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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Technical Writing: A Rising Linguistic Tide Raises All Boats

Technical Writing: A Rising Linguistic Tide Raises All Boats

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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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