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Taking Science Notes Effectively (Resource Overview)

Taking Science Notes Effectively

T. R. Girill
Technical Literacy Project
Sept. 2018
trgirill@acm.org

The Note Skills Problem

Many students fail to realize that the same usability techniques that improve their instructions and descriptions for others can also help improve the notes that they take for themselves. Many teachers fail to realize that the same cognitive-apprenticeship moves that help students build general technical writing skills can also strengthen their approach to taking notes. If we could offer both children and adults the chance to take science notes spontaneously (without requiring it) and see how their notes evolved over time, we could discover how important explicit coaching is to refine people’s notetaking techniques. Merce Garcia-Mila and Christopher Andersen (2007) have conducted that experiment and their results are indeed revealing.

Garcia-Mila and Andersen asked 15 grade-4 students (ages 8.5 to 10.5) and 16 adults (ages 22 to 47) to participate in basic “scientific inquiry tasks” (Garcia-Mila and Andersen, 2007, p. 1039; simple physics experiments or science-information management projects) twice a week for 10 weeks. Everyone received a notebook “in case you want to keep a record of what you find out” (p. 1040), but notes were never required. Most subjects were self-reported Hispanic/Latino, and 13 of the 16 adults (but none of the children) claimed Spanish as their first language (p. 1041). This experiment thus allowed within-subject developmental comparisons (notes were checked weekly during the 10-week project) and between-subject age (maturity) comparisons in an urban ESL population. Without getting into the inevitable scoring eccentricities of an experiment this complex, we can learn much about the relevance of cognitive apprenticeship for notetaking by looking at what these researchers found about the

  • amount (count and frequency),
  • content (kind of recorded information), and
  • scientific completeness (intellectual adequacy)

of the notes that their child and adult subjects chose to take on their science activities.

Modelling and Embedding

Because the point of this work was to observe the notes taken “in the wild,” when not dictated or illustrated by any teacher, no one here modeled “correct notetaking” or influenced the content (or amount) of child or adult notes. The experimenters did observe, however, that perceived task relevance was important for participant motivation. Real-life notetaking “needs to be exercised within [science] tasks,” not as an isolated activity (Garcia-Mila and Andersen, p. 1053). Those participants who saw their own “notetaking [as] necessary for the task’s completion” (each week) took more, and more effective, notes than those who never connected their notes to their success with subsequent science tasks (p. 1054). This finding reinforces the value of embedding writing into other (science and engineering) activities, a standard feature of cognitive apprenticeship.

Externalization

Gacria-Mila and Andersen found that differences in cognitive maturity between their adult and child subjects yielded very divergent patterns of spontaneous notetaking. Fifteen of their 16 adults used their notebooks during the 10-week study. The adults made about three times as many “note entries” (roughly, text blocks) as the children, and their rate of making notes held constant between the first and second 5-week block. On the other hand, 7 of the 15 children “never made a note” during the experiment (p. 1044), and the note entry rate for the children who took notes dropped by half from the first to the second 5-week block (p. 1046).

While the adults mostly recognized the potential value of taking notes, the children needed someone to externalize the relevance of their notebooks for them: “Notetaking was not perceived by [child] students in this study to be a valuable activity” (p. 1053). Garcia-Mila and Andersen therefore urged educators to make explicit for their students two aspects of studying (and later researching) in science of which the children were unaware without help (p. 1054):

  • “the cognitive demands of the task.”
    The children underestimated the complexity of the science activities that they were trying and misjudged the “size of the problem space” that they had to manage, a task virtually impossible without notes.
  • “the limits of their own cognition.”
    Big science projects cannot be easily memorized, yet access to early details later is often crucial for success.

Scaffolding

When these experimenters looked at the difference in content between adult and child science notes, they found more opportunities for cognitive apprenticeship. For example, “[child] students need to understand what to note” (p. 1054), a need that extra prompts or scaffolds can address in three ways:

  • Completeness cues, since many spontaneous notes were incomplete, “lacking the necessary information to replicate earlier” work.
  • Scope cues, since many notes were redundant, needlessly “repeating previously recorded information.”
  • Task-relatedness cues, since “noting extraneous information” unrelated to the project was common too.

Coaching

Another related aspect of content weakness in the spontaneous notes studied by Garcia-Mila and Andersen was imbalance: “children appeared to use their notebooks to write only conclusions rather than variables and outcomes…” (p. 1051). Learning to balance economy and completeness in technical notes usually calls for some personal coaching. A writing coach can call attention to the scope and structure of student notes as they evolve. An experienced coach can also suggest alternative features or organizational structures that inexperienced notetakers can gradually explore but would never think to try on their own.

Successive Approximation

Mastery through apprenticeship comes iteratively, not suddenly. Unsurprisingly, Garcia-Mila and Andersen found that the subjects in their study who used their earlier notes improved the quality not only of their later science (their problem solving) but also the quality of their later notes. “By making one’s internal thoughts explicit on paper, they become more available as objects of cognition” and criticism (p. 1052), but only for those who bother to review their notes to tap this source of self-feedback. Notetakers who worked iteratively discovered this path to better experimentation along with better subsequent notes: “the participants’ evaluation of the usefulness of the [earlier] notes provided feedback that fueled the development of their [own] strategic and metastrategic knowledge of notetaking” (p. 1054).

Resource Overview

Resources are available to help your students apply general good-description writing techniques to the specific challenges of taking useful science notes. They include customized guidelines (checklists), note templates or scaffolds, and motivational case from the history of science.
This chart summarizes these links:

Taking Science Notes Effectively
How cognitive apprenticeship addresses the note skills problem (this document).
Taking Notes Effectively: Techniques To Try
An itemized chart of helpful, specific notetaking techniques for students.
Helping Students Take Notes Effectively
Pedagogical background and history-of-science cases to help teachers support the checklists (left).

References

Garcia-Mila, Merce, and Andersen, Christopher. (2007).
Developmental change in notetaking during scientific inquiry. International Journal of Science Education, June, 29(8), 1035-1058. Online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09500690600931103

Taking Notes Effectively: Techniques to Try

Taking Notes Effectively

Framework Techniques
Preparation
  1. Come prepared to take notes. Bring…
    • paper or a notebook (preferably bound, 8.5-by-11-inch),
    • pen (with dark, permanent ink).
  2. Leave space for second thoughts.
  3. Attend to…
    • why you are taking notes,
    • vocabulary, new or hard words.
Organization
(order)
  1. Capture the teacher’s or author’s order if listening or reading.
  2. Note how subpoints (in text, or subactivities in lab) relate to main points:
    • parts?
    • reasons?
    • examples?
    • uses?
  3. Scout the text for clues (heads, charts, summaries) before you read for details.
Content
(specifics)
Get to the heart of the matter…keep important details but trim away trivia:

  1. Date your notes (every page).
  2. Capture key claims, activities, results:
    • Use full sentences if you can.
    • Use verb phrases at least.
  3. Also capture your own “intellectual context” for item 2:
    • Goals.
    • Problems, setbacks, pitfalls.
    • Alternatives (tried or yet to try).
    • Influences on your work, references.
  4. Record and credit quotes carefully (no plagiarism).
  5. Insert your own questions.
  6. Reread the hard parts (and revisit your own draft notes) after your first pass and apply these techniques again.
Signals
(format)
Make the format of your notes helpful (for later review and reuse).

