Technical Literacy Project

Our Service Goals

In 1998, the East Bay Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication launched a community-service project to introduce northern California K-12 students to basic technical writing techniques. The project developed opportunistically, from local classroom visits to sharing teacher resources online worldwide and professional development workshops hosted by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at the Edward Teller Education Center.

This page explains the project’s approach to literacy support and links to its free shared resources.

Why Build Nonfiction Literacy Skills in K-12 Classrooms?

Effective nonfiction literacy skills are important for all K-12 students for two reasons:

(1) Authenticity. Being able to read and write nonfiction text is now crucial for adequacy as a parent and citizen as well as for success in college and almost any career (as reflected, for example, in many Project Lead The Way units).

  • Scientists and engineers of all types often spend about half of their professional time reading or writing technical prose, so literacy skills amplify their other quantitative and analytical strengths (National Research Council, A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (2012)).
  • Many technician, trade, or service jobs demand surprisingly high literacy levels to work well, to understand or give instructions, and to interact safely with colleagues (including such diverse areas food technician, medical translator, and crime-scene investigator).
  • Revealing the psychological, linguistic, and engineering principles at work in effective technical writing, while new to many students, supports their general reasoning skills, promotes social responsibility (about good communication), and strengthens the performance of those for whom English is a second language.
  • Hence, adapting real-world writing activities (such as crafting the hazard descriptions and protective instructions on Safety Data Sheets) for classroom use provides a practical, relevant path for improving student nonfiction writing, an approach that this project extensively exploits.

(2) Standards

  • The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for literacy clearly expect all students to develop basic reading and writing skill with nonfiction text during elementary and middle school, to be able to draft useful instructions and meaningful descriptions by high school, and to apply solid technical writing techniques to diverse academic projects throughout their high-school (and college) years.
  • Likewise, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), based on National Research Council guidance, identify eight crucial science and engineering practices relevant to all technical disciplines. Three of these practices explicitly involve student literacy:
    • constructing explanations,
    • arguing from evidence, and
    • sharing information.
  • The convergence of CCSS and NGSS on the key value of nonfiction literacy is noted and explored for 124 pages in a 2014 report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences called Literacy for Science:

    …literacy and science need not compete for priority.
    Rather…natural synergies exist that benefit both disciplines
    at the same time to the advantage of both students and teachers. [p. 4]

    This project displays and cultivates these science/literacy synergies to give teachers an informed, coordinated sense of direction as they coach technical writing techniques and to help students build their nonfiction literacy life skills.

Thematic Overview of Technical Writing

Introducing your K-12 students to the actual communication challenges faced by scientists and engineers in the world beyond school is a valuable but demanding task.

CCSS, which takes on this challenge, is a large and complex document, sometimes confusing in spite of, or perhaps because of, much redundancy across the school years that it spans. In spreadsheet format I counted 114 rows of requirements, at least 60 of which strongly pertain to “literacy [reading or writing] for history, social studies, science, and technical subjects” (to use the official CCSS terms). Finding reliable ways to implement these CCSS science-literacy demands (as well as relevant, supportive professional development) would be easier if there were a solid but simplified conceptual approach to nonfiction literacy, something thematic yet still deeply practical.

Fortunately, several decades of empirical research on effective nonfiction text design have made such a thematic overview possible, and it appears below.

The Big (Usability) Picture

One of the really clever features of the CCSS approach to nonfiction literacy, to what the rest of the world calls “technical communication,” is that it not only reflects authentic practice but it also applies professional techniques to build writing skills in school.

Engineers already know a lot about design–about planning and creating effective artifacts efficiently (bridges, medical devices, software). And human-factors psychologists already know a lot about making designed artifacts usable (household appliances, airplane cockpits or, again, software). Applying these same insights to the problem of communicating about science leads straight to three themes that summarize the whole CCSS/NGSS approach to writing instruction:

    Nonfiction writers need to actively help their readers succeed.
    Writing is text engineering.
    Usability is central to nonfiction writing success.

Most students do not approach technical writing as design nor do they see usable text as its goal. So this provides a new (and very helpful) vocabulary with which they can analyze how they write about the world. It also gives them a fresh perspective on writing performance (as “designing prose“) that few encounter in English Language Arts class. Thus science offers not just the realm where students can try this new approach to nonfiction literacy, but also the research base from which the approach arises.

Six CCSS/NGSS Implementation Themes

Six themes unify and summarize virtually all of the apparently diverse CCSS/NGSS science literacy elements.

THEME 1–Audience Analysis
You always write for someone.
THEME 2–Task Appropriateness
Choose the techniques and content most relevant to
your reader’s tasks or problems.

These themes capture the most basic insights of text usability: readers of nonfiction (especially in science, engineering, and medicine) are text users who bring problems or tasks to their reading and expect writers to address those needs overtly.

The next two themes summarize proven ways for writers to respond to this responsibility.

THEME 3–Content Management
Provide examples, comparisons, or specifics to make
your instructions or descriptions effective.
THEME 4–Visual Text Features
Choose media and graphical features to enhance your words
and improve text usability.

