Technical Writing in Science Class: The Handbook

T. R. Girill
Technical Literacy Project
September, 2018 (ver. 9)


“Every science and engineering lesson is
in part a language lesson…”
U.S. National Academy of Sciences,
Framework for K-12 Science Education, August, 2011, p. 3-20,


Effective communication is a key part of success in scientific research, and it is vital for successful science applications in engineering, medicine, and forensics. That is why the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in their K-12 Framework insists that “every science and engineering lesson is in part a language lesson” (see reference above). It is also why the Common Core State Standards, now implemented in 46 of 50 U.S. states, bring very specific technical reading and writing expectations into K-12 classrooms (science as well as ELA) across the whole curriculum.

This online handbook responds to these demands that science students develop effective communication skills. It offers a focused approach, along with classroom-tested, award-winning, authentic activities for teaching nonfiction (technical) writing well.


This handbook summarizes the background and tools that you need to effectively teach technical writing to high-school science students. It features:

    • Context.
      A brief but solid explanatory framework (usability concepts, cognitive apprenticeship techniques) to give you a research-based strategic approach to technical communication.
    • Authenticity.
      Writing activities adapted and scaffolded for high-school students but derived from real-world science-communication situations and cases. Bringing authentic technical writing problems and solutions into the classroom, where they are both revealing and motivating, is a prime goal here.
    • Practical Focus.
      Skill-building moves and tools, most derived from engineering design, which help even seriously underperforming student writers gradually develop competence and confidence, applicable immediately in school (e.g., to notes) and just as valuable later for employees and citizens.
    • Standards Integration.
      An excellent fit with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and with Project Lead The Way (PLTW) engineering texts as well as with the technical reading and writing requirements of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for K-12 nonfiction communication.
    • Quality.
      Material with a proven track record in high-school classes from special-education through AP levels, as well as in science-teacher professional development workshops at a national laboratory (see Project History below for details.

Part 1 below explains the many ways in which technical writing is relevant to high-school science classes. It clarifies key literacy terms and distinctions, summarizes the empirical research applied here, and introduces the engineering approach to teaching writing. Part 2 helps students build their personal nonfiction writing skills (focused on crafting instructions and descriptions, from which everything bigger is constructed) by applying checklists, just the performance aids that working professionals use to make their own practice more reliable in medicine, flight and lab operations, forensics, and construction. Part 3 extends and overtly applies our basic techniques and insights to the important communication tasks that science students already undertake in most classes (abstracts, notes, talks, posters). This completes the circle of authenticity, since these classroom writing efforts are also just the ones that scientists and engineers produce in professional life.

Brief Project History

The content for this handbook grew out of a community service project. The underlying teaching techniques and student activities discussed here have emerged from a literacy outreach effort in several San Francisco bay area high schools that has been jointly sponsored since 1999 by the East Bay Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and by the Computation Directorate of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

This on-going Technical Literacy Project sought to improve the basic (nonfiction) writing skills of underperforming high-school students by adapting real-world science instructions and descriptions into skill-building classroom activities. Later, to expand the project’s reach, we added teacher-training workshops hosted by the Edward Teller Education Center (ETEC, part of the University of California Davis School of Education). In 2007, a one-time grant to LLNL from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science afforded the chance to organize both the student learning materials and the teacher support effort into a professional development “academy” (under the former Academies Creating Teacher Scientists program). Annual revisions and extensions followed, yielding LLNL’s current “Technical Writing for Science Class” two-day teacher workshop each summer. This effort has now twice received a Pacesetter Award for program quality from the international Society for Technical Communication.

Part 1: Technical Writing Meets K-12

Technical Writing Explained

This chapter introduces writing’s place in science, and hence in science classes. A comparative tour of the “universe of text” shows you and your students just how technical writing overlaps with yet differs importantly from other written communication familiar in school and in life. This overview thus provides a good mental model of technical writing’s benefits as well as its learnability.

School Standards That Support Technical Writing

This chapter spells out the official support for building technical literacy now found (1) in high-level education-policy initiatives (such as the Natural Science Education Standards), (2) in mid-level benchmarks for policy implementation (such as those of the American Association for the Advancement of Science), and (3) in the Next Generation Science Standards for specific grade levels from elementary through high school, as well as the literacy-oriented Common Core State Standards.

