Technical Writing is a Skill that Must Be Taught

My proposal: carve out time in your science (or math!) class for kids to write formal papers.

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The physics of musical instruments project is a great opportunity for my students to try their first technical writing.

Why Write?

Students write, revise, and rewrite in English classes and I think they should do the same in science. I say this mostly as a former technical writer who mentored under a fabulous editor. I learned how to edit nearly anything I wrote down to half its length while retaining all its meaning, how to apply the inverted pyramid of journalism so I could be certain readers got the most important details, how to use the simplest words possible, and how to receive editing feedback in a positive — rather than critical — light.

How to Teach Tech Writing

Most importantly, I began to think of myself as a writer. That’s a big deal for a person who hated every writing assignment in high school.

How do I propose teaching technical writing in a science (or math!) class?

  • Devote in-class time because this is likely the first tech writing you’ve asked your kids to do.
  • Bring the librarian in to share resources and discuss proper citation style. For my 9th graders, this is their introduction to the Upper School library, so she’s invested in the effort as well. Pro tip: my librarian pulls books for a reserve cart that lives in my classroom during the project so kids have one less thing to worry about. 
  • Spend the time explicitly teaching the tech skills needed to produce a paper in the platform of your choice. Word, Google Docs, or WordPress all have their quirks. Pick one and teach it. This year, I showed them how to insert a page header with automatic page numbering, how to insert page breaks, write equations, and use the Insert Symbol command.

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  • Share examples of good tech writing style. For instance, kids will be surprised to learn that passive voice, so often maligned in English class, is expected in a science lab report. 
  • Read drafts of their paper in class and offer real-time feedback. I caution kids to edit out sentences that don’t add value such as “I really learned a lot from this project.” Oh, and I challenge them to write the shortest possible paper. Too often, these kids have been told to write a minimum length that they’ve become masters at faking a longer looking paper. No one has time for that (them or me!). Shorter wins.

Results

Last year, I demanded kids write their entire research paper (3-5 pages double spaced, so kind of short) on their own time. To be nice, I did remove demands for homework in addition to this paper for the week prior the due date.

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This year, I devoted more than enough class time to write the papers in class — about 3 full class periods or around 200 minutes. The time was worth it. This year’s papers are better and based on comparing to last year, we’re not falling behind.

We have one other big writing project due this semester so I look forward to seeing how their writing evolves.

Next Steps

My rubrics (at the end of the project descriptions) are acceptable but need revision. Several papers had flaws that I couldn’t figure out how to grade because the flaws weren’t directly addressed in the rubric. The easiest solution seems to be to add “and is well-written” to the highest score for every element.

Are you writing in science (or math!) class? How do you incorporate it? Have you seen writing incorporated horribly? Tell me about it in the comments.

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  1. Pingback: Megan Hayes-Golding | An Easier Way to Read Papers

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