T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
Technical Writing: How ELL Writing Support Benefits Everyone
When veteran ESL/ELL teacher Wendi Pillars blogs about "Helping
English Language Learners Adapt Under the Common Core" (Education
Week Teacher, Jan. 7, 2014, http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/
2014/01/07/ctq_pillars_ela.html), she offers several strategies
that are really quite general. They can help every science
student learn to communicate more effectively.
"Whether my students are writing or preparing a presentation...
I make sure that the outcome and expectations are explicit,"
says Pillars. One practical way to provide all students with
such "tangible [text] objectives" is by using feature checklists
to frame the desired result while still leaving plenty of room
for student originality.
For example, an instruction-drafting checklist such as
makes explicit your (format) expectation that students should
actively seek out the first (sometimes hidden, preparatory)
step(s) in a sequence of actions (e.g., adjust the tools,
boil the water, measure the chemicals). Yet it leaves to them
the (content) discovery of just which steps those are in each
laboratory or field activity. After some work with this scaffold,
students are more likely to internalize this need to search for
hidden enabling or precursor actions whenever they write
instructions for others.
Likewise, a description-writing checklist, such as the one at
makes explicit your expectation to pick and stick with some
organizing scheme for their description (spatial? temporal?
priority--as in a nutritional food label?). There may be more
than one appropriate way to organize the description, but
students who see the checklist reminder to pick one and overtly
signal it to their readers ("farther left," "the third stage,"
"the second biggest ingredient...") will be more ready to make
this choice on their own later.
Virtually all nonfiction writers benefit from scaffolds for
the same "explicit outcome" expectations as do ELLs, even though
they more quickly outgrow them. Text engineering is no time
for mystery goals.
A second ELL-support tip from Wendi Pillars that generalizes
very well is her advice to help students "take risks and recover
from [writing] mistakes in a safe yet authentic environment."
Because students usually see only the final, carefully crafted
result of any real-life technical writing process (a magazine
article, a book chapter, even a page of lab instructions),
they easily get the wrong idea that other people write fully
adequate, completely usable, technical text on the first try.
That almost never happens. Virtually every real article,
chapter, or manual started as a much inferior draft that the
author repeatedly revised, feature by feature, to better meet
audience needs iteratively. So text revision (= mistake
recovery) IS the authentic technical writing process...no
need for despair.
But many students, confronted with their own flawed draft,
cannot spontaneously imagine the iterative improvements needed.
Once again, checklists can provide them with the enabling
scaffold to see possible alternatives: more (or any) headings
to reveal their text's structure? vocabulary better suited
to their audience? clarifying comparisons omitted on the first
pass? Imagining such alternatives is a learned skill, a true
measure of cognitive maturity. Using checklists to improve
a draft nonfiction text one feature at a time is a very
supportive way to build that skill--not just for ELL students,
but for everyone in science class.
[Want more relevant background? See
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