Usability: How Technical Writing Succeeds

This chapter explains why readers judge technical text just as they rate tools, appliances, or computer software, by its effectiveness, efficiency, and “user” satisfaction. A brief history of such text usability connects it both to its engineering roots and to its skill-building value for struggling student writers. Also introduced here are the three empirical features that make science text usable: ease of understanding, ease of access, and reader relevance.

The Cognitive Apprenticeship Teaching Strategy

By “revealing the magic” needed to design effective (usable) science prose (through such proven teaching techniques as externalization, scaffolding, iterative refinement, and connecting to life beyond school), cognitive apprenticeship builds writing skills in science class in the same reliable way that traditional apprenticeship builds trade skills. This chapter also summarizes several classroom successes that used this approach and links it to several nationwide school-improvement efforts.

How Technical Communication Helps ESL Science Students

English learners often have academic language problems that undermine their performance in science classes. This chapter reveals how overt technical writing practice addresses their special needs and helps ESL students develop their cognitive maturity, their ability to use appropriate text signals and science idioms, and the quality of their note taking.

Part 2: Technical Writing Guidelines for Students

These two chapters contain student-oriented overt guidelines (checklists) that make explicit for young learners the questions they need to ask or the actions they need to take to craft effective instructions and descriptions.

Instructions (like kitchen recipes, for procedures) and descriptions (of things, events, processes or observations) form the basis of virtually all nonfiction writing in science and engineering. Students will find many ways to apply their instruction- and description-writing skills, both in school and in life after school (professionally, and as a parent or citizen). In fact, these writing checklists mirror those that working professionals use on their jobs to improve performance reliability and consistency (see the description chapter for more details).

Part 3: Extensions and Applications

More Applications

The basic text-design principles itemized in this project’s description-writing guidelines also apply to several common school communication activities with real-life analogs:

  • Taking notes effectively,
  • Giving technical talks,
  • Designing effective abstracts,
  • Preparing science posters.

The checklists aim to gradually develop basic technical writing skills, foundational skills that all high-school students should have. The applications listed above assume those basic skills and then add others (some visual, some verbal). These situations also add more demanding constraints that call for applying one’s skills with greater complexity and sophistication. And science class is often where students encounter these greater communication demands.

For example, underperforming science students are often limited by their poor note-taking or weak technical presentation skills. Such literacy limits then thwart adequate work in class science projects (or adequate communication with peers and teachers about science topics or problems). Integrating usability-based note-taking or talk-giving lessons into science class can thus directly build prerequisite science-enabling skills that make more technical work possible. ESL science students find these communication challenges even greater and hence they stand to gain even more from overt attention to these needs.

Extended Cases

This handbook’s Extensions and Applications chapter introduces the role of these extended cases in the science classroom and as preparation for life beyond school. It explains the importance of engineering constraints to teaching and learning these cases.

The extensions and applications in this section best play a different pedagogical role than basic skill building, namely, motivation. Some students can’t imagine why they should bother with the basic instruction and description cases. Project abstracts, technical talks, or science posters, however, give those students a reason within the context of better school performance. The “extensions” here all reveal several ways to reapply basic technical-writing skills, with just minor refinements, to get an immediate return on their time investment. Those “little” underlying writing skills really do enable success on numerous complex school communication projects.

Integrating the “extended cases” treated in this section with the guideline-anchored, skill-building activities elsewhere in this handbook shows frustrated students how they can “grow their literacy intelligence.” Seeing talks, posters, abstracts, etc., as extensions and applications of basic techniques that they have already tried on a smaller scale can encourage their persistence here. And the scaffolding suggestions offered in this section help “reveal the magic” in play in these more complex challenges. In these ways an integrated approach seeds student confidence that improvement is possible and discloses a gentle, iterative path to better personal performance.

Available application cases and support resources include:




Giving technical talks

talktips analysis

Taking notes effectively

notetips analysis

(FS/CSI illustrated version)


Drafting effective abstracts

template analysis

Designing useful posters



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