George Lucas Educational Foundation

Technical Writing: Practice for the Common Core

Technical Writing: Practice for the Common Core

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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 background.

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.

This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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T.R. Girill's picture
T.R. Girill
Technical Literacy Project leader, STC and LLNL

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

T.R. Girill's picture
T.R. Girill
Technical Literacy Project leader, STC and LLNL

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."

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