Technical Writing: How LIteracy Skills Amplify Technical Content
T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
Technical Writing: How Literacy Skills Amplify Technical Content
The Linkage Challenge
The Next Generation Science Standards feature eight science and
engineering practices. Five are investigative practices (asking
questions, using models, interpreting data, etc.). But three are
communication practices (constructing explanations, arguing from
evidence, and sharing information). The communication practices,
which connect science success with literacy success, are not
intended to replace the investigative ones in any way, but rather
to amplify the value of investigative results.
This linkage is more than just a vague slogan. Practice tests
for the Common Core State Standards (in ELA) have now been released.
The scoring rubric for short-answer nonfiction essays directly
demonstrates in a quantitative way just how CCSS skills "amplify
the value" of science content for a text's audience.
The Distance Model for Achievement
In a recent post about "a new theory of elite performance"
a_new_theory_of_elite_performance), psychologist Christine Carter
approvingly quotes colleague Angela Duckworth's revealing comparison
of distance and achievement. With a little work, this model will
also reveal much about the role of communication skills in technical
Duckworth starts with the familiar fact that
distance = speed x time.
From this equation it follows that even if speed is very low, with
enough time one can still go any distance...as long as speed is not
zero. That alone prevents time from helping one accumulate distance.
Likewise in general, psychologist Duckworth argues,
achievement = skill x effort,
from which it follows that even if skill is fairly small, with
enough effort one can still compensate and reach significant levels
of achievement...as long as skill is not zero. According to Carter,
"researchers across diverse fields have produced remarkably
consistent findings that back up Duckworth's [multiplicative]
theory." So there is empirical evidence that the tortoise's
approach to winning (long) races against hares really works.
Content Times Presentation
For science communication purposes, we are interested in one specific
type of achievement, namely the value of technical text for an
intended audience. Practice literacy tests for CCSS in New York
State are now available (at www.engageny.org). The "released
questions with [scoring] annotations" strikingly illustrate this
special case of Duckworth's formula:
audience = relevant x presentation
value content quality
With strong parallels to the two "distance" formulas above, this
implies that even if relevant content (in a student essay/answer)
is modest BUT NOT ZERO, presentation quality will amplify its value
for the audience. But where content is completely missing (or
irrelevant to audience tasks or needs) then presentation quality,
no matter how high, cannot rescue the text.
A comparison of three sample scored answers shows how "content trumps
presentation" (while presentation amplifies content) when evaluating
nonfiction writing adequacy from the Common Core perspective (the
full comparison case is shared in chart form at
The question to which the sample (student) answers respond here is
at the top of the chart. The full-credit (2-point) student response
demonstrates both relevant content (it cites the required two
science details) and clear (although pedestrian) presentation.
The half-credit (1-point) student response contains the essential two
details--relevant content without which the answer has no value--
but delivered with very weak presentation (no framing claims, and
not even one complete sentence). The no-credit (0-point) student
response has all complete sentences and fairly fluent presentation
...but without any relevant technical details at all. Mere glibness
here cannot compensate for total content irrelevance (relevant
content = 0 in the achievement equation above). This last sample
response scored LESS than the previous one, not more--in fact, it
scored zero points.
The Linkage Revisited
The relative value of these answers may come as a shock to some
ELA teachers. However, it fits perfectly with the general
distance/achievement equation applied here: presentation quality
really amplifies relevant technical content but it cannot compensate
for irrelevant (or absent) content. That is how people in the
world outside of school actually evaluate the science texts on
which they depend, so this approach prepares students to contribute
to that world. As Bill Badders, 2013-2014 president of the
National Science Teachers Association has observed "science and
literacy are mutually supportive and use many of the same cognitive
strategies" (NSTA Reports, Sept. 2013, p. 22). Their linkage in
NGSS is indeed more than just a metaphor.