February 2017
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Heather Torrie, Purdue University Northwest, Hammond, Indiana, USA

As educators, our primary purpose is to prepare students to succeed in the future by giving them tasks that they will likely encounter. In teaching second language (L2) writing in an academic setting, one challenge instructors face is creating level- and content-appropriate writing assignments. On the one hand, authenticity is an important goal, as students need practice with the type of writing tasks they will see in their future coursework; on the other hand, topics must be accessible and either dependent on prior background knowledge or assigned with adequate scaffolding.

The writing curriculum of my intensive English program has undergone quite a bit of change in the past couple of years as my colleagues and I have tried to implement more authentic writing tasks and achieve the balance described above. Student learning outcomes at the intermediate and advanced levels centered on writing essays of standard rhetorical forms, such as compare/contrast, problem/solution, summary/response, and argumentative essays. We felt (and still feel) that these outcomes build the skills necessary for students to perform college-level writing. However, we used mainly liberal arts topics—communication, culture, education, and roles of technology, for example—because we felt they were accessible and did not present too much of a cognitive demand on students. Indeed, these topics were familiar to students and easy to write about.

Based on our internal needs assessments, however, it was clear that many of our students were going on to majors in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and needed more authentic tasks and topics. This realization led to an effort in our writing program to incorporate different types of tasks and a shift to more STEM-based topics. In this article, I outline and discuss some of these writing assignments, which I have used in my own classes.

STEM-Based Tasks

Hands-on Science Activities With Short-Answer Writing

In many cases, I simply wish to give students writing practice using STEM-related prompts, rather than requiring them to craft complete essays. I was drawn to activities from elementary school science classes because they were hands-on and engaging; they were also basic enough that they did not require sophisticated content background.

One activity was to make homemade flashlights. After reading some articles and reviewing diagrams of electric circuits and their components, I gave students a AA battery, a small light bulb, copper wire, paperclips, and cardboard and tape for mounting. After they all spent some time assembling the flashlights, each group had quite unique-looking flashlights, some of which worked more successfully than others. Following the hands-on activity, I asked the students to write a short paragraph explaining how their flashlight worked. Sample language included sentences such as:

First, the electricity flowed from the battery terminal into the contact on the end of the light bulb. The filament inside the bulb illuminates and emits light. The electricity flows out again and through the copper wire to the negative electrode on the battery. A switch on the wire can either break the circuit or let the electricity continue flowing.

Another activity involved growing bacteria cultures. I asked our department to order two sets of petri dishes prefilled with agar. In groups, students decided which surfaces to swab for their cultures. After an incubation period, they observed their cultures to see how much the bacteria had grown and answered a series of short-answer questions about what happened, which required the use of target vocabulary. Questions included, “Describe the procedure used for collecting bacteria,” and “How much did the bacteria replicate?” Key vocabulary included bacteria, exposure, surface, replicate, incubate, and other content words that we had learned previously in the course.

Process Writing Assignments

One of the rhetorical patterns in our textbook, which had not been previously used, was the process pattern. We had been focusing mainly on the summary/response and argument essays, which promote critical thinking. However, I realized that the process essay might be more representative of some of the technical writing our students would be required to do in STEM classes. In developing the process-writing component, the main challenge was developing STEM-related prompts that did not require too much technical background information. Ultimately, the most successful prompts were those involving diagrams with basic text (e.g., key words or phrases), such as the water cycle and recycling of plastic.

For the water cycle prompt, students were given a diagram providing them with the most important vocabulary: precipitation, evaporation, runoff, water table, transpiration,and condensation (see Figure 1). They were then asked to expand their ideas on each step of the water cycle using examples and details. They also incorporated transitions and signal words and statistics from outside sources. Given the technical nature of these topics, students were inclined to take explanations and definitions from the Internet, and I had to revisit the rules of citation to avoid plagiarism. Overall, the students did well with this assignment and seemed to enjoy a fresh topic (ecology) to write about.

