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Technical Writing: Science Textbook Features as Student Models

Technical Writing: Science Textbook Features as Student Models

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T. R. Girill Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Technical Writing: Science Textbook Features as Student Models What Makes a Textbook? In an interesting recent article, historian of science Adam R. Shapiro asks "what makes a [science] book a textbook?" ("Regulating Science Textbooks in Secondary Education," Isis, 103(1), 99-110, March 2012). Working strictly from his historian's perspective, Shapiro came up with five (related) answers to his question (pp. 104-105): 1. Audience. Textbooks are for nonscientists (or perhaps future scientists), not for fellow experts. 2. Presentation. Textbooks are authoritative yet usually present science in "less technical language" than found in research reports. 3. Social Connection. By their examples and comparisons, textbooks try to "relate science and technology to the needs and experience of a larger society." 4. Official Status. "Arguably," notes Shapiro wryly, "it is the compulsory nature of their use that makes books [into] textbooks." This possibility arose gradually in the 1800s when science education itself became compulsory, first in universities and then for younger students too. 5. Political Role. Teachers already know what Shapiro discovered here, namely that today textbooks are often not written to appeal to teachers or their students but rather to impress "school boards or state agencies responsible for textbook adoption": Consequently, the textbook may contain neither what the scientific community wants to preserve and transmit to its aspiring members...nor what it wants to communicate about its endeavors to others (p. 105). Features Rather Than Content All of this clever historical analysis ignores a very different criterion for deciding when a book is a textbook: the textual features by which its content is delivered. You can detect a (modern) science textbook just by looking at almost any page. A typical novel's page (think J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, for example) has nothing on it but paragraphs of words. There are page numbers and chapter breaks but no other visual features at all. Even a science-oriented nonfiction memoir, such as Homer H. Hickam Jr's charming 1998 account of how he grew up in rural West Virginia to eventually join the space program (Rocket Boys) looks like a novel--nothing but undifferentiated words, sentences, and paragraphs on every page. But because textbooks have a different goal--effectiveness and usability--they also have a different look. Almost every page of a modern science textbook contains communication-enabling features never seen in a novel or even in nonfiction biography: * Headings-- displayed and accented lines that reveal at a glance both the content of each text chunk and the hierarchical structure of the book. * Numbers-- section numbers, figure numbers, note numbers, and equation numbers all go far beyond page numbers in serving as milestones for content as well as anchors for easy cross reference from elsewhere. * Itemized lists and charts-- to graphically display complex intellectual relationships and reveal related content pieces as visible text chunks. * Framed sidebars and summary boxes-- you don't see such advance organizers, supportive definitions, or clarifying comparisons except in books designed to help their readers learn. Teach the Text Tools Too Many students may see these textbook features but "look right through them," not aware of their special roles nor realizing that students can deploy these features also. But you can "teach the features" as well as the content of your science textbooks. You can point out the heads, special numbers, lists, etc., and explain how each makes a textbook more useful (just imagine the same textbook page with those features gone to see how much they contribute). Every such feature can be used by students when they write too. Recognizing them and their value comes first, then a little practice in deploying them is easy to encourage whenever students in turn want or need to explain technical topics to classmates, to siblings, to you, or even to their parents. Your textbook can thus serve as a authoritative model to students of good science-communication techniques, whatever its content.

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