Interpreting Graphics in Technical & Functional Texts

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

In this lesson, you will learn about two types of informational text (technical and functional), and how to interpret the common graphics used in each text type.

Types of Informational Text

Have you ever followed a recipe, or instructions for putting together a bookshelf? What about reading a scientific article or an essay? As different as they may seem, all of these types of texts fall under the category of informational text, or text that is trying to teach you something about a topic. Recipes and instructions fall under the sub-category of technical text. The goal of this type of text is to tell you how to do something, and it contains instructions and steps for how to accomplish the task. The information contained in these is relevant and to the point.

Scientific articles and essays, on the other hand, fall under the sub-category of functional text. This text type is trying to inform you about a topic, but not necessarily tell you how to complete something. One thing both of these sub-categories have in common is that they can make ample use of graphics.

Interpreting Graphics

Knowing how to interpret graphics is vital for understanding these types of informational text. In some cases (such as instructions for putting together IKEA furniture) the graphic may actually make up the entire text! In other cases it may only supplement the text. In either case it serves the same purpose: to help the reader visualize and understand the topic of the text.

Technical and functional texts make use of different types of graphics, but some principles for interpretation are consistent. For one, always pay attention to the title, and any labels you see in the graphic. If it has a key or legend make be sure to read that thoroughly, these can tell you about color coordination of the image or other important details for helping you interpret the graphic. In addition, if graphics have steps or arrows, be sure you read them in their proper order, or the graphic won't be especially helpful.

Technical Text

Technical texts like building instructions and recipes are more likely to use schematics (technical diagrams), flowcharts, or images showing how pieces fit together. The purpose of the graphic is to take you step by step through the process, in order of the steps that need to occur. Technical graphics are typically linear, following arrows or numbered steps in a chronological order or direction. It's important to start at the first box or step and work your way through in the correct order, since each step is dependent on the completion of previous steps..

Flowcharts help guide you through a process step by step

You can see in the example flowchart that there are arrows connecting each box to the next one, showing you which direction to move. Sometimes there might be multiple options for which step to do next, and the arrows will indicate that as well. In addition, if there are points where you might need to backtrack or redo a step, the arrows or instructions will let you know. A good technical graphic should tell you everything you need about completing that particular task.

Functional Text

Functional texts like essays and scientific articles are more likely to use graphs or charts with legends, or diagrams showing you components of a larger whole. The purpose of these is to help you visualize the information being given to you in the text. Functional diagrams may look like technical diagrams, but there is a major difference. Functional graphics are not telling you how to do something or put something together, only what the something is made or how to interpret it. Take a look at the bicycle diagram as an example.

Diagrams are one type of graphic found in functional texts
Bicycle diagram

This graphic might appear in a functional text informing the reader about bicycles. Notice that it gives all the various parts of a bicycle, but it does not contain any instructions or information on how to actually assemble a bicycle. If it did, then it would belong in a technical text.

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