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Technical Writing: Professional Development Meets Common Core

Technical Writing: Professional Development Meets Common Core

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

Technical Writing: Professional Development Meets Common Core

The 19 April 2013 issue of Science (vol. 340, issue 6130) focuses on
"Grand Challenges in Science Education." In it, Suzanne M. Wilson
reviews "Professional Development for Science Teachers" (pp. 310-13),
searching for "the silver bullet," some SUFFICIENT condition that
guarantees a worthwhile PD program. Unfortunately, so many variables
interact between PD and classroom outcomes that she couldn't find
one. But she did note how much research supports the idea that
combining new "content knowledge" with "specific instructional
practices that teachers can master" (p. 311) provides a NECESSARY
condition for PD success--without this combination, PD is doomed to
fail. Fortunately, there is an approach to science-teacher PD for
the nonfiction literacy demands of the Common Core State Standards
that nicely satisfies this necessary condition.

A summary posted at
pulls together the two training features that effectively combine to
prepare science teachers for their new Common Core responsibilities.

Content Knowledge

One half of the dual necessary condition is "content knowledge," in
this case an authentic introduction to how real-world scientists and
engineers communicate technical information. Science class provides
an unlimited supply of examples and cases once the key literacy
issues are clear:

* nonfiction writers are responsible for anticipating
reader needs and for addressing the tasks and problems
that bring readers to their text.
* the relevant writing techniques (such as iterative
refinement and text/graphics integration) are all
aspects of "text engineering," approaching writing
as a constrained design project rather than
personal emoting or literary flight.
* usability is always a goal--helping readers understand
and navigate your text so that they can use it
effectively (more details at the URL above).

As Karen Ostlund, president of the National Science Teachers
Association, noted in the February 28, 2013, issue of NSTA
Reports (,
"the conceptual shift is away from viewing ELA [= writing]
and mathematics as [isolated] content areas to the perception
that they are skills to be practiced and mastered in the science
and engineering curriculum."

Instructional Practices

The other half of the dual necessary condition are supportive
instructional practices to actually build the foregoing skills
in science students:

(1) Writing opportunities.
Every nonfiction text that students draft already in the typical
science class can be scaffolded to become an explicit literacy-
development tool: lab instructions, technical descriptions,
personal notes, project abstracts, and science posters.

(2) Differentiated instruction.
From middle school through high school and across ability levels
from developmentally disabled to advanced placement, literacy
differentiation moves are easy. For example, some students can
draft full instructions for a lab (or edit someone else's draft),
while others can revise or replace the mini-instructions in
just one small section of a material safety data sheet.

(3) ESL/ELL integration.
Especially satisfying is the continuity between the techniques
that help English language learners gain fluent, academic literacy
and the techniques that help EVERYONE design usable, effective
technical text (coached mastery of science idioms or of action
verbs are simple examples).

Empirical Results

I am pleased to report that test driving PD for the Common Core
that combines content knowledge with instructional practice
as outlined above yields very positive results. Two two-day
workshops in California (one at the San Joaquin County Office of
Education and the other at the Edward Teller Education Center,
fielded in collaboration with Nadine R. Horner) enjoyed large
enrollments (compared to other workshops), achieved a good fit
with teacher (attendee) as well as with school-district needs,
and earned strong feedback endorsements--for example, "a very
useful, thought-provoking two days."

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