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

Reading Support in Law School

We recently decided to set up a Reading Support program for our LLM students. This was in response to a recent conversation I had with a student I had taught in our summer course who is now full swing into our LLM coursework. Her comment echoed the challenges that a number of her classmates have voiced: It’s hard to keep up with and comprehend all the reading.

In particular, she cited Continue reading

Observations from a visiting Chinese professor of legal English

ecupl-bannerWe are fortunate to have a guest post by Haiyan “Eileen” Li, Instructor at School of Foreign Languages East China University of Political Science & Law (ECUPL), who spent 2015-2016 as a visiting scholar at St. John’s School of Education and devoted extensive time to observing the law and “legal English” courses taught to LLM students by myself, Professor Piper, and Professor Alter.


Professor Li (middle left) observes students in a joint TLP/ALDA lawyer-client role play activity.

I was very honored to have an opportunity to study as a visiting scholar at St. John’s University from August 1, 2015 through July 31, 2016. During this period, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to freely sit in and observe several legal courses at St. John’s Law School taught by Professor Horowitz, Professor Piper and Professor Alter. Here I would like to share some of my observations and reflections from those classes.

1. Task-leading Teaching Methodology

I was impressed by the various teaching methodologies used here in connection with legal study for non-native English speakers. For example, the professors would frequently provide a list of reading questions for students to answer in connection with an assigned legal text as a way to guide their reading process and assess comprehension in order to better inform instruction. They would similarly provide a list of engaging questions in connection with field trips to the court or the United Nations, or when students were tasked with observing a particular law school course. These questions helped give structure to the students’ experience and helped them better engage.

In addition to these types of questions to aide comprehension of texts and interactions, the professors often prompted students to explore the discourse and language of legal texts in order to help them identify grammar, syntax, and discourse clues specific to legal texts that helped the students with comprehension. This type of detailed guidance led the students to be able to then produce coherent and professional legal texts in their own writing.

2. Communication Opportunities with Alumni and Experts

Continue reading

Bar Exam Language Support Course: Things we learned

Professor Kathryn Piper and I just finished the Bar Exam Language Support (BELS) course this past week and we wanted to share a few takeaways and things we learned given that this is a new course and, we believe, the first ever bar prep course at a law school that incorporates language learning pedagogy and perspective.

  1. Working with familiar topics: By using bar exam prep questions that the students had already studied and written answers for in a separate bar preparation course, we cleared away most of the obstacle that is background knowledge. This meant that we had the luxury of being able to truly focus on helping them with their writing. If we had used unfamiliar questions, and they in turn wrote poor answers due to lack of comprehension of the question or topic, or inability to remember the rule, then we would not have been evaluating their writing, but rather their knowledge or their comprehension. And it would have meant that we would have spent time teaching the relevant bar exam topic rather than working on writing. Working with familiar topics to enable a better focus on writing opened the door to identify and work on the actual writing issues faced by our non-native English speaking students (NNES).
  2. Speed is king: By the end of the first day of class, discussion of the bar exam writing process with our students made clear to us that speed and language processing were the biggest challenges for our students, all of whom were NNES. The speed issue manifests itself Continue reading