying science (here
about adhesives) of a common device.
| Ex. 5
|Rebuilding a (long) description from small parts
|Same as Ex. 3.
||Same as Ex. 3 (only much longer, suitable as a student-group
||Scales up the skills from Ex. 1-4 to handle the "everyday
physics" of fluorescent lamps and the engineering of their safe
Revising wisely a (long) draft description
Ethnographic studies reveal the value of text revision even
in lab notes.
Effective technical illustrations apply good human-factors engineering.
|Searching for text usability features (lists, proleptics,
comparisons) reinforces the student writer's responsibility
to provide such features.
Adding and comparing good/bad headings and figures connects
description guidelines to usability tradeoffs.
|The diversity of (organizing and self-editing) skills practiced
here mirrors the skills needed on many science-related jobs.
You can also display or print all of these description-writing
exercises together in one large file:
Extensions and Applications
The "extended cases" previously listed here are now explained
and compared in their own introductory handbook section.