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Technical Writing: Highlighting as Post-Publication Text Engineering

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

   Technical Writing: Highlighting as Post-Publication Text Engineering

Highlighting (nonfiction) text as one reads is a common self-
scaffolding technique to improve text usefulness, compatible with
(although never explicitly mentioned in) the Common Core State
Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts.  Successful highlighting,
however, is harder than it looks.  The process involves not only
overt moves (marking the text), but invisible ones (selecting,
evaluating, and prioritizing content).  A recent comparative
analysis of three dozen empirical studies of highlighting reveals
why K-12 student writers need the help of cognitive apprenticeship
to maximize the benefits that they can derive from highlighting text.

The Potential Benefits

The preface (for teachers and parents) of CCSS spells out the
intellectual goals to which self-scaffolding, such as highlighting,
is especially relevant: grades 6-12...the standards in science and
    technical subjects ensure that students can
    independently build knowledge in these disciplines
    through reading and writing...
    (, "Key shifts in English
    Language Arts")

To highlight effectively as they encounter a new (STEM) text, a
reader must be able to notice:
* important, useful technical terms and distinctions,
* key steps in a sequence or process, observed or performed, and
* milestones or forks in textual logic ("in addition, by contrast,
   furthermore, instead, however").
Empirical studies show that reliably noticing the right text features
to usefully highlight calls for both chronological maturity and
coached attention.

Highlighting Pitfalls

Early in 2022, Hector Ponce, Richard Mayer, and Ester Mendez
undertook a comprehensive meta-analysis of text highlighting
studies to see what trends empirical research had uncovered
["Effects of learner-generated highlighting..," Educational
Psychology Review, January 2022, doi: 10.1007/s10648-021-
09654-1].  They compared the results of 36 studies of highlighting
performance published between 1938 and 2019, in which the
experimental subjects were high-school or college students [p. 1].

Ponce, Mayer, and Mendez found two consistent, well-supported
results from their broad research review (p.1):

1. Highlighting done by readers/learners spontaneously as they
worked through a text...
A. improved performance on memory tests but NOT on
   comprehension tests, and
B. improved performance for college students but NOT
   for younger, high-school students.

2. Highlighting provided to readers/learners, pre-installed
by an instructor in a text, however,
A. improved reader performance on BOTH comprehension and
   memory tests, and
B. helped high-school students as well as older, college

The likely explanation for these differences: "high-quality"
instructor-provided highlighting "overcomes the problem that
inexperienced students are likely to select the wrong material"
to highlight, thus actually confusing or misleading themselves
later when they rely on self-highlights for study, review,
or text analysis (p. 6).  

Ponce, Mayer, and Mendez connect this persistent pattern to the
general role of cognitive load in learning:

    ...when learners receive high-quality highlighting,
    learner's selecting processes are conducted with
    high efficiency, and therefore cognitive capacity
    is available for the higher-level processes of
    organizing and integrating [the technical text
    that they read or write] (p. 32).

How Cognitive Apprenticeship Helps

So how can relatively younger and inexperienced readers/writers
gain the full cognitive-load benefits of text highlighting?  As
noted above, highlighting is only visible as a marking process,
not as a decision/organizing process.  You can help students notice
and then practice the invisible aspects of highlighting by sharing
not just your results (marked up text), but also by announcing and
modeling your (otherwise) invisible intellectual moves as you
make them on a sample of STEM text in front of student readers.

This provides the same kind of cognitive apprenticeship opportunity
that drafting an abstract (for a longer text) in front of students
with your own running commentary does--the normally hidden expert
process becomes explicit, so novice watchers can internalize and
then practice it on their own.  As they try out the decisions and
selections that they see you perform/announce during such public
highlighting, they gradually become more empowered, effective
self-highlighters themselves.  This enables students to achieve
the declared CCSS goal of independent learning by reading (and
writing) STEM text.  They thereby see how to benefit from
conducting text engineering even after a text has been published.

[Want more background on technical writing in science class? See
For a closer look at cognitive apprenticeship for writers, see ]


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