  1. Use revealing topic heads and subheads.
  2. Cluster related items into (numbered) lists or clear data tables (with explicit units).
  3. Sketch simple diagrams to show:
    • relationships,
    • physical features.
  4. Add usable cross references:
    • to other notes (by date),
    • to books, articles, or web sites.
  5. Try some version of the two-column “Cornell system” (notes in a big right column, heads and comments in a smaller left column).

School Standards That Support Technical Writing

School Standards That Support Technical Writing

T. R. Girill
trgirill@acm.org
Technical Literacy Project
September, 2018 (rev. 5)

Handbook Table of Contents

The value of learning effective nonfiction nonnarrative writing (“technical writing”) for middle- and high-school students has been cited repeatedly in official and unofficial academic standards starting in the early 1990s. Technical writing finds endorsement in

  • high-level policy guidance for school curricula,
  • mid-level benchmarks for policy implementation, and
  • specific statewide grade and subject content standards, including the 2010 “Common Core” literacy standards and the 2013 Next Generation Science Standards.

Policy Support

SCANS

Typical of policy studies that support technical writing was a two-year collaboration between American business leaders and the U.S Department of Labor called the “Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills” (popularly knows as the SCANS project). Many feared this effort would be pompous and pointless, but “much to everyone’s surprise, it was a solid performance” (Johnson and Taylor, 1998, p. 225). The SCANS conclusions and advice are summarized and analyzed at length by several contributors to Expanding Literacies (Garay and Bernhardt, 1998), and the published results remain freely available today (even though the project ended in 1992) on a Department of Labor website (http://wdr.doleta.gov/SCANS).

The SCANS studies clearly revealed the direct relevance of technical writing competency for many jobs (including craft and service jobs for noncollege workers) in many ways:

  • “Significant percentages of workers in nearly every job category reported writing regularly as part of their jobs” (Mikulecky, 1998, p. 201).
  • This on-the-job writing was nonfiction (unlike literature) and focused on performing tasks (unlike telling a story) (Johnson and Taylor, 1998, p. 235).
  • Other workers, team members, and customers often depend for their safety or success on the adequacy of these instructions and descriptions.
  • Writing adequately at work requires planning and revising drafts with skillful attention to text features, as well as “metacognitive awareness” of one’s writing goals and techniques (Johnson and Taylor, 1998, p. 235).

In other words, overt technical writing practice in school directly promotes demanding and specific workplace literacy skills, even though it is seldom part of traditional English classroom activities.

National Research Council

In 1996 the National Research Council (NRC, part of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences) covered much the same ground as SCANS but with a narrower focus on science teachers, the programs that train them, and the curricula that guide their practice. Their 272-page proposal was somewhat misleadingly called National Science Education Standards (NSES, available free from the National Academy Press at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=4962#toc). The NRC’s advice is addressed less to teachers, however, than to policy planners at district, state, and education-school levels.

Despite this level of abstraction, a thread of high-level support for teaching science communication in schools is clear throughout the document. For instance, the NRC argues that “student achievement…is enhanced by coordination between and among the science program and other programs…such as social studies [and] language arts” (p. 214). Besides the benefits of reinforcing effective writing across the curriculum, “such coordination can make maximal use of time in a crowded school schedule.”

A little later the NSES authors say more explicitly:

Oral and written communication skills are developed in science when students record, summarize, and communicate the results of inquiry to their class, school, or community. Coordination suggests that these skills receive attention in the language arts program as well as in the science program. (p. 214)

Benchmark Support

Benchmarks translate educational policies into more specific goals for planning curricula, textbooks, and student activities. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), for example, regards benchmarks “as reference points for analyzing existing or proposed curricula in the light of science-literacy goals” (AAAS, Benchmarks for Science Literacy, Ch. 14, p. 8). Though intentionally vague, authoritative educational benchmarks often serve as influential models. Suggestions here often reappear, sometimes almost verbatim, as ingredients in individual state content standards (see the next section for the California case).

AAAS Project 2061

Project 2061 (named for the next return date for Comet Halley) is a long-term effort to improve pre-college science education sponsored by AAAS. In 1993, Project 2061 carefully crafted and published Benchmarks for Science Literacy (BSL, http://www.project2061.org/publications/bsl/online) as a way to shape decision making in states and school districts. Besides the expected technical suggestions about what students should learn for specific scientific fields at various ages, these benchmarks have much to say about the role of effective writing in science.

“A central Project 2061 premise is that the useful knowledge people possess is richly interconnected” (BSL, Ch. 14, p. 6). Hence, for success as both

  • professional working scientists and
  • ordinary educated citizens facing technology-related personal and public-policy decisions,

people need more than mere scientific facts or even familiarity with modern inquiry methods. They need science-relevant communication skills: “quantitative, communication, manual, and critical-response skills are essential for problem solving, but they are also part of what constitutes science literacy more generally….the[se] skills are significant in their own right as part of what it means to be science-literate” (BSL, Ch. 12, pp. 2, 3).

For this reason, the AAAS Benchmarks contain an extra chapter (Ch. 12) dedicated to cross-disciplinary “Habits of Mind.” Here the authors itemize by grade-level bands the nonfiction writing (and speaking) skills that contribute most to their vision of full science literacy:

Grades 3-5.

  • Keep a notebook that describes observations made, carefully distinguishes actual observations from ideas and speculations…and is understandable weeks or months later.
  • Write instructions that others can follow in carrying out a procedure.
  • Make sketches to aid in explaining procedures or ideas.

Grades 6-8.

  • Inspect, disassemble, and reassemble simple mechanical devices and describe what the various parts are for.
  • Organize information in simple tables and graphs.

Grades 9-12.

  • Write clear, step-by-step instructions for conducting investigations, operating something, or following a procedure.
  • Participate in group discussions on scientific topics by restating or summarizing accurately what others have said…and expressing alternative positions.

