How Technical Communication Helps ESL Science Students

T. R. Girill
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
Demonstrating procedures and giving examples,
cognitive apprenticeship.”
(1) Finding flaws and hidden steps in draft
(2) Rebuilding long descriptions from their pieces by noting what each piece contributes.
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).
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).


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.)

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