STEM education provides many opportunities and challenges. How can our practice evolve to meet the needs of 21st-century learners?

Technical Writing: Every Lesson is a Language Lesson

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

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Technical Writing: Every Lesson is a Language Lesson

"Every science or engineering lesson is in part
a language lesson..." (p. 3-20)

This remarkable claim appears in Chapter 3 of the U.S. National
Academy of Sciences (NAS) "Framework for K-12 Science Education,"
released in August, 2011 (
record_id=13165). The Framework, as its name implies, is not a
grade-by-grade catalog of topics for science teachers to cover.
Instead, it offers a high-level outline of science "priorities,
crosscutting concepts, and core ideas" intended to guide policymakers
at state and district levels. Nevertheless, anyone concerned with
technical literacy will be heartened to find that among the 8
practices that NAS considers "to be essential elements of the K-12
science and engineering curriculum" (3-5) is "obtaining, evaluating,
and communicating information."

Science Genres

The easiest way to explain WHY every science lesson is also
a language lesson is by spelling out the written products that
scientists and engineers routinely make when they work. Indeed,
the pull quote above (3-20) continues "...particularly reading
and producing the genres of texts that are intrinsic to science
and engineering." The NAS Framework goes on to itemize such genres:
"[Science] students should write accounts of their work using..."
* notebooks and journals,
* reports [practice for technical articles],
* posters,
* "explanations with supporting argumentation" [white papers],
* "experimental procedures" [technical instructions],
* oral presentations, and
* detailed plans and drawings [for engineers].

Underlying Communication Skills

More revealing than just a list of written products in science
and engineering, however, is a look at the cognitive repertoire
that a student needs to develop to be able to make those genres
effectively. The NAS Framework talks in terms of "expository
rather than narrative" (3-21) text design skills that students
should build in science class. These include the ability to:
* DESCRIBE their observations clearly,
* ASSERT technical claims carefully,
* INTERPRET science and engineering material from others,
* DESIGN and construct useful, meaningful tables, diagrams,
and charts, and
* USE rich and appropriate "general academic language"
(3-21) such as 'analyzed' or 'correlate' to explain and
compare their work and results.

Role in Life

Like all good curricular frameworks, of course, this one has
its share of grand policy proposals and insights, no doubt intended
to enjoy a future as pull quotes in other people's commentary and
op-ed articles. But such comments-with-a-flourish have their place,
inspiring those who set school policy to notice and embrace the
little content details that enrich and complete useful science
standards (or even specific lesson plans).

In this regard, the NAS Framework does not disappoint.
Just how important is technical literacy in the subsequent work
life of your science and engineering students? Here is a brief
but quantitative answer:
Reading, interpreting, and producing text
are fundamental practices of science...and
they constitute at least half of engineers'
and scientists' total working time (3-19).
And how about a framing comparison with artistic skill, to which
many students and their parents aspire:
...learning how to produce scientific texts
is as essential to developing an understanding
of science as learning how to draw is to
appreciating the skill of the visual artist

Does the NAS Framework also tell how to actually teach the
skills cited above to build the essential genres of science and
engineering? No. Such techniques are left to another place...
such as the activities and exercises summarized at

Comments (3)

Comment RSS
curriculum and projects learning centers

Re: Technical Writing: Every Lesson is a Language Lesson

Was this helpful?

Dear T.R. Girill,

Thank you for this important contribution to STEM education and particularly about "Technical Writing"; your handbook guide to different aspects of the Science Writing Process and Skills Development is an excellent resource to share with other teachers.

I agree wholeheartedly with your title of this discussion and have developed a specific visual and literary arts curriculum unit to help teachers organize lessons and activities to accomplish your goals:

"Engineering of Everyday Things: Structure and Function - Analysis of a Whole and its Parts"

Scroll down the alphabetical listing of pages until you reach the Title:
All comments and collaborations are welcome...

Allen Berg

curriculum and projects learning centers

Re: Technical Writing: Every Lesson is a Language Lesson

Was this helpful?

Dear Colleagues:

Here is a complementary (second) science writing activity lesson
that focuses students on Writing a Set of Instructions for their classmates or peers or the general public (often involving a sense of humor :-)

This page from my wikispace is the lesson outline for students, that also includes a link to a "List of 100 Topics" for this Instructional Writing exercise... so that there won't be any problem with suggesting "topics"...
and it encourages creativity with the project...

Enjoy...and certainly share any student examples with us here at Edutopia...


Technical Literacy Project leader, STC and LLNL

Try it with science abstracts

Was this helpful?

Want to pursue some of these science literacy suggestions with the
abstracts that your students need to write any way? Take a look at
"Effective Abstracts in Science Class," newly added to the technical
literacy project website at

see more see less