Remarkable here is that the AAAS Benchmarks, because of their source as well as their integrated approach to learning, aim to promote these communication skills in science classes led by science teachers, not (merely) in language arts classes, a position echoed in both the Common Core and Next Generation standards below.

American Diploma Project (ADP)

Almost a decade after the AAAS Benchmarks appeared, the nonprofit private American Diploma Project (ADP, 2004) reconfirmed both the need for stronger workplace literacy and the appropriateness of technical writing as an authentic way to meet that need in high school. This represents a somewhat more commercial look at the same issues explored by the AAAS scientists. This project brought together 29 industry representatives (across the spectrum from John Ascuaga’s Nugget to Hewlett-Packard) and a similar number of academic literacy researchers to spell out benchmark abilities that high-school students well prepared for life should develop before they graduate.

One ADP benchmark concerns writing. Here Part C10 reads like an itemized list of just the techniques fostered by overt, careful practice with nonfiction instructions and descriptions. Students should be able to

…produce work-related texts…that [1] address audience needs, stated purpose, and context; [2] translate technical language into nontechnical English; [3] include relevant information and exclude extraneous information;… [4] anticipate potential problems, mistakes and misunderstandings that might arise for the reader; [and 5] create predictable structures through the use of headings, white space, and graphics, as appropriate… (ADP, 2004, pp. 33-34).

Also noteworthy is that technical writing helps students meet other ADP benchmarks besides writing itself. Technical writing exercises also help students meet

  • the “language” benchmark to “comprehend and communicate quantitative, technical, and mathematical information” (ADP, 2004, p. 31),
  • the “logic” benchmark to “anticipate and address the reader’s concerns and counterclaims” (ADP, 2004, p. 35) in written treatments of problems, and
  • the “informational text” benchmark to “analyze the ways in which a text’s organizational structure supports or confounds its meaning or purpose” (ADP, 2004, p. 36).

ADP sees these benchmark literacy abilities as equally vital for success at work, at college, or anywhere that students “exercise their rights as citizens” (ADP, 2004, p. 29).

Content Standards

Common Core State Standards

The most ambitious and influential effort to spell out specific curriculum standards that support science communication is the 2010 Common Core State Standards (CCSS). By 2012, 46 of the 50 U.S. states had adopted CCSS (California adopted CCSS in 2010).

Goals

Formulated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, CCSS offers very focused, explicit learning targets carefully nested by K-12 grade level, “so that all of our students are well prepared with the skills and knowledge necessary to compete with not only their peers here at home, but with students from around the world” (CCSS FAQ).

To achieve this goal, CCSS lists grade-by-grade content requirements crafted to (as the CCSS website explains):

  • align with both college and work-world literacy needs,
  • include “rigorous content and application knowledge,” such as text-design and usability insights drawn from empirical research and applied throughout science and engineering communication, and
  • build upon, rather than ignore, the lessons learned from previous standards efforts, such as those discussed above.
Approach

Officially, the Common Core covers English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics only. But it actually touches K-12 teachers “across the curriculum” because, in real life, communication skills develop in and enhance performance in every subject.

      • SCOPE.
        CCSS is usually expressed in spreadsheet format, with rows of learning targets intersecting with grade-level columns. Many rows explicitly address “informational” text rather than literary works (nonfiction instead of fiction). About 60 of the 114 content rows in one CCSS version focus overtly on “literacy [reading and writing] in history/social-studies, science, and technical subjects.” For example, for grade 11-12 the “explanatory text” target in the science-writing section of CCSS asks students to

      Introduce a topic and organize complex ideas, concepts, and information so that each new element builds on that which precedes it to create a unified whole; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., figures, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension (CCSS, p. 37, item 2a).

          • Note how drastically this departs from much English/Language-Arts practice in both its writing goal (reader comprehension rather than writer self-expression) and in the explicit mention of such text-engineering features as headings and tables, both common in technical text but absent in fiction.

       

      • PREPARATION.
        Most ELA teachers are unprepared to find, field, and explicate the examples and cases from science, engineering, medicine, and forensics that students need to work with if they are to learn how to write effectively on those topics and for those audiences. Success in meeting the Common Core standards greatly benefits from, and probably requires, familiarity with the kind of “informational texts” common in science (and math) classes. Science class, rather than English class, is where most students encounter and later draft technical abstracts and project reports, lab and safety instructions and warnings, technical talks (with slides), and science or engineering posters.

      Next Generation Science Standards

      The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) grew out of a three-year collaboration between the U.S. National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a facilitating nonprofit corporation called Achieve, Inc. California adopted NGSS as its science framework in September, 2013. The links between NGSS and technical writing as embodied in CCSS are explicit and extensive.

      Communication Practices

      One innovative feature of NGSS is its view that students need to learn the three distinct “dimensions” of science in an integrated way. One dimension includes eight science practices, “behaviors that scientists engage in” routinely. The second dimension comprises crosscutting concepts, “ways of thinking” that apply throughout all science disciplines (e.g., cause and effect). The third science dimension involves disciplinary core ideas, topical features that vary among the physical, life, and earth sciences and engineering.

      Five of the eight universal science practices are investigational: ask questions, develop models, conduct research, analyze data, and apply mathematical thinking. But the other three focus on literacy and communication: construct explanations, argue from evidence, and share information. These communication practices do not compete with or replace the first five; rather they amplify their investigational success. This is why under NGSS building effective nonfiction literacy is the responsibility of science as well as ELA teachers.

      CCSS Cross-references From Core Ideas

      The body of NGSS text is organized by disciplinary core ideas (roughly by teaching topics, e.g., physical science 1 for high school [HS-PS1] is “matter and its interactions”). Here, in addition to the usual performance expectations (e.g., “use the periodic table…”) are explicit cross-reference notes linking each technical topic to the CCSS literacy requirements that support and enable it. For HS-PS1, for example, one cross-reference points out the CCSS reading standard RST.9-10.7, “translate quantitative…information expressed in words into visual form…and translate information expressed visually…into words.” Another link from HS-PS1 goes to the CCSS writing standard WHST.9-12.5, “develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.” Successful science students thus build their reading and writing skills as they engage in technical activities and explain those activities to others: NGSS embeds nonfiction literacy in science and engineering practice.

      Experience shows that such standards support is necessary but not sufficient for integrating technical writing into science classes. Michelle Klosterman (Klosterman, 2009), discussing the parallel problem of including history (of science) in pre-college science education, noted that “…physical and intellectual resources may be the least understood and most undervalued challenge facing [science] teachers. Teachers can only teach what they know” (p. 15). The other sections of this handbook aim to supply those resources for technical writing.

