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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Technical Writing: Every Lesson is a Language Lesson

Technical Writing: Every Lesson is a Language Lesson

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T. R. Girill Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab. trgirill@acm.org 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 (http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php? 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..." (3-21) * 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 (3-19). 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 http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/handbook/handbooktoc.html

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