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Technical Writing: Practice for the Common Core

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

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

Technical Writing: Practice for the Common Core

To implement the literacy requirements of the Common Core
State Standards (CCSS) in science classes calls for a good
thematic sense of direction. But it also calls for some specific
teaching techniques hooked to relevant student projects.

Even with a big-picture usability viewpoint and the six
implementation themes in mind (see last month's note on
"Themes from the Common Core"), you still need to fit CCSS practice
into your busy day. Hence, practical CCSS activities must meet
two criteria:
(1) On-going:
They involve student technical writing that occurs
(or could easily occur) already, and
(2) Authentic:
The writing also has obvious, important, real-world
counterparts (not like the famously contrived
"five-paragraph essay").
Here are five science-student writing projects that meet both of
these criteria.

Drafting Instructions

You and your students already use (and probably draft) lots of
instructions for lab procedures and equipment. You can make this a
Common-Core skill-building activity by dissecting the strengths and
weaknesses of those instructions, externalizing their pitfalls and
their best improvements. An overt good-instruction checklist not only
makes this easy, it also shows students how technical professionals
(aircraft pilots, surgeons, construction managers) improve their
own reliability. See the good-instruction guidelines at
to get started; see Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto for

Revising Descriptions

Descriptions of tools used, phenomena observed, and plans made
are vital in every student report or presentation. And of course
your textbook is full of model technical descriptions. Armed with
a checklist of good-description features such as
students can revise their own draft descriptions and those of others.
Not at all pedantic busy work, this is just how professional journal
articles, clinical reports, and crime-scene analyses are really crafted.
As with well-designed instructions, this approach stresses
usability for readers.

Taking Notes

Field notes, lab notes, or just personal summaries of what
they read or hear all afford an excellent opportunity for students
to practice daily the use of visual and structural features (lists,
headings, tables) to help manage content effectively, as encouraged
throughout the Common Core standards. You can easily scaffold such
improvements (for example, see ).
Each kind of student note taking has a real-life counterpart. And
the impact of notes drafted with usability in mind ranges from
general self-help (faster, easier intellectual success) to specific
technical triumphs (notebooks usable by others are crucial to
support patent applications).

Designing Abstracts

Project abstracts--short, tightly organized work summaries--are
the most disciplined writing assignments that most students undertake.
Whether for your review or for official use by science-fair judges,
abstracts are a great way for students to focus on audience needs,
a key Common-Core theme. An abstract template can externalize what
this requires:
Once they leave school, your students will find many chances to
apply their abstract-crafting skills: journals demand them,
databases circulate them around the world, and medical doctors
even prescribe treatments based on them.

Crafting Posters

Technical posters have long been an essential part of science-
fair projects. Now they are an increasingly common way for student
researchers to share their efforts with classmates and even with
working professionals. As scaffolds such as this point out,
poster design applies familiar Common-Core communication principles
to a very unusual set of size, distance, and social-context
constraints. Yet this odd situation exactly parallels how real
scientists, engineers, and medical practitioners share their own
recent results at any technical conference.

So here are five literacy activities already at hand within
typical science classes. All of them, properly scaffolded, can
offer your students (1) practice in designing usable text,
(2) a way to meet Common-Core writing standards, and, best of all,
(3) robust preparation for life after school.

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Technical Literacy Project leader, STC and LLNL

Relevant workshop

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California readers interested in this topic might like to
know that Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is offering a
free two-day professional development workshop for teachers on
"Technical Writing for Science Class," June 20-21, 2013, at the
Edward Teller Education Center, Livermore, CA. See
for details and registration.
T. R. Girill

Technical Literacy Project leader, STC and LLNL

Skill vs Content Area

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NSTA president Karen Ostlund, on p. 14 of the March, 2013, issue
of NSTA Reports, notes that "the conceptual shift is away from
viewing ELA and mathematics as content areas to the perception
that they are skills to be practiced and mastered in the
science and engineering curriculum." The text-engineering
approach to CCSS literacy outlined in the post above
and at
shows very nicely how to carry out Ostlund's "conceptual shift."

Technical Literacy Project leader, STC and LLNL

How do the Common Core State

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How do the Common Core State Standards affect instructional design
choices for K-12 literacy support in science classes? See "How
the Common Core Revived Cognitive Apprenticeship," IDL Newsletter,
Q4, 2013, online at

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