      References

      American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1993).
      Benchmarks for Science Literacy. Washington, D.C.: AAAS and Oxford University Press. 448 pages. URL: http://www.project2061.org/publications/bsl/online
      American Diploma Project. (2004).
      Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts. Washington, D.C.: Achieve, Inc. 117 pages. URL: http://www.achieve.org/dstore.nsf/Lookup/ADPreport/$file/ADPreport.pdf
      Common Core State Standards Initiative (2015).
      English Language Arts Standards. URL: http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy
      Garay, Mary Sue and Bernhardt, Stephen (Eds.) (1998).
      Expanding Literacies: English Teaching and the New Work Place. Albany: SUNY Press.
      Johnson, Gregory and Talyor, Robert. (1998).
      Tech-prep concepts and the English classroom: all students must be work-ready. In Garay and Bernhardt (1998), Ch. 11, pp. 225-246.
      Klosterman, Michelle. (2009).
      Where is history in the science classroom? History of Science Society Newsletter, 38(1), 14-15. URL: http://www.hssonline.org/publications/Newsletter2009/JanuaryKlosterman.html
      Mikulecky, Larry. (1998).
      Adjusting school writing curricula to reflect expanded workplace writing. In Garay and Bernhardt (1998), Ch. 10, pp. 201-224.
      National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010).
      Common Core State Standards. Washington, D.C.: NGA. URL: http://www.corestandards.org
      National Research Council. (1996).
      National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 272 pages. URL: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=4962#toc
      NGSS Lead States. (2013).
      Next Generation Science Standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. URL: http://www.nextgenscience.org/next-generation-standards
      U.S. Department of Labor. (1992).
      Report of the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills. [SCANS] URL: http://wdr.doleta.gov/SCANS

How Technical Communication Helps ESL Science Students

T. R. Girill
trgirill@acm.org
Technical Literacy Project
September, 2018

Handbook Table of Contents

What we now know about effective technical writing techniques shows them to be especially helpful for building the literacy skills of one student group with extra needs: studying instruction and description design can help students learning English as a second language (ESL) to more adequately handle the communication challenges that they often face in their science classes.

The benefits of grade-appropriate technical communication lessons for ESL science students are twofold:

  • Technical writing activities implement very well the known mainstream strategies (summarized below) for building literacy among English language learners.
  • These same activities directly address, in innovative ways, several residual problems that often undermine standard educational responses to ESL student needs.

Building Literacy Effectively

Introducing overt communication design into their high-school classes helps struggling ESL students by enabling three general strategies known to be effective:

  • Explicit skill development.
  • Self-editing with guidelines.
  • Scaffolded practice.

Explicit Skill Development

Overt technical writing work offers students explicit, supportive practice with an otherwise tacit and unremarked challenge: writing about science (cf. Kushner, 1996, p. 23). ESL students can be intimidated or overwhelmed by even routine requests to draft useful lab instructions (for classmates) or deploy simple lists or warnings (e.g., Malone, 2012). Document design lessons convert that threat into a skill-development opportunity. Practice with kitchen recipes, for example, can prepare hesitant students for drafting more abstract lab instructions. Explicit analysis of good and bad lists (pointing out parallel structures, visual cues, and item ordering) gives ESL students the clear, extra examples that they need, but in a professional, nonpatronizing context. Technical writing thus undercuts the common lament among ESL students that developing active literacy just isn’t worth the effort (e.g., Gutierrez, 1995, p. 32).

Self-Editing with Guidelines

Because they are working in a second language, ESL students often fall behind in developing essential self-editing skills. Using overt editing guidelines boosts self-editing activity and consistency (Wright, 1985). Using such overt guidelines to teach technical writing itself reveals to ESL students just the nonfiction text-revision techniques that they tend to overlook or misunderstand otherwise (all steps present? in the right order?). Document design work thus promotes the informed and “empowered” self-editing that will carry ESL students toward general literacy independence, if they pursue it (Beam and Burke, 1994, pp. 100-102).

Scaffolded Practice

Educational scaffolds are “intentional, temporary, flexible structures built to match the learner’s development” (Galguera, 2003, p. 2). Scaffolding academic language, especially in science class, is a well-known way to help ESL students cope with and gradually master “science talk.” Technical writing certainly does not substitute for teacher competence with scaffolds, but it elegantly amplifies that competence (Gutierrez, 1995, p. 30):

  • It focuses directly on real-world, audience-oriented, nonfiction, nonnarrative prose, so it provides scaffolding for more general literacy development (as outlined above).
  • Astute technical writing practice, tuned for high-school students, also easily invokes scaffolding.

Here are brief examples of the six standard ESL scaffolding techniques applied to technical communication practice in science classes:

Scaffolded Document Design Instruction for High School

Scaffolding Method
(adapted from Galguera, 2003, pp. 3-7)
Use When Teaching Technical Writing
Modeling:
Demonstrating procedures and giving examples,
cognitive apprenticeship.”
(1) Finding flaws and hidden steps in draft
instructions.
(2) Rebuilding long descriptions from their pieces by noting what each piece contributes.
Bridging:
Making explicit connections between lesson content and life outside school.
(1) Using kitchen recipes and travel directions to introduce general instructions.
(2) Describing technically rich but familiar objects (CDs, paper clips).
Contextualizing:
Framing both academic content and language in meaningful contexts.
(1) Pointing out how, and how often, others depend (for information or safety) on one’s technical prose.
(2) Noting the writing aspects of apparently nonwriting jobs (electrician, illustrator, police officer, engineer, nurse).
Schema Building:
Managing (genre) expectations in organized ways, especially with graphics or other visual cues.
(1) Showing why text design features are functional, not decorative, in nonfiction prose.
(2) Improving weak drafts by adding appropriate heads, lists, tables, text-graphics integration.
Text “Re”presentation:
Exposing genre rules and norms by restating information in another form.
(1) Revising draft instructions to make the steps and their
interpretations obvious.
(2) Comparing several alternative versions of “the same” paragraph for conciseness, clarity, accuracy.
Metacognitive Development:
Promoting student self-awareness and (hence) self-assessment of literacy progress.
(1) Practicing critical awareness and alternatives recognition for text in ways that generalize to science and to life.
(2) See also the next section.


ESL students headed on to professional careers will quickly come to see all three of these literacy-building strategies as enduring parts of their intellectual lives. Science today is international. Many professional organizations encourage their members to actively collaborate to promote successful cross-language technical communication. “We believe,” urged John Benfield and Christine Feak, for example, writing in the official journal of the American College of Chest Physicians, “that the privilege of being native English speakers comes with a responsibility to help EIL [English as an international language] colleagues with their English” (Benfield and Feak, 2006, p. 1728).

