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Technical Writing: Dictionary Girl and Student Notes

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: Dictionary Girl and Student Notes

Several recent short articles reveal one of the often-overlooked
but very practical benefits of pursuing technical writing in
science class: the same techniques that help all students communicate
more effectively help ESL/ELL science students communicate at all.

Translation Aids for Everyone

Even those ESL/ELL students who excel at science concepts,
problem analysis, or laboratory procedure often have trouble sharing
their work with others. For example, Helen J. Malone, now a
doctoral student in education at Harvard, reports her own ESL
struggles as a "dictionary girl," a native Serbo-Croatian speaker
thrown into high-school science classes in the United States:

[Even] when I recognized content, usually
through an image or formula, communicating
my knowledge proved to be a long process.
I would write down what I knew...in my native
language, translating it at home with my
father into English...
[H.J. Malone, "An immigrant student's story:
I was a dictionary girl," Education Week,
Feb. 6, 2012, online at www.edweek.org/ew/
articles/2012/02/08/20Malone_ep.h31.html ]

Although Malone's tedious translation efforts sharpened her
attention to content details, her transition to science-in-English
could have been scaffolded by many mainstream technical writing
techniques:

* Using overt instruction and description CHECKLISTS
to make explicit otherwise subtle or confusing English
language moves.
* Focusing on VERBS when building technical instructions
or descriptions in class.
* Integrating words with GRAPHICAL ELEMENTS (such as
Malone's "images or formulas") so both writer and reader can
literally "see the text" better.

Past notes in this series have pointed out other, more
specialized tools that also help ESL/ELL science writers
achieve basic adequacy while they simultaneously help native
English writers prosper. One is the intermediate dictionary,
designed to explain big words in terms of little (eighth-grade)
words, a scaffold for everyone's verbal clarity. Another is
the science idiom list ("break up, blow up, look up"), which
decodes those often-used science phrases that are confusing or
even meaningless if taken at face value. For your ESL/ELL
students, science idioms are impenetrable without help.

Notes as Scaffolds Too

Teacher James Boutin approaches this same ESL/ELL support
challenge from the other side, as the instructor faced with
students whose language limitations undermine their science
content mastery. (James Boutin, "How English-language learners
have an edge," Education Week Teacher, Feb. 1, 2012, online at
www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2012/01/30/tln_boutin.html ) Boutin's
secret weapon to boost cross-language learning is Cornell notes:

Nowhere have Cornell notes been as effective
for teaching content and skills simultaneously
as when I've taught a large number of ELLs.

(Cornell notes use a two-column format: a relatively wide
right-hand column--perhaps 2/3 or 3/4 of the page--for the usual
lists, comparisons, and summaries that students capture in their
notes, and a relatively narrow left-hand column--perhaps 1/3 or
1/4 of the page--in which students annotate their own notes
(recursive notetaking) with personalized labels, cross references,
questions, and outlines to make their basic notes more
meaningful and useful later.)

Online support in available to help you and all your
students, including your ESL/ELLs, take full advantage of this
two-column notetaking approach:

* http:///www.ebstc.org/TechLit/notes/notetop.html
explains how Cornell notes work best when integrated with ongoing
science-class activities, so students can practice crafting
useful notes just as real bench scientists and crime-scene
investigators do.
* http:///www.ebstc.org/TechLit/notes/notetips.analysis.html
shows how students can use the annotation (left) column of
two-column notes to "talk to themselves" about the content that
they captured in the right column. This also affords a written,
citable column of self-scaffolding for ESL/ELLs, who can park
personalized LINGUISTIC as well as technical clues there for their
own use later. Templates for two-column notes are also included.

Finally, science students from language communities other
than English may find it encouraging to learn that "Cornell notes"
did not originate at Cornell University, or at any place in the
English-speaking world. Illustrations at the second URL above
clearly show that, as long ago as 1500, pioneer scientist and
inventor Leonardo da Vinci kept his own notebooks in two-column
format--using mirror-writing in Italian, of course.

Comments (1)

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Interested in lifelong learning & innovative pedagogy

Hi, there is also a free site

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Hi, there is also a free site to create & share Cornell Notes: classmint.com.

It's amazing that most people just take random notes on a page and just scan them for review vs. trying to organize them.

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