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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Technical Writing: Themes from the Common Core

Technical Writing: Themes from the Common Core

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T. R. Girill Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab. trgirill@acm.org Technical Writing: Themes from the Common Core The Thematic Challenge Adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS, http://www.corestandards.org) by all but five U.S. states is a bold, long-advocated step toward connecting K-12 science classrooms with the actual communication challenges faced by scientists and engineers in the world beyond school. But CCSS is a large and complex document, sometimes confusing in spite of, or perhaps because of, much redundancy across the school years that it spans. In spreadsheet format I counted 114 rows of requirements, at least 60 of which strongly pertain to "literacy [reading or writing] for history, social studies, science, and technical subjects" (to use the official CCSS terms). Finding reliable ways to implement these CCSS science-literacy demands (as well as relevant, supportive professional development) would be easier if there were a solid but simplified conceptual approach to all of this, something thematic yet still deeply practical. Fortunately, several decades of empirical research on effective nonfiction text design have made such a thematic summary of CCSS possible. This note connects the formal CCSS requirements with successful writing activities, cases, and techniques already in play in the life of real scientists and engineers. The Big (Usability) Picture One of the really clever features of the CCSS approach to nonfiction literacy, to what the rest of the world calls "technical communication," is that it not only reflects authentic practice but it also APPLIES professional techniques to build writing skills in school. Engineers already know a lot about design--about creating effective atifacts efficiently (bridges, medical devices, software). And human-factors psychologists already know a lot about making designed artifacts usable (airplane cockpits or, again, software). Applying these same insights to the problem of COMMUNICATING about science leads straight to three themes that summarize the whole CCSS approach to writing instruction: WRITER RESPONSIBILITY-- Nonfiction writers need to help their readers succeed. PROCESS-- Writing is text engineering. PRODUCT-- Usability is central to nonfiction writing success. Most students do not approach technical writing as design nor do they see usable text as its goal. So this provides a new (and very helpful) vocabulary with which they can talk about how they write. It also gives them a fresh perspective on writing (as "text design") that few encounter in English Language Arts class. Thus science becomes not just the realm where students try this new approach, but also the research base from which the approach arises. Six CCSS Implementation Themes Six themes unify and summarize virtually all of the apparently diverse CCSS science literacy elements. THEME 1--Audience Analysis You always write for someone. THEME 2--Task Appropriateness Choose the techniques and content most relevant to your reader's tasks or problems. These themes capture the most basic insights of text usability: readers of nonfiction (especially in science and technology) are text USERS who bring problems or tasks to their reading and expect writers to address those needs. The next two themes summarize proven ways for writers to respond to this responsibility. THEME 3--Content Management Provide examples, comparisons, or specifics to make your instructions or descriptions effective. THEME 4--Visual Text Features Choose media and graphical features to improve text usability. The first two themes expose writer goals while the second two focus on how to pursue those goals. This is where the last few decades of empirical research by scientists across the spectrum from psychology and linguistics to software engineering yield reliable text design, drafting, and revision techniques. Readers of this note series have seen many such science-based writing techniques featured (for example, see http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/handbook/handbooktoc.html ) and guides such as Karen Schriver's Dynamics in Document Design summarize them for technical professionals. Teachers also need to cultivate these skills in students, a concern addressed by the last pair of CCSS themes. THEME 5--Externalizing Helps Externalizing techniques helps writers; externalizing goals helps readers. THEME 6--Iterative Improvement Improved writing comes through repeated revision (with feedback). Here again, empirical successes in real science and engineering (such as checklists to improve surgery outcomes or iterative design to improve prototype products) provide ways to help students achieve better results. Even just characterizing the project in these terms (responding to reader needs, designing more effective prose, making hidden moves explicit) offers a more science-based, more authentic approach to writing than most students have ever tried before. The positive results appear not only in science class (in notebooks, lab reports, project talks, and technical posters) but in a lifetime of better communication about technical topics as professionals and as citizens. [Part II next month: connecting these themes to what your students already write in science class]

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