Figure 1. Sample prompt given about the water cycle (Evans & Perlman, 2013).


Next, as an in-class writing assignment, students wrote about how plastics are recycled, basing their essays on a three-step flow chart that provided them with some key points (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Sample prompt given about recycling plastic.

In this case, my aim was to assess their description skills, not their knowledge of recycling. Although the goal was not necessarily to stimulate creative thinking, it was clear from their essays which students applied themselves to really build and develop their ideas and which students simply wrote about the basic points on the flowchart. In either case, this was a topic that students were able to write about without the need for extensive outside research or specialized background knowledge.

Lab Reports

One of the initial purposes of delving into STEM writing was that one of the engineering professors at our university expressed general frustration about international students not being able to adequately write lab reports in terms of grammar and format. After reviewing authentic sample lab reports that the professor provided, I led two brief in-class activities to teach the basic components of a lab report: introduction, procedure, results, and conclusion.

The first activity, done together as a class, involved watching a short YouTube video of a man conducting an experiment to determine how much sugar is in a can of soda. Together, we wrote a short paragraph including the purpose statement, materials used, steps, and finally, the outcome. The second activity required students to write a few paragraphs based on a set of lab notes I had written, reporting on a fictitious experiment to test the effectiveness of three types of hand sanitizers. These notes included the research question, a list of materials, brief notes on the procedure, and the results, including photos of the bacteria growth in petri dishes. Students were then able to utilize the information from the notes and what they observed from the images to draw conclusions as to the most effective product. Together, these two smaller writing assignments worked well to provide my students with a more authentic context to describe a process and discuss the results. This work also provided the groundwork for them to conduct and write about their own hands-on lab.

Lab Simulation

Planning a lab for ESL students can be challenging due to constraints in facilities, equipment, and technical knowledge. Because I needed something for students to do in the classroom, I fell back on a previously studied topic: the absorbency of diapers. From experience, I knew that students enjoyed the process of extracting the tiny granules from a diaper and watching them expand to absorb a large quantity of dyed water. This time, however, I wanted to expand the activity to compare three brands of diapers. In pairs, students took one diaper from each brand to collect qualitative data on each, including softness and elasticity. They also recorded the dimensions of the diapers and their cost. Then, they measured the absorbency by pouring dyed water onto each diaper and recording the amount at saturation, which provided an engaging hands-on activity on which to base their papers.

In a multidraft formal report, students included an introduction on the purpose of this experiment. The second section was a description of each diaper, based on their notes, and the third section described in detail—using the passive voice, where possible—the procedure used to measure absorbency. Below is an (unedited) example from one student, showing effective use of the passive voice:

Once the measurement and observation were taken, each edge of diaper were cut to extract its granules which is found on the padding of the diaper. After extracting the granules, they were poured into a plastic cup. Then, colored water, which is used to give better visibility in absorbency, was added until the material was saturated. Eventually, the capacity of the water that was observed was recorded.

Finally, the conclusion of their reports gave a recommendation of which brand was the best buy overall based on the results of their experiment.


The activities above illustrate that using STEM topics provided engaging and authentic writing practice and preparation for the types of writing many L2 students will see in their university coursework. It can be challenging to select topics that are basic enough not to need extensive preparation and/or background knowledge, but I have found using elementary science topics to be effective with and engaging to students. These topics naturally provide good opportunities to use the grammar structures learned in class, such as sentence combining, transitions, and the passive voice, and STEM-based writing has provided a refreshing change from our program’s once heavily liberal arts–laden topics.


Evans, J., & Perlman, H. (2013). Water-cycle diagram (English). U.S. Department of the Interior & U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved from https://water.usgs.gov/edu/watercycle.html

Heather Torrie is the testing coordinator in the English Language Program at Purdue University Northwest. She has been teaching academic writing for the past 9 years.

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