Teachers Meet Authentic Technical Writing in Summer Workshop

In their 2012 article on “Reading, Writing, and Thinking Like a Scientist” Gina Cervetti and P. David Pearson summarize the evidence that

embedding direct instruction of comprehension strategies in extended, knowledge-building investigations…supports students’ literacy development better than direct instruction of comprehension strategies that are divorced from the context of explicit and theme-based knowledge development. [Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 55(7), 580-586, April, 2012, DOI: 10.1002/JAAL.00069]

In other words, not only can K-12 students learn to read and write (nonfiction) in science class, but (for comparable effort) they will actually gain more literacy skills there than in traditional English/literature classes. This is the recurring theme that the 18 local teachers who attended either of the two sessions of my “Technical Writing for Science Class” (TWSC) professional development workshop during June or July, 2016, encountered and explored.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory offered TWSC as part of its annual suite of “Teacher Research Academies” to enhance the preparation of Bay Area science teachers in biology, physics, computer modeling, and technical literacy. LLNL’s external relations officer (Nadine R. Horner) greeted the TWSC attendees and they sampled the lab’s Discovery Center program for visiting fifth-grade classes during their lunch break. But the focus of most workshop exercises, case studies, and activities for two days was that “authenticity predicts growth in both reading and writing” (Cervetti and Pearson, p. 581).

For example, attending teachers:

  • reconstructed technical (engineering) descriptions from scrambled pieces by exploiting the organizational clues embedded in the text,
  • compared how the instructions and descriptions relevant to handling a chemical responded to the different needs of different audiences in the 12 sections of its safety data sheet, and
  • refined draft project abstracts using iterative-design techniques scaffolded by a matrix that makes the usability constraints here explicit.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) now used in California schools frame the communication practices of scientists and engineers (like giving explanations and sharing information) as supporting and enabling the traditional investigational practices such as experimentation and data analysis (as the diagram suggests). TWSC activities showed teachers how to coach those NGSS communication practices and integrate them into their on-going classroom science lessons using real-world cases. And I shared links to the many EBSTC online literacy-building resources that teachers can easily borrow or adapt to suit student needs. Strong positive reviews and persistent attendee engagement confirmed that this workshop brought technical content and technical writing together successfully.

For more information on how we develop the next generation of writers, see the EBSTC Technical Literacy Project.

T. R. Girill
STC Fellow