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Techncial Writing: Scientific English Phrasebank Online

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore Natl. Lab. (retired)
trgirill@acm.org

Technical Writing: Scientific English Phrasebank Online

Many students covertly share a problem that international ESL
STEM learners face overtly every day: they know what they want to
express in a technical text, but they are not comfortable picking
the right English-language words to say it.  Fortunately, there is
a free, authoritative, easy-to-use, online STEM "phrase bank" that
addresses this need.

Finding the Words

Writing effective academic English (the kind of language common in
scientific reports, articles, and even self-notes) involves two tasks:

1. deciding which linguistic "moves" to make (give an example, raise
an objection, contrast several alternatives) and
2. deciding which standard English expressions encode those moves
so that readers can recognize the move and decode/understand the
content details correctly.

Fortunately, two British linguists have built a free online tool that
helps STEM students with both tasks--the Manchester Academic Phrasebank.
John Swales inventoried the moves needed for effective academic
communication.  Then John Morley, who has taught nonnative English
speakers at several locations worldwide, collected reliable examples
of encoding those moves into practical, formal English.  The
phrasebank (online at phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk) offers easy-to-use
menus that itemize common linguistic moves and then, for each,
reliable alternative ways to perform that move for students to try
as they draft their own STEM text.

Phrasebank in Action

A typical move that student STEM writers might need to perform is
"giving examples."  In response, the phrasebank displays a list of
ways to perform that move in acceptable academic English, ranging
from very simple and literal to alternatives that grow increasingly
complex and indirect.  In this specific case, the offerings range
through
    For example, xxx
    Another example of this is xxx
    xxx exemplifies yyy
    For instance, xxx
    One case of xxx is yyy

Note that those responses farther down the list give examples
effectively without using the English word 'example' at all.  This
lets student writers broaden their linguistic tool kit while
helping their readers understand their moves accurately.  There
are no exotic secrets here, just crucial overt verbal support for
anyone who simply needs some scaffolding to "find the words."

Scope of Support

The phrasebank is broad enough to cover a dozen linguistic moves
common when drafting scientific text, where the most appropriate
English-language academic expression may not be obvious to ESL
students (or to any students with limited formal vocabularies):

    *Classify and list
    *Compare and contrast
    *Define a term
    *Raise an objection
    *Give an example
    *Explain a cause
    *Describe a trend
    *Signal a transition

Content Safety Too

Finally, the phrasebank developers even overtly address the issue of
plagiarism in science, about which some students may have been warned.
No text offered by the phrasebank contains any actual technical
content, just the auxiliary words standardly used in formal English
to express such content.  So students can safely borrow those standard
phrases when they draft a text because any technical claims
encoded by such expressions will originate with the students themselves.  

[For suggestions that help second-language writers especially, see
http://writeprofessionally.org/techlit/eslissues
For ways to improve all STEM text helpfulness, see
http://writeprofessionally.org/techlit/usability
For a dictionary of science idioms that complement the phrasebank, see
http://writeprofessionally.org/techlit/science-idioms]

 

 

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