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The Future of Your English Class: Technical Communication

Education is a hot topic in today’s tumultuous economy and fast-paced technological society. It’s hard to go through life now without being bombarded by evangelists shouting about the future of education in our country. Everyone has an opinion and most are willing to sell you on fear of what will happen if we don’t follow their plan. I’m not going to lie: having been a teacher for the past seven years, I have many strong opinions about education. Today, I just want to share with you the direction I see English class taking in our country.

Historically speaking, students of English took Literature classes. Even today, many students of English class take courses with titles like American Literature or British Literature. My own district, despite having adopted the term Communication Arts for traditional English classes, still uses American Lit and Brit Lit curriculum for Communication Arts 11 and 12 (11th grade and 12th grade). Despite this attachment to English class being the place we discuss literature, the reality of our world is based in informational texts.

If you’re active in discussions about secondary education in our country, it’s likely you’ve heard of the Common Core State Standards—an effort to develop a nationally universal set of standards in language arts and math. To date, 45 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards. In the language arts standards, there is an increasing focus on reading informational text. The Key Points in Language Arts explain that students are expected to read “a diverse array of classic and contemporary literature as well as challenging informational texts in a range of subjects.” As you can see from the chart below (taken from the Language Arts Standards), the distribution of reading shifts significantly to informational text as students near graduation, to match the skills they will need for college and career. It is important to note that this distribution is across subjects, so while during their time in 12th grade, students should be reading 70% informational text, many of those will come from Math, Science, and History.

Reading Distribution Chart

At the same time, you can see the distribution of writing shifts away from narrative texts (designed to convey experience) and towards persuasive and expository (information-based) texts.

Writing Distribution Chart

The reality is, we live in an age where more information be produced far exceeds any ability for the collective human race to process and organize it on our own. The capacity of our brains to hold knowledge has become far less crucial as the information we need to do our jobs far exceeds our ability to know it all. Consequently, how we teach must naturally adapt to this brave new world.

Rising out of the ashes, comes a need for workers who can use technology to process information, analyze its significance, evaluate its validity, synthesize it into actionable plans, and communicate all that in a way that is effective and easy to access. So comes the technical communicator.

Technical communicators must be masters of language and masters of the ability to deliver information in ways that are easily digestible by their audience. This means texts that are easy to navigate, since many readers will target specific information rather than read a whole book. It also means understanding and applying concision, coherence, legibility, and readability. Information that is difficult to read, hard to understand, or overly verbose is a turn off. Lastly, it means that information has to be well designed. Documents and webpages have their own energy, and if that energy is chaotic, distracting, or unattractive, you’re unlikely to deliver your message.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded by information, we will turn away quicker than we will turn towards it. The 3-30-3 rule is a well-known phenomenon in the web development field. It explains that you have 3 second to grab your reader’s attention. Once you do, you have 30 second to engage them with a summary of your topic. If they are still with you, you then have 3 minutes of their time to read what you have to say, no matter how interesting your writing or topic are. In a matter of 3 minutes and 33 seconds, if you have not delivered the information your readers need to know, you might as well not have put it out there to begin with.

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