Spring 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 1 // Tools of the Trade // 1TOT3

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Writing To Teach


Peggy Risdon
Extension Agent
State 4-H Office
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University-Blacksburg

Extension has been plagued by the fact that many citizens avoid Extension publications because they're hard to read and use.1 Learning theory suggests a way to develop more effective written materials. Extension staff can benefit from understanding how learning theory can be applied in developing Extension publications.2

Below is a six-stage model for developing the text of a publication. Within each stage are critical questions that apply learning theory in the text development process. The stages are similar to the steps used in instructional design models because effective educational text requires a similar planning strategy to communicate the desired educational ideas. The model's stages serve as a time frame, while the questions serve as a guide to implementing the theories. The footnotes provide the sources for these learning theories and a more extensive article is available from me.

Stages/Critical Questions

Stage One: Clarifying the Purpose

What's the purpose of the publication?
What's the central topic to be conveyed?
What are the major and supporting concepts?

Stage Two: Creating Relevance

How much do the intended clients know?
How can the new information relate to them?
What's important about this new information?

Stage Three: Developing Coherent Structure

Are the concepts arranged in a consistent order?
Has a conceptual flow been created?
Has non-relevant information been deleted?

Stage Four: Explaining Terminology

Have technical terms been identified?3
Which terms are critical to know?
Which technical terms should be explained?

Stage Five: Composing Cohesive Passages

Does each paragraph begin with an topic sentence?4
Does each sentence connect with the next?
Have all major concepts been presented?

Stage Six: Evaluating the Publication

How will comprehension be measured?
Are the main ideas understandable?
Did the client gain important information?


1. J. M. Nehiley and R. D. William, "Targeting Extension Publications," Journal of Extension, XVIII (November/December 1980), 6.

2. R. M. Gagne and L. J. Briggs, Principles of Instructional Design (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1974); T. M. Wildman and J. K. Burton, "Integrating Learning Theory with Instructional Design," Journal of Instructional Development, IV (No. 3, 1981), 5-14; and W. Kintsch, "Contributions from Cognitive Psychology," in Understanding Readers' Understanding, R. J. Tierney, P. L. Anders, and J. N. Mitchell, eds. (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1987).

3. J. W. Wood and J. A. Wooley, "Adapting Textbooks," Clearing House, LIX (No. 7, 1986), 332-35.

4. S. M. Glynn and B. K. Britton, "Supporting Readers' Comprehension Through Effective Text Design," Educational Technology, XXIV (No. 10, 1984), 40-43.