Addressing Neglected Literacy Problems

Cognitive Maturity

Because of language limitations throughout their years in school, ESL students often arrive in high-school science class without the cognitive maturity to handle scientific reasoning and communication comfortably (Duran, Revlin, and Havill, 1995, p. 2). Furthermore, many ESL students are scientifically illiterate in their native language, so going forward in English is really the only path open to them. Fiction reading and writing, which until the Common Core State Standards generally filled their English (Language Arts) classes, assume cognitive maturity (in constructing interpretations, for example) but often do little to actually develop it.

Carefully structured technical communication exercises address this need directly. Example elaboration–consciously inferring the reasons for or the role of each step in a sample of instructions or descriptions–develops transferable cognitive sophistication (see the psychological studies summarized in Girill, 2001). In addition, when they work document design exercises, ESL students practice just the same analytical skills regarding text that they need for good science projects generally: attention to detail, concern for the effectiveness of technique and for the ability of others to understand what they have done (or said), openness to revision, and a desire to improve based on evidence rather than whim. In fact, technical communication work to build cognitive maturity in science actually flows back into improved literary analysis as well: “Explicit teaching of science process skills [including science communication]…pays off in EL (English learner) growth in both science and English” (Dobb, 2004, p. 44, italics added).

Undemanding Practice

Most U.S. ESL students (85%) were born in the U.S. of immigrant parents (Public Policy Institute, 2005). Nevertheless, their “academic literacy” skills are low and those skills often do not develop over time. One study found that the verbal SAT scores for Hispanic test takers are 1/2 to 1 standard deviation (50-100 points) lower than verbal scores of “non-Latino white students,” and that this has changed insignificantly since 1976 (Duran, Revlin, and Havill, 1995, p. 1). Duran blames this partly on too-easy remedial training materials: “exposing Latino students to cognitively and linguistically undemanding activities does not equip them to acquire the communicative competence needed for advanced academic learning,” especially in science (Duran, Revlin, and Havill, 1995, p. 3).

Studying technical communication provides an appropriate alternative here to copying text by rote or filling in worksheets. Experienced practitioners can fairly easily adapt rich, authentic documentation cases for classroom use. Yet even simplified recipes, whose domain (food) and familiar entry vocabulary (kitchen tasks) make them broadly accessible to students, still demand the exercise of “hard” linguistic skills (assessing usability, creating and trying alternative ordering or phrasing, and persistent iterative refinement). This is the mix of topic familiarity with procedural challenge needed to enrich ESL student skills in preparation for their other NGSS adventures (see also Bergman, 2013).

Text Signals

Attending to the internal signals that (good) writers provide is one key aspect of successfully understanding and using technical prose. Proleptics (“on the other hand,” “secondly”) and connectives (“but,” “because,” “however”) are crucial signals in standard scientific text. Yet ESL students often ignore these text signals when they read and underuse them when they write (Duran, Revlin, and Havill, 1995, p. 4). Empirical studies by Goldman and Murray (Goldman and Murray, 1992, pp. 516-517), for instance, found that ESL students had much more trouble than native English speakers in supplying connectives intentionally omitted from text (cloze slots) and indeed that ESL students had “relatively little understanding of [the] differences among additive, causal, and adversative connectors” (516).

Once again, literature-based writing programs seldom address this ESL problem; they assume proleptic proficiency without cultivating it (Hirsch, 1977). But promoting awareness of proleptics and connectives is a standard aspect of document design exercises,especially for non-native English speakers (Glasman-Deal, 2009). The more they work with technical communication overtly, the more ESL students learn how to notice these text signals, assess their contributions to text, and edit them for suitability. Practice “technical text” usually has serious scientific content too, so it strongly reinforces the relevance of text signals to understanding or producing good science prose.

Note Taking

ESL students are often disadvantaged in science classes because their language limitations prevent writing well for themselves as well as for others. Technical subjects usually demand reliable note taking. When ESL students fail to produce effective notes, their content knowledge, test performance, and collaborative project work all suffer.

Conversely, note taking is really just one very specific case of effective description writing (where the author is also the only audience and a lecture, textbook, or lab activity is the item to be described). Science students who study technical writing thus get an immediate, in-class benefit from applying (in their own notes) the same techniques that will pay off indirectly in their lab reports and presentations. Tip sheets for and models of sound notes can quickly focus attention and help ESL students start writing better for their own use (e.g., Barrass, 2002, pp. 8-17, 127-129).

Science Idioms

Whether in classroom summaries, user manuals, formal reports, or refereed articles, English technical text relies on hundreds of widely used idioms (“break up,” “blow up,” “look up”) to convey key concepts, actions, or distinctions. The nonliteral character of these phrases in usually invisible to native speakers, but it can paralyze the smooth reading or meaningful writing of ESL science students.

Specific attention to science idioms, in their context of appropriate use, is the only way build them into an English learner’s vocabulary. Technical writing practice, with its stress on audience needs, always exposes these phrases to scrutiny. Some technical writing books, tailored to ESL readers, give these expressions special emphasis (one even includes a comparative, explanatory glossary of such idioms for easy review and reference as Appendix B (Huckin and Olsen, 1983)). This approach enables every science student, ESL or native speaker, to notice and gradually adopt relevant science idioms as they improve their general science literacy.

Learning Across Languages

Psychologists and linguists who study bilingualism have observed a cross-fertilization of literacy that spreads from one language to the other, including, surprisingly, back from the second language to the first. Thus Sadia Zoubir-Shaw notes that high-school seniors who graduate with at least two years of foreign language study “outscore students without foreign language…and show significant superiority in performance and achievement tests in English” (Zoubir-Shaw, 2005, p. 12). Technical writing skill development further enables this cross-language bridge: “…all students–not just ELLs–will benefit from using these [ELL-support] strategies in the [science] classroom” (Bautista and Castaneda, 2011).

Likewise, when technical writing lessons improve the formal academic English of ESL Hispanic students, those students often improve their literacy levels in Spanish too (because the same critical and analytical skills benefit text design in both languages) (Duran, Revlin, and Havill, 1995, p. 12). In some cases, this even triggers a social “language leadership” role for the newly science-literate student, who then promotes the English skills of other family members as well (e.g., Hykova, 2004, pp. 292-293).

Conclusion

Studying technical writing does not magically solve all the problems that ESL students face in their high-school science classes. But it does help students (and teachers) confront those problems broadly and deeply (Girill, 2004). Document design, when thoughtfully adapted into age-appropriate practice materials, offers real-world sophisticated techniques that improve (and enrich) both the science and the literacy performance of ESL high-school students. (For some general implementation tips that mention neither CCSS nor NGSS, see Wendi Pillars’s “Quick Start Guide,” 2017.)

