How Writing for English as an Additional Language Audiences Has Helped My Technical Writing
Over the past few months, I have been doing volunteer work as a tutor for a community based adult learning association. I focus on tutoring that builds skills needed for entering the workforce or starting a business. Our small town took in a relatively large number of Syrian refugees last year, and some of them have been matched with me as learners.
As our newcomer learners were searching for employment opportunities, it became clear that many of them would need to take an online WHMIS (abbreviation for Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System)test as a condition of employment. WHMIS is a Canada-wide, federally and provincially mandated system that governs the identification and labelling of hazardous materials, the creation of SDS (Safety Data Sheets, formerly MSDS with “M” standing for “material”), and worker education/work site specific training. As my professional background is in environmental health and safety management, I was asked if I could develop a program to prepare EAL learners for the test.
While my obvious goal for the program was to have the learners pass the test and find gainful employment, there was another goal I felt to be more important. I didn’t want to just “teach to the test”. I wanted my learners to really understand how to keep themselves safe at work. I aimed to first make an educational program and materials that helped provide real understanding on the topic before teaching complicated vocabulary needed for the test.
As those of you who familiar with WHMIS (or similar systems) are aware, it is loaded with overly complex words and jargon that make it tedious even for native English speakers. I really had to simplify my language; and as I worked with learners I found I had to simplify even more. It has been a real challenge (along with new ones as we try to adapt for virtual models of teaching) but I believe it has been a valuable experience.
Considerations When Writing for an EAL Audience
Those who are new to the English language are already expending considerable energy on communicating in a new language. It is really important to not unnecessarily complicate what you teach. Here are some important considerations when writing for those who are not native English speakers:
- Organize your writing around your main points: New English speakers can become quickly overwhelmed by too much information. Concentrate on your main points as they contain the most necessary information. State your main points in the most clear and concise way possible. Place these main points in order in such a way that they tell the “story” of what you are explaining. The goal is for the main points to speak for themselves as much as possible. You need only add what is necessary for sufficient understanding.
- Use simple words over complex ones: This is not a time to impress people with your large vocabulary. Save it for your next Scrabble game! Use simple words that most people know. If it is necessary to use a complex word to get a point across, use simple words to define the complex word. Test out if words are actually simple by talking to an EAL speaker or to a six or seven-year-old native English speaker.
- Write shorter sentences using the active voice: In general, aim to write shorter sentences and paragraphs organized by sections. Use the active voice whenever possible. For example, it is better to say, “Read the product label before using the product” than “The product label should be read before the product is used”. The first statement is much less roundabout and is easier to understand. I also find it more pleasant to write in the active voice. As someone who has written technical reports with formats requiring the passive voice, I appreciate not needing to contort my writing to find ways to describe an action without specifying its subject.
- Use visuals to enhance understanding: The liberal use of carefully chosen visuals can really help fill in the reader’s vocabulary gaps. Choose photographs, drawings and diagrams that aren’t too “busy” and contain only a few elements. For example, if you are trying to illustrate the word “label”, a close-up picture of a label would be preferable over a picture of several bottles on a table with the label turned towards the viewer. The first has a reasonable chance of being interpreted as “label” while the second may be interpreted as “bottles” or “supply area”. Sometimes, you may need a series of visuals to demonstrate an abstract concept. For example, we used a series of pictures contrasting “safe” and “not safe” when educating our EAL learners.
- Use real life examples to demonstrate concepts: Most people (and especially new English speakers)find it easier to understand concepts through the use of concrete examples over abstract explanations. Use examples that are relevant to your target audience; keeping their culture, past experiences, and age in mind.
- Engage the reader by asking questions and suggesting activities: Understanding is enhanced when we are asked to think about what we read or find hands-on ways to apply what we have learned.
How Writing for an EAL Audience Can Improve Your Other Technical Writing
You will likely find that writing for an EAL audience (or imagining that you are) will improve your technical writing for other audiences. Here are some ways writing for new English speakers can help you better write for everyone:
- It forces you to be clear about what you are trying to say.
- It teaches you to structure your writing in a logical format.
- Many people besides new English speakers prefer simpler, more streamlined writing. Younger readers and those with less education may require simpler vocabulary. More educated readers may be too tired or busy for long, complicated explanations. And if you are writing instructions, many people would like to just get to doing the thing you are explaining.
- It will prevent your writing from sounding stuffy or pretentious.
- It will help you think of things from your reader’s perspective. This is helpful for all types of writing, including fiction writing.
I have found that writing for EAL learners has really helped me communicate more clearly and thoughtfully. It is also really rewarding to think that I may be helping someone participate more fully in a culture that is new to them. I wholeheartedly recommend you take the opportunity to work with and write for EAL learners if you get the chance. You will both learn a lot from it. And if you don’t get the opportunity, imagining you are writing for this audience may be a worthy exercise. I hope it helps you as much as it has helped me. Happy writing!