Bar Exam Language and Strategies: Mirroring and reverse rule writing

Today’s BELS (Bar Exam Language & Strategies) class was exciting because we (Professor Piper and I) tried out a new innovation in teaching IRAC writing to our students in the BELS academic support program.

Last week as we reviewed the students’ bar essays, we noticed that often the rules in their Rule section didn’t match well with what they discussed in their Application/Analysis section. Some students discussed, mid-analysis, elements or definitions that they did not introduce when they explained the applicable rule. So we tried to make the point that the Rule section is like a menu, and the Analysis/Application section when you order and eat. You can’t order anything if it’s not already on the menu.

We also tried to emphasize the concept of mirroring the language from the rule in the application. More specifically, Professor Piper talked about linguistic mirroring (incorporating into the analysis section the exact words and phrases of the legal standard identified in the rules) in addition to structural mirroring (applying, to some degree, every element introduced in the rules, in roughly the same order of introduction). For example, if the rule is that there is a duty to act as a reasonably prudent person, then the application should say something like, “Here, when the defendant jumped into the street to avoid the falling piano, he acted as a reasonably prudent person” rather than “Here, when the defendant jumped into the street to avoid the falling piano, he acted carefully.”

To help build awareness of mirroring, we devised an exercise wherein students had to infer and extract rules from sample analysis paragraphs.  To begin, we gave the students the Application/Analysis section from five different model answers for the same question. After presenting them with the analysis portion of each essay, we asked them to try to write the rules they think the author wrote, based on language clues  they read in the analysis. Near the end of the activity, they discussed which essays made it easier to reconstruct the author’s rule paragraphs. Finally, they matched the actual rules of the model answers to their own estimations of those model rules, and thought about which authors did the best job in mirroring their own rules in the analysis portion of each essay.  In addition to valuable practice writing out rules, the students also started to notice which model answers did a good job of mirroring. This became evident because it was much easier to reconstruct the rule when the model answer made use of mirroring.

This really drove home a sense of awareness of how much stronger a bar essay answer looks and feels when the pieces connect in a logical way that increases predictability and clarity, especially from the perspective of the person reading and grading the essay.

In this way, we continue to try to dig into the discourse and language issues unique to bar exam writing for our non-native English speaking LLM students.

Lawyer-client practice for LLM students

20161110_161115Yesterday for the second time we completed another successful U.S. Legal Studies (USLS) + Transnational Legal Practice (TLP) Program + American Law: Discourse & Analysis (ALDA) Program collaboration activity based around lawyer-client practice.

20161110_161019The activity
: The USLS and TLP students are the lawyers and the ALDA students the clients. Each lawyer is part of a group or firm of two or three lawyers. And each client is actually two or three ALDA students.  The clients are given a fact pattern which they study, review, and discuss prior to their meeting with their lawyers. The clients then join the USLS and TLP students’ Legal Writing class and are matched with their lawyers at separate tables. The lawyers then need to lead the meeting and ask questions to learn about the client’s issue. The clients tell their story (and occasionally have fun making up facts where necessary and appropriate.)

20161110_161032The lawyers have 45 minutes to try and understand the client’s situation, identify the legal issues in the fact situation and help the clients figure out who they can or can’t sue and evaluate the strength of the case.

Following the activity, a group discussion was held to reflect on the experience. Everyone had a good time and expressed appreciation for having the opportunity to step into their roles and really think through the situation.
20161110_161105For homework, the ALDA students were tasked with writing a follow-up email to their lawyers confirming their understanding of the main points of the discussion. And the TLP students have been tasked with writing a client letter describing the issues and offering their evaluation and recommendations for how to proceed.

20161110_095808This is an activity that will certainly continue each semester as the students greatly enjoy
it and derive great benefit in terms of experience, critical thinking, and language use.


Teaching American Culture: Pumpkin carving for LLM students!

pumpkincarving08img_9733To help our LLM students get into the Halloween spirit–and to expose them to American Halloween traditions (i.e., increase their background knowledge)–Professor Katherine Piper organized a pumpkin carving for our LLM students on the Friday before Halloween. The students all were familiar with the classic pumpkin images. But actually getting their hands dirty (literally) and making their own jack-o-lanterns seemed to help them feel closer to the American Halloween experience. Plus, it was a whole lot of fun! See the pics below.



















pumpkincarving04img_9718 pumpkincarving05img_9699

Listening to Lefkowitz: Using recordings of actual lectures to help LLM students improve listening and note taking

law_17_460x305_1As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the two best predictors of success for non-native English speakers in American graduate programs are reading comprehension and listening comprehension–both input-related. Speaking and writing ability (both output-related) often get a lot of the attention since it is through these that deficiencies can be noticed and evaluated. However, the reality is that it’s extremely difficult to speak and write well about a topic if it is not first well understood.