References Cited

Barrass, Robert. (2002).
Scientists Must Write, 2nd. ed. London: Routledge.
Bautista, Nazan and Castaneda, Martha. (2011).
Teaching science to ELLs. The Science Teacher,(March) 78(3), 35-39.
Beam, Paul and Burke, Diane. (1994).
Learners as authors: helping ESL employees in a Canadian bank prepare customer relations and documentation materials. In Proceedings of the 12th Annual International Conference on Systems Documentation (pp. 96-104). Banff, Alberta, Canada: Association for Computing Machinery.
Benfield, John and Feak, Christine. (2006).
How authors can cope with the burden of English as an
international language [EIL]. Chest, 129(6), 1728-1730.
Bergman, Daniel. (2013).
Blending language learning with science. The Science Teacher, (April) 80(4), 47-50.
Bethke, F. J., et al. (1981).
Improving the usability of programming publications. IBM Systems Journal, 20(3), 306-320.
Dobb, Fred. (2004).
Essential Elements of Effective Science Instruction for English Learners, 2nd ed. Los Angeles: California Science Project (UCLA), 69 pp. Available at http://csmp.ucop.edu/csp
Duran, Richard; Revlin, Russell; Havill, Dale. (1995).
Verbal Comprehension and Reasoning Skills of Latino High School Students. Research Report RR13 (13 pp.). Santa Cruz, CA: National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning. Available at http://repositories.cdlib.org/crede/ncrcdsllresearch/rr13
Galguera, Tomas. (2003).
Scaffolding for English learners: what’s a science teacher to do? FOSS Newsletter, (Spring) no. 21, 1-8.
Girill, T. R. (2004).
Documentation as problem solving for literacy outreach programs. UCRL-CONF-205156. In Proceedings of the 2004 Region 8 Conference (7 pp). University of California, Davis, CA: Society for Technical Communication. Available at https://e-reports-ext.llnl.gov/pdf/309320.pdf
Girill, T. R. (2001).
Example elaboration as a neglected instructional strategy. In Scott Tilley (Ed.), Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Conference on Systems Documentation SIGDOC01 (pp. 39-46). Santa Fe, NM: Association for Computing Machinery. DOI: 10.1145/501516.501524
Girill, T. R. (1991).
Ease of use and the richness of documentation adequacy. ACM Journal of Computer Documentation, 15(2), 18-22. DOI: 10.1145/1111136.1111138
Glasman-Deal, Hilary. (2009).
Science Research Writing for Non-native Speakers of English.London: Imperial College Press.
Goldman, Susan, and Murray, John. (1992).
Knowledge of connectors as cohesion devices in text: a comparative study of native English and English-as-a-second-language speakers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84(4), 504-519.
Gutierrez, Kris. (1995).
Unpacking academic discourse. Discourse Processes, 19, 21-37.
Guzdial, Mark. (1999).
Supporting learners as users. ACM Journal of Computer Documentation, (May) 23(2), 3-13. URL: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/311147.311148 </dd
Hirsch, E. D. (1977).
The Philosophy of Composition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Huckin, Thomas, and Olsen, Leslie. (1983).
English for Science and Technology: A Handbook for Nonnative Speakers. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Hykova, Gabriela. (2004).
Equality, communication, and collaboration in online learning environment: and example of language education for refugees. In Proceedings of the 26th International Conference on Information Technology Interfaces (pp. 287-295). Cavtat, Croatia: Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers.
Kushner, Shimona. (1996).
Tackling the needs of foreign academic writers: a case study. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, (March) 40(1), 20-25.
Malone, H.J. (2012).
An immigrant student’s story: I was a dictionary girl. Education Week, Feb. 6, 2012. URL: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/02/08/20Malone_ep.h31.html
Pillars, Wendi. (2017).
A quick-start guide for teaching English-language learners. Education Week Teacher, Sep. 6, 2017. URL: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/09/06/a-quick-start-guide-for-teaching-english-language-learners.html
Public Policy Institute of California. (2005).
The Progress of English Learners in California Schools. Research Brief Issue 99 (April). 2 pp. Available at http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/RB_405CJRB.pdf
Wright, Patricia. (1985).
Editing: policies and processes. In Duffy, T. M. and Waller, R. (Eds.), Designing Usable Texts (pp. 63-96). Orlando, FL: Academic Press, Inc.
Zoubir-Shaw, Sadia. (2005).
Language learning and the brain. UK Arts & Sciences Magazine, (Spring) 4(1), 10-12.

Technical Writing Explained

T. R. Girill
trgirill@acm.org
Technical Literacy Project
September, 2018 (ver. 3)

Handbook Table of Contents

Goal: Supporting Writing’s Place in Science

In 1978, field biologist Robert Barrass, prompted by repeated requests from his science colleagues and friends for help with their professional writing, collected his advice into a guide called Scientists Must Write. That little book never went out of print. When Barrass updated it in 2002, he added this explanation to his preface:

Writing is part of science, but many scientists receive no formal training in the art of writing. There is a certain irony in this: we teach scientists and engineers to use instruments and techniques many of which they will never use in their working lives, and yet do not teach the one thing they must do every day–as students, and in any career based on their studies….This book, by a scientist…is about all the ways in which writing is important to students and working scientists and engineers in helping them to observe, to remember, to organize, to plan, to think and to communicate (Barrass, 2002, p. xv).

The professional development material that you are now reading complements Barrass’s efforts. Its goal is to help high-school teachers integrate some authentic yet age-appropriate, classroom-tested, skill-building writing activities into science classes. The approach explained here has proven itself with underperforming as well as AP students, in urban as well as suburban California high schools since 1999. The strategies and cases shared in this handbook have been iteratively refined during an ongoing “technical literacy” project jointly sponsored by the East Bay chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and the Computation Directorate of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). In 2005 this project received an international Pacesetter Award from STC for “delivering excellent education about our craft to high school students.” In 2007 it earned an STC Distinguished Service Award, reserved for only the most outstanding 1% of society-sponsored community outreach activities.

Motivation: Why Science Teachers Should Bother

The Next Generation Science Standards organize science into eight “practices” or intellectually framed but socially embedded activities. While five practices are investigational (e.g., analyze data), three overtly focus on science/engineering communication: develop explanations, argue from evidence, and share information. These last three practices amplify any scientist’s or engineer’s success with the first five, which makes them highly relevant to the science (not just to the ELA) classroom. This section unpacks that relevance.

