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Technical Writing: Unpacking Sequence Words the ESL Way

Technical Writing: Unpacking Sequence Words the ESL Way

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T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
trgirill@acm.org

Technical Writing: Unpacking Sequence Words the ESL Way

The Common Core standards make literacy development the responsibility
of science teachers as well as ELA teachers. But if you are already
busy helping students with their science struggles, how can you help
with their literacy struggles too? As Daniel Bergman points out in
"Blending Language Learning with Science" (Science Teacher,
April/May 2013, 80(4), 47-50), these responsibilities often call
for parallel but distinct teaching strategies: science support can
be inquiry-oriented, but language support for underperforming writers
(which Bergman oddly calls "lesson support") needs to be "frontloaded"
and explicit. ESL teachers know what this means and specialty texts
like Hilary Glassman-Deal's Science Research Writing for Non-Native
Speakers of English (Imperial College Press, 2010) show nicely how
it works.

The Methods-Section Case

If you assign any project reports or abstracts, the standard
science-oriented way to explain "how to write" the methods section
covers only two aspects:

* its PLACE (second in the usual introduction/methods/results/discussion
report framework), and

* its CONTENT. Adequate methods sections include materials,
equipment, software, and procedures. Hence, they often feature
SEQUENCES...of steps performed, events observed, or measurements
taken.

For ESL students, or for any native speakers with weak literacy
skills, a third aspect of the methods section needs to be explained
as well, namely, the words needed to appropriately, effectively
EXPRESS the content that the student wants to include.

Sequence Words Differentiated

Glassman-Deal's explanation of the methods section is just like
everyone else's except that she also makes explicit--in a chart
in her section 3.2.1--the different words that fluent English
speakers use to express eight distinct stages in a technical
sequence. Here is a very abbreviated version of her list, just
two examples per stage, of English words highly relevant to
signaling readers about WHERE the writer thinks they are in a
sequence:

1. Before the beginning--
earlier
in advance
2. At the beginning--
to start with
at first
3. Steps--
next
then
4. Early phase--
soon
before long
5. Later phase--
in time
later [on]
6. Simultaneous steps--
as soon as
while
7.At the end--
finally
lastly
8. After the end--
afterwards
eventually

If you are a fluent English speaker you realize how easily you
deploy these verbal distinctions without conscious effort. Most
are also idioms (there is no logical reason why the correct
phrase is 'in advance' instead of 'by advance' or 'for advance',
for example, yet using those alternative strings entirely spoils
the intended meaning). This is precisely why ESL students--
and low-literacy native speakers too--have trouble signaling
these distinctions effectively (or may not even notice them).
Someone needs to reveal the relevant English linguistic features
to them. For describing a sequence, this is Bergman's
"language frontloading" in action.

Ironically, few science students ever learn these moves in English
class--at least until the Common Core required it. That's because
these sequence words are too mainstream to turn up in traditional
vocabulary-building lessons and too nonfiction to get much
attention in literature lessons.

Beyond Plain Language

Note also that the linguistic scaffolding illustrated above is
compatible with, yet different from, what some writers call the
"plain language" movement. This is the push to replace needlessly
big, complex (and often Latin-based) words with synonymous
smaller, clearer (and often Anglo-Saxon) words whenever the
latter can to the communication job at hand just as well. An
example related to expressing a sequence would be replacing
'subsequently' with 'after'.

However, most of the signal words in the sequence-stages list above
are already pretty much "plain" and Anglo-Saxon. The specific
problem for students here is not that these words are pompous or
intimidating but that they embody important meaning distinctions
in ways that are invisible or confusing to anyone not already a
master of idiomatic English. So your pointing out how these basic
sequence terms work (as Glassman-Deal does) frees your students to
communicate well about the underlying science topic.


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