The first two themes expose writer goals while the second two focus on how to pursue those goals. This is where the last few decades of empirical research by scientists across the spectrum from psychology and linguistics to software engineering yield reliable text-design, drafting, and revision techniques. Summaries of these science-based writing techniques are available online
(for example, see the Handbook ) and in professional guides such as Michelle Carey’s Developing Quality Technical Information (3rd ed., IBM Press, 2014).

Teachers need to cultivate these skills in their students, a pedagogical concern addressed by the last pair of CCSS/NGSS themes.

THEME 5–Externalizing Helps
Externalizing techniques helps writers; externalizing goals helps readers.
THEME 6–Iterative Improvement
Improved writing comes through planned, repeated revision (with feedback).

Here again, empirical successes in real science and engineering (such as checklists to improve surgery outcomes or iterative design to improve prototype products) reveal ways to help students achieve better results. Likewise, real-life failures (such as a plane crash) show the consequences of incompetent nonfiction writing. Even just characterizing a text project in these terms (responding to reader needs, designing more effective prose, making hidden moves explicit) offers a more science-based, more authentic approach to writing than most students have ever tried before. The positive results appear not only in science class (in notebooks, lab reports, project talks, and technical posters) but in a lifetime of better communication about technical topics as professionals and as citizens.

Resources for Teaching Technical Writing

To teach effective technical writing in science classes calls for a good thematic sense of direction (above). But it also calls for some specific teaching techniques hooked to relevant student projects.

Even with a big-picture usability viewpoint and the six implementation themes in mind, you still need to fit literacy practice into your busy day. Hence, practical CCSS/NGSS text design activities must meet two criteria:

  1. On-going:
    They involve student technical writing that occurs (or could easily occur) already, and
  2. Authentic:
    The writing also has obvious, important, real-world counterparts (not like the famously contrived but seldom seen “five-paragraph essay”).

Here are five science-student writing projects that meet both of these criteria.

Drafting Instructions

You and your students already use (and probably draft) lots of instructions for lab procedures and equipment. You can make this a Common-Core skill-building activity by dissecting the strengths and weaknesses of those instructions, externalizing their pitfalls and their best improvements. An overt good-instruction checklist not only makes this easy, it also shows students how technical professionals (aircraft pilots, surgeons, construction managers) improve their own reliability. See the Good Instruction Guidelines and Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto for authentic context.

Revising Descriptions

Descriptions of tools used, phenomena observed, and plans made are vital in every student report or presentation. And of course your textbook is full of model technical descriptions. Armed with a checklist of good-description features such as Good Descriptions Guidelines students can revise their own draft descriptions and those of others. Not at all pedantic busy work, this is just how professional journal articles, clinical reports, safety alerts, and crime-scene analyses are really crafted. As with well-designed instructions, this approach stresses usability for readers and the iterative refinement of drafts.

Taking Notes

Field notes, lab notes, or just personal summaries of what they read or hear all afford an excellent opportunity for students to practice daily the use of visual and structural features (lists, headings, tables, diagrams) to help manage content effectively, as encouraged throughout the Common Core standards. You can easily scaffold such improvements (for example, see Taking Notes Effectively. Each kind of student note-taking has a real-life counterpart. And the impact of notes drafted with usability in mind ranges from general self-help (faster, easier intellectual success) to specific technical triumphs (notebooks usable by others are crucial for collaborative projects and to support patent applications).

Designing Abstracts

Project abstracts–short, tightly organized work summaries–are the most disciplined writing assignments that most students undertake. Whether for your review or for official use by science-fair judges, abstracts are a great way for students to focus on audience needs, a key Common-Core theme. A top-down design template can externalize what a good abstract requires: Once they leave school, your students will find many chances to apply their abstract-crafting skills: journals demand them, databases circulate them around the world, and medical doctors even prescribe treatments based on them.

Crafting Posters

Technical posters have long been an essential part of science-fair projects. Now they are an increasingly common way for student researchers to share their efforts with classmates and even with working professionals. As scaffolds such as those at point out, poster design applies familiar Common-Core communication principles to a very unusual set of size, distance, and social-context constraints. Yet this odd situation exactly parallels how real scientists, engineers, and medical practitioners share their own recent results at any technical conference.

So here are five nonfiction literacy activities already at hand within typical science classes. All of them, properly scaffolded, can offer your students

  1. practice in designing usable text,
  2. a way to meet the CCSS/NGSS writing standards, and, best of all,
  3. robust preparation for life after school.

Technical Writing in Science Class: The Handbook

This online handbook teaches science students how to develop effective communication skills. It offers a focused approach, along with classroom-tested, award-winning exercises and activities, for teaching nonfiction (technical) writing well.

Explore the Handbook.

About this project

In 1998, the East Bay Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication launched a community-service project to introduce northern California K-12 students to basic technical writing techniques. The project developed opportunistically, from local classroom visits to sharing teacher resources online worldwide and professional development workshops hosted by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at the Edward Teller Education Center.

For more information on the LLNL program, see their website.

If you’re interested in participating in this project, let us know.