The purpose of this introductory section is to give you, as a teacher, a good mental model of technical writing’s place in the universe of text. This is a topic seldom discussed in high school. Yet, as Barrass suggests, every science student can benefit from becoming aware of, then hopefully mastering, basic technical writing techniques, whether that student’s future lies in research or practice, in the academy or industry. With technology diffusing so thoroughly through ordinary life, even fulfilling daily citizenship and parenthood duties now demands some technical writing and reading skills. The model presented here is simple yet revealing. You can use it to

  • guide your own lesson planning and classroom practice, and
  • frame or clarify specific exercises for students too.

This is not intended as a crash course in how to become a professional technical writer. Plenty of large and detailed textbooks already address that different need (for example, see Mike Markel’s well-regarded 700-page Technical Communication (10th edition, 2012)). Rather, this section offers a conceptual map for science teachers to organize the design issues that face every drafter of technical text and the skills and techniques known to deal with those issues.

Sharing this information with students (especially during their high-school years) is not a responsibility that one can safely leave to others. Official and unofficial educational standards require it, as the standards section reveals. Beyond that narrow formal responsibility, however, lies a broader need for sound “technical literacy” among all young people.

Mathematics teacher Michael C. Burke nicely summarized this need on behalf of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching when he said:

What we think is intertwined with how we think….I would propose that we begin by redesigning our freshman and sophomore writing programs in order to place a significant emphasis on working with quantitative data, and on the visual representation of that data. We write, after all, to figure out what we think. And we ask our students to write so that they will learn how to think. (Burke, 2007, p. 2)

Even more striking is how Burke elaborated this proposal in a next paragraph deleted, perhaps over concern about backlash from the language arts community, when his article was reprinted in AFT On Campus (Burke, 2008):

I can imagine that many who oversee our writing programs would not be eager to implement such a program. After all, it is perhaps asking them to teach our students to think in ways that they themselves do not think….It is well past time for those of us with a quantitative cast of mind to become involved in a serious way with the writing programs on campus. For the majority of our students, this is where the action is, and accordingly, this should be one of the places where we concentrate our efforts.

Further evidence of this link between effective technical writing and thoughtful science appeared in a recent critical review of student papers submitted to the annual American Society of Human Genetics essay contest (Mills Shaw, 2008). The contest judges, in a March 2008 public report, complained that “another significant observation we made after reviewing 2446 [high-school science] student essays is that students need to be instructed in writing with precision….it is clear that students are not being taught to write using technical language and appear to approach their scientific writing in the same [casual] way they might as an essay for an English…assignment” (p. 1166). Improving writing performance pays a direct benefit for the science classroom too: “precise language usage appears even more important in scientific fields because it is not merely a vehicle for communicating understanding, but itself actively facilitates learning and comprehension” (p. 1167).

Comparative Overview: The Universe of Text

Perhaps the best way to explain technical writing from a teaching perspective is to contrast it with what it is not. Invoking such “contrast classes” is a proven strategy for introducing any new concept (“perceiving the distinctions between one group and another may be an essential part of perceiving the characteristics of each group” (Fleming and Levie, 1978, p. 67)). Completing the process calls also for some choice examples of different kinds of writing, since learning a concept often requires both positive examples and “close-in” nonexamples of the concept’s defining criteria (e.g., Foshay, Silber, and Stelnicki, 2003, p. 85).

The Quadrants

The universe of written material can be revealingly divided into quadrants based on (1) each text’s own structure and on (2) its (intended) relation to the world (Girill, 2004). The latter distinction (fiction or nonfiction) is widely known, while the former (narrative or nonnarrative) is often noticed only by professional communicators or text linguists:

Fiction Nonfiction
Narrative
Nonnarrative

Fiction is by design imaginary or made up (although it often includes a mix of real people, places, things, or events for flavor). Nonfiction is intended to be factual, to represent only the world, perhaps incompletely but exclusively. The fiction/nonfiction distinction should certainly be familiar to high-school students; I am always dismayed when some confess that it is news to them.

The narrative/nonnarrative distinction, however, is one that all students have seen in practice but few know by name. To narrate is to tell as a story, the default way that most humans structure text (e.g., see Grundlach in Nystrand, 1982, or Ch. 10 in Flower, 1981). Narrative prose is organized as a series of events. If no other “natural” series is available, the story teller can always use the sequence in which events became known to them, that is, they can recount their biography of personal discovery. A key feature of all narrative text is the progressive disclosure of story elements: things are never revealed all at once, but rather through a (perhaps carefully planned or managed) sequence. Progressive disclosure builds suspense (crucial to mysteries but present in all narratives), one practical side effect of which is prolonging reader interest.

Nonnarrative text, although common in modern life as we shall see shortly, is something that most people must consciously learn to construct. Explanations here are explicit and key details are overt. Important information is not held back or deferred to prolong interest, because most readers of nonnarrarive prose already have a strong external motivation to read the text (usually, as noted below, to answer a pressing question). Nonnarrarive text structure is usually hierarchical or clustered by topic (e.g., Girill, 1985), seldom just a chronological series, and linguistic signals within the text usually make that structure obvious for the reader (no mysteries here). Also, nonnarrative texts often use visual features (e.g., headings) to highlight key claims and text chunks for easier reading and retrieval. Such features are very rare, perhaps even counterproductive, in typical narratives.

Narrative Fiction

Narrative fiction is the quadrant (upper left) or subset of the text universe with which high school students are most familiar because they meet its members so often in English class: novels and short stories. Here students confront implicitly structured and progressively disclosed stories, sometimes hundreds of pages long. The writers of such narrative fiction usually have creative self-expression as their primary goal (to write a more clever story than its countless but similar predecessors). Character development, dialog, and point of view are thus major challenges for writers of fiction. Maintaining reader interest to the end, often with intricate literary (but not visual) devices, is a vital secondary goal (for writers who want to keep their publishers happy). Readers will not find bulleted lists, subsection headings, or explanatory tables in the chapters of a typical novel. And the audience for narrative fiction usually must be recruited, perhaps with advertising or author appearances, from a somewhat indifferent public.

Nonnarrative Fiction

Not all fictional works are narratives. While epic poems were once common, most modern poetry is not story oriented in either content or structure. Likewise, much drama that students encounter in English class today (such as the plays of George Bernard Shaw) focuses on dialog, character interaction, or even the author’s political positions. Printed (not spoken) works in the lower left quadrant, unlike most in the upper left, often do employ elaborate genre-specific visual cues (indenting for poetry, script layout and scene labeling for plays). Once again, the audience for nonnarrative fiction is usually hard-earned poetry lovers or theater fans in a crowded market. And the dominant goal is, once again, creative personal expression.

