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Technical Writing: A Rising Linguistic Tide Raises All Boats

T.R. Girill Technical Literacy Project leader, STC and LLNL

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
trgirill@acm.org

Technical Writing: A Rising Linguistic Tide Raises All Boats

In their recent article on "Teaching Science to ELLs"
(The Science Teacher, March 2011, pp. 35-39), Nazan Bautista
and Martha Castaneda argue that "language development is best
achieved in the context of content learning" (p. 36). This may
seem at first like just another annoying special burden to carry
(overt support for English language learners). But it actually
pays remarkably broad rewards.

First Language Benefits

"Fortunately, all students--not just ELLs--will benefit from
using these [ELL-support] strategies in the [science] classroom"
(p. 36). The same techniques that help ELLs communicate more
effectively about technical topics also help native English
speakers craft more effective instructions and descriptions. And
your science classroom may be the only place where both kinds of
student see these techniques overtly modeled and promoted.
(Language Arts class is often busy with literature.)

Second Language Benefits

Studies have shown that when ELL Spanish-language students
practice with technical writing lessons that improve their formal
(academic) English, those students often improve their literacy
in Spanish too (for example see Richard Duran, Russell Revlin,
and Dale Havill, (1995), Verbal Comprehension and Reasoning
Skills of Latino High School Students. Research Report RR13,
National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second
Language Learning, Santa Cruz. CA, online at
http://repositories.cdlib.org/crede/ncrcdsllresearch/rr13 ).
Most usability features cut across languages (see Karen Schriver,
Dynamics in Document Design, (1997), New York: John Wiley,
pp. 455-457, for instance). So bilingual students who practice
deploying good text design features improve their science
communication skills in BOTH languages at once.

Mutual Techniques

What ELL-support techniques do Bautista and Castaneda
recommend (p. 37)? Fortunately, they are just what the
cognitive apprenticeship approach to technical writing would
lead you to expect (for example, at
http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/handbook/handbooktoc.html ). Among
their examples are these:

(1) Focus on science-relevant VERBS (listen, count, adjust),
not only nouns (ruler, tuning fork). Verb use may be harder for
ELLs to master unassisted, yet all students need verbs to assert
any science claims or arguments in any language.

(2) Scaffold COMPARISON/CONTRAST terms so that ELL students
can cope with their English syntax quirks. Comparisons and
contrasts are often crucial for framing effective scientific
explanations. Consider, for instance, how daunting
The [longer|shorter] the tuning fork,
the [lower|higher] the pitch
must seem to anyone not familiar with the idiosyncratic use of
English articles (like "the"). Helping students craft meaningful
comparisons benefits everyone.

(3) Offer ELL students opportunities to MIX TEXT AND GRAPHICS
on science communication projects. Because good posters are word
sparse, ELLs can use astute poster design (for instance) to extract
maximum explanatory impact from their limited English vocabularies.
This is no patronizing short cut: text/graphics integration is
widely recognized as a key "21st century skill" for every science
student. And again here, the same usability principles (regarding
font size and visual organization) apply regardless of what
language is used for the poster text. So this activity really
prepares all students, not just ELLs, for life in international
science.

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