Between reading and listening, reading is the skill that is taught and practiced most explicitly. There are tons of materials to read. And it’s a static form, so it can be used at any speed, and it’s easy to analyze, deconstruct, look at each piece, look at patterns, etc.

Listening, on the other hand, is more elusive. Once you hear something, it goes away. And even if you have a recording, you can listen until you’re blue in the face and you still may not understand parts of what’s being said, especially given factors such as connected speech, homonyms, and variations in pronunciation. Also, similar to reading, listening is highly dependent on background knowledge. If you know something about a topic, you’re much more likely to be able to understand it as opposed to something new or unfamiliar.

One of the primary listening activities for law students is listening to lectures and class discussions coupled with taking notes. How are students supposed to practice this other than just sitting in class each time and hopefully understanding more each time? Is there any way to actually practice and prepare for the listening that’s done in lectures? Continue reading

Teaching summarizing to LLM students: Some recent thoughts

i-love-to-summarizeAs I’ve discussed in a previous post, teaching LLM students to summarize can be deceivingly difficult. Summarizing requires control of language as well as an intuitive understanding of what is expected the relevant audience in a summary. Additionally, it’s difficult to explain to others how we learned to summarize–somehow we just learned it–and that, in turn, tends to further inhibits our ability to teach summarizing to others.

And now I have one more layer of complexity to add that I hadn’t previously considered: The category of “summary” actually consists of a number of different kinds of summaries, each with their own purposes, contexts, structures, styles, and expectations.

The source of this new thought (for me) was a presentation I recently watched (viewable on YouTube) titled “Teaching Effective and Varied Summarizing” by Ann M. Johns, Professor Emerita of Linguistics and Writing Studies at San Diego State University. In the presentation, Professor Johns makes a point of listing some common summary forms in the academic community such as a functional summary detailing the structure of a written or spoken text, the one-sentence summary of content (often of a paragraph or paragraphs which can lead to a full summary of the text), an abstract, a problem/solution summary, an argument summary, a plot/story summary, a summary + critique, and synthesis, among other types.

As I contemplated this list of summary types, I started to think and wonder about Continue reading

New article by Alissa Hartig: “Intersections Between Law and Language: Disciplinary Concepts in Second Language Legal Literacy”

alissahartigIntersections Between Law and Language: Disciplinary Concepts in Second Language Legal Literacy” is a recent article published by Alissa Hartig in Studies in Logic, Grammar & Rhetoric (The Journal of University of Bialystok) that discusses a distinction between discourse-structuring concepts and discourse-relevant concepts in ESP. Don’t be intimidated by the linguistics terminology, though. The article describes her work with two LLM students from China and two from Saudi Arabia and provides concrete examples of the complex issues and dynamics at play when teaching them in a law school context.

Hartig is an Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics at Portland State University. She is the author of a forthcoming book titled Connecting language and content in English for Specific Purposes: Case studies in law. (Publisher: Multilingual Matters) Her previous research and writing on the intersection of law and linguistics includes a 2016 article titled “Conceptual blending in legal writing: Linking definitions to facts” and a 2014 article titled “Plain English and legal writing: Comparing expert and novice writers,” both published in the journal English for Specific Purposes.


Extensive Reading: The Book Cart Approach

stevelambert-library-book-cartI’ve been working on more effective approaches to building extensive reading into the ALDA curriculum. Research consistently shows that it is the best way for non-native English speakers to build reading comprehension, vocabulary, and reading fluency. And reading comprehension and listening comprehension ability are believed to be the best predictors of success for students in a graduate program such as an LLM program.

Extensive reading, which I previously discussed a bit in this post, means 1) reading easy texts (i.e., where the reader understands 90% of the vocabulary), and 2) reading for enjoyment. It relies on the seemingly obvious premise that the best way to improve reading is to read a lot.

And it doesn’t matter what the learner reads so much as that the learner reads. In other words, even if you read novels or cartoons, it will still help learners when they go to read more challenging legal texts. This is because reading a lot and reading in a fluent way leads to building of larger lexical bundles by the reader. That is, rather than reading and decoding each word, the reader begins to see and process groups of words as a lexical bundle. This in turn means the learner is devoting less cognitive energy to that part of the reading and has more energy to devote to more challenging language that arises.

But how to do that in a legal English setting, where the focus is on texts and concepts that are challenging for even native speakers of English? Texts that render every reading an intensive reading, where the reading process involves constant dictionary use, which in turn reduces engagement and big picture comprehension? Continue reading