Narrative Nonfiction

The texts in the upper right quadrant, as nonfiction, bring us closer to the material that students see in science classes. Familiar (to students) nonfiction works organized narratively include biography, history, and much news. Most biography, for example, reveals the story of some real person’s life. ‘History’ contains the string ‘story’ for a reason: talented historians are not only experts at archival research and interpretation, but also at constructing thoughtful narratives about past events and people. “No one could possibly persuade me,” declared nonacademic historian Barbara Tuchman, for instance, “that telling a story is not the most desirable thing a writer can do” (Tuchman, 1981, p. 49). Even news items are usually called “stories” because they report current happenings in a special, cyclical, progressive-disclosure pattern that professional journalists study to master.

The goal of most narrative nonfiction, unlike fiction, is to reveal or explain world events, current or past. Hence the audience expects and the writers strive to provide lucid, coherent, useful exposition. This is a rather different set of reader demands and writer skills than most fiction involves. The relation of this text to its “market” is different too: readers want to have their information needs (not just their desire for entertainment or surrogate experience) met here, and they judge the success or failure of texts in this quadrant accordingly.

Nonnarrative Nonfiction

In contrast to the other three quadrants surveyed above, the texts in this one (lower right) arise from what is generally called “technical writing.” They deal with the real world (nonfiction) by structuring their topic treatment other than as a story (nonnarrative). All are loosely either instructions (for performing some task) or descriptions (of some thing or process). Barrass gives a one-page itemized list of many specific examples from this quadrant familiar to working scientists (Barrass, 2002, p. 17, where he includes user manuals for equipment or software, laboratory notes or reports, and scientific articles). So now the chart with cases added looks like this:

Fiction Nonfiction
Narrative
  • Novels
  • Short stories
  • Biography
  • History
  • News
Nonnarrative
  • Drama (some)
  • Poetry (some)
Technical writing

  • Instructions
  • Descriptions

The texts in the lower right quadrant differ from most of the others on the chart because of their especially compelling or practical role for their audience. People eagerly read (usually consult passages from, not peruse from start to finish) technical instructions and descriptions because the readers have problems for which they seek solutions in the text. Nonnarrative nonfiction is almost always problem-solving prose, and those who write it well design it accordingly, working as “text engineers.” The audience problems that such text must address include:

  • External problems (outside the text):
    • How to make, use, install, or repair something
      (for example, how to replace a bathtub or extract DNA from human cheek cells).
    • How to understand the features or role of something
      (for example, how do fluorescent lights work and can the mercury inside them be eliminated).
  • Internal problems (within the text itself):
    • How to easily find answers in the text.
    • How to comprehend the answer passages once found.
    • How to detect relevant information chunks amid irrelevant background.

(These internal problems receive a longer treatment in the section on text usability.)

Discovering how to prepare text that adequately solves such communication problems calls for a challenging empirical research program. And this challenge cuts across scientific disciplines. For example, one special interest group of the Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIST, 2016) concentrates just on information “needs, seeking, and use” by those who read technical text. Another special interest group of the Association for Computing Machinery focuses on good text-engineering practices for the “design of communication” (SIGDOC, 2016). And since science is international, linguists and sociologists also worry about how to achieve technical text adequacy across languages and cultures (e.g., Montesi and Urdiciain, 2005). The results of this research affect everything from the content of scientific journal articles to the arrangement of data on food-can labels.

Educational Relevance

Technical writing thus has three important, educationally
relevant properties:

  • Authenticity.
    Some writing coaches suggest science fiction stories as a creative way to promote interest in science class (Cody, 2008). Writing fiction (even science fiction) is chiefly a school skill, however, not preparation for life. Most would-be novelists never get published. Writing effective nonfiction (instructions and descriptions), on the other hand, contributes to success in virtually all technical jobs across the knowledge spectrum from basic technician (Papantoniou, 2016) to medical practitioner, researcher, or engineer. Away from school, most students will find that technical writing even helps them succeed as parents or citizens, not just as employees.
  • Efficiency.
    Because of its differences in features and role from texts in the other three quadrants above, technical writing often reveals to students a concept vital to efficient learning about anything: cognitive load. Most teachers but few students recognize cognitive load as the mental processing demanded by each new task that a learner confronts (Forshay, 2003, p. 218, for example). The more that students learn about managing cognitive load as they practice good text-design techniques (to minimize it), the better they become at managing their own learning activities. This is the metacognitive fringe benefit hinted at by the genetics essay-contest judges quoted earlier.
  • Learnability.
    In a recent short survey article (Mendoza-Denton, 2008), UC Berkeley psychologist Rudolfo Mendoza-Denton summarized several studies that showed how pronouncements about student technical-skill malleability are actually self-fulfilling. For example, middle school students told (by researcher Lisa Blackwell) that with active practice “you can grow your intelligence” subsequently did perform better using math skills than a control group told that their intelligence was fixed. This is just the problem facing high-school students with writing anxiety or a poor track record on past nonfiction writing assignments. Many believe that their writing success is fixed and that they are doomed to failure. Actually, effective technical writing is largely a matter of learned and learnable techniques. The guidelines (checklists) and student activities linked from other sections of this handbook externalize those techniques. Merely reading them does not make one a skilled practitioner, of course. But, with teacher encouragement and an apprenticeship approach, these tools can seed confidence that skill building is possible as well as show students an iterative, scaffolded path to those better writing skills.

Significance for Teaching

How could you help the students in your classes become better at such technical writing, at crafting more adequate nonnarrative nonfiction text not just for school assignments but for life after school as well? Successful British novelist W. Somerset Maugham once reputedly remarked that “there are three rules for writing a great novel; unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.”

As the analysis above suggests, however, we are not in that spot regarding technical writing. How to perform well here is an empirical question on which much interdisciplinary research has been done since the late 1970s with largely convergent results. The “rules” for creating successful technical text are fairly well understood (one good recent survey is Schriver, 1997; see also Markel, 2012). They draw on insights and studies in

  • rhetoric–the traditional analysis of arguments,
  • engineering–treating text, like other artifacts, as an object for careful, informed, iterative design, and
  • psychology–which reveals the relevance of cognitive apprenticeship to teaching writing and mental models to learning it.

The remainder of this handbook describes a teaching path forward using this knowledge, whose practical value has been tried, refined, and demonstrated with real high-school students, often under adverse teaching conditions and for chronic underperformers, since 1999.

References

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Association for Information Science and Technology website. http://www.asist.org
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Instructional Message Design. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.
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Problem-Solving Strategies for Writing. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Ch. 10.
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