School Standards That Support Technical Writing
T. R. Girill
Technical Literacy Project
September, 2018 (rev. 5)
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.
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)
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:
- 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.
- Inspect, disassemble, and reassemble simple mechanical devices and describe what the various parts are for.
- Organize information in simple tables and graphs.
- 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  address audience needs, stated purpose, and context;  translate technical language into nontechnical English;  include relevant information and exclude extraneous information;…  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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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