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Technical Writing: Lessons for all from D/HH writing support

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
trgirill@acm.org

Technical Writing: Lessons for All from D/HH Writing Support

Hannah Dostal and Kimberly Wolbers are long-time pioneers in helping
D/HH (deaf/hard-of-hearing) students, many of whom regard American
Sign Language (ASL) as their native language, to develop and enrich
their fluency with written English.  Dostal and Wolbers call their
approach "Strategic and Interactive Writing Instruction" (SIWI, see
siwi.utk.edu), and one slice of SIWI nicely generalizes to help ALL
struggling student writers to communicate more effectively.  SIWI
"explicitly teaches the processes of expert writers to students"
(SIWI website), not just the low-level linguistic ones but also the
high-level metalinguistic ones that provide an invaluable sense of
direction when students design and draft text.

Meeting Reader Needs

A recent open-access study by Dostal and Wolbers ("Transfer of writing
skills across genres..," Inter. Jour. Educational Research, 2021,
doi: 10.1016/j.ijer.2021.101849) reveals the specific metalinguistic
framing that helped D/HH student writers learn text-design skills in
one genre (narrative "recounting") and then transfer those skills to
different, informative and argumentative writing projects.  But nothing
about this approach limits it to D/HH support; every science student
can gain when you share these metalinguistic clues.

The key insight that makes SIWI so practical is that effective writers
in any language choose their specific text-design moves to meet the
intellectual needs of their readers.  In science and technology, most
of what anyone writes would never even exist except to address some
kind of reader need, so pointing this out gives students a very
authentic framework for constructing text that does its job well.

Text Uses

SIWI calls writer attention to the specific use intended for the
sentences that the writer is working to draft.  Consider each sentence
in a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) for a laboratory or industrial chemical.
Is the sentence included in the SDS to explain a property ("...melts
at room temperature"), to clarify by comparison ("much less soluble
than NaCl"), to warn for safer practice ("ignites easily once
evaporated")?  Or perhaps it serves as action advice ("flush spills
thoroughly") or as an environmental hazard warning ("keep spills out
of storm drains").  Noting specifically just why one writes each
sentence can helpfully constrain just what to say.

Text Audience

SIWI also reminds writers that STEM text never lives in an impersonal
void.  One always writes for someone else, whose background, goals,
and needs must be addressed for relevance and effectiveness.  Is this
section of an SDS addressed to a firefighter checking their laptop
while an emergency response (to a spill or explosion) is already
underway?  Or perhaps it should meet the different needs of an
environmental chemist analyzing a spill situation to plan remediation
moves.  Or instead the intended reader might be someone designing
a backyard shed whose materials will routinely contact children or
domestic animals.  Appropriate terminology, level of detail, and
sometimes even sentence length depend on the intended audience,
their goals, and their experience.

Text Genre

Every genre has its characteristic features that become a template
from which the astute writer can draw during text design.  Thus
some SDS sections are comparative paragraphs while others are
usually overt lists of features or ingredients, or instead visually
signaled warnings.  The role of each SDS section often reveals its
typical format and the effectiveness of a section is greatly improved
by writers who attend to the patterns that readers expect to see
there.

Metacognitive Clues

As with virtually all designed products, knowing WHY one needs a
text is crucial for designing that text well, and overt metacognitive
coaching (about use, audience, and genre) gives young writers those
new-to-them but vital clues.  This benefit extends far beyond SDS
sections (and deaf writers) of course, to whenever students draft
STEM text.  As Dostal and Wolbers conclude about their work with
D/HH students--

    ...the results of this study echo and expand upon
    previous findings in which D/HH students with a
    range of proficiencies make gains in UNtaught
    genres when instruction [in taught genres] has
    simultaneously attended to [metacognitive]
    language development....Establishing a clear purpose
    for writing and a relevant audience...contributes
    to students transferring their knowledge of one
    genre to another ["Transfer..," 2021, sect. 4.2].     

[Want more background on technical writing in science class? See
http://writeprofessionally.org/techlit/handbooktoc
For a closer look at helping students design effective text, see
http://writeprofessionally.org/techlit/text-engineering ]

 

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