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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Technical Writing: Dictionary Girl and Student Notes

Technical Writing: Dictionary Girl and Student Notes

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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.

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Charlie Chung's picture
Charlie Chung
Interested in lifelong learning & innovative pedagogy

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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