Reading is not a skill: Helping LLM students comprehend law school texts


An ad published by the Great Minneapolis Surplus Store

The Challenge: Helping international students to better read and comprehend law school texts.

Solution #1: Recognize that successful reading is highly dependent on background information.

Take the sentence: “A-Rod hit into a 6-4-3 double-play to end the game.” If a baseball fan reads that, they know exactly what it means as well as what it implies. They can even picture Rodriguez’s head hung low as fans boo the highly paid star of the most famous baseball team who has been tainted by steroids allegations. If you’re an American non-baseball fan, perhaps you can figure out it’s about the final play by a well-known baseball player. And if you come from another country and have no exposure to baseball, then all you likely know is that some sort of game ended.

For all three people, grammar is not the issue. And vocabulary is only part of the issue, as a dictionary would only provide limited assistance in comprehending this sentence. The greatest impediment to understanding is “domain knowledge,” also known as background information.

For international students studying law in the U.S., grammar and vocabulary certainly provide challenges for making sense of complex law-related texts. But it’s the lack of background information that can really hold them back and frustrate them.

Reading is often described as a skill. But according to more and more education experts, that’s a misperception. A more accurate understanding (see, e.g., “There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test” by E.D. Hirsch and Robert Pondisco) is that while reading involves skills such as decoding (i.e., translating printed words into sounds) and use of reading strategies, one of the true keys to reading comprehension is “domain knowledge.”

Hirsch and Pondisco point out that reading is generally perceived as a transferable skill. If you can read one kind of text (e.g., a novel), you can read any other kind of text (e.g., a newspaper). But research shows that’s not the case. As an example, they offer the sentence above about A-Rod hitting into a double-play.

What does this mean if you’re teaching international students in a U.S. LLM program?

A  quick scan of any legal text (by a native speaker) will reveal that court opinions, textbooks, law review articles, etc. are rife with layers upon layers of background knowledge that can obstruct comprehension by international students.

Take for example the Lefkowitz v. Great Minneapolis Surplus Store, Inc. case which I’ve used with my students. Right off the bat international students may feel at a disadvantage if they most likely don’t know that a “surplus store” is a store that offers low prices on a wide variety of goods by buying discounted overstock from other stores and suppliers. On the other hand, most American students may have an image that comes to mind upon hearing the term “surplus store.” This is not insignificant, because when we read, we are constantly creating images in our heads and making predictions and testing out our hypotheses. And this almost subconscious process for building context and parameters aids us in our reading.

Another example from the beginning of the Lefkowitz opinion: “The order for judgment awarded the plaintiff the sum of $138.50 as damages for breach of contract.” A dictionary will tell the students what an order is in lay terms–a command. But without further assistance, they may not fully understand that it refers to an authoritative text issued by a lower court with its decision and instructions. A similar obstacle might exist for a word like “damages.”

And they can translate until they’re blue in the face but may still not comprehend the meaning and feel of the text of the advertisement in the case: “Saturday 9 A.M. Sharp 3 Brand New Fur Coats Worth to $100.00 First Come First Served $1 Each”.

So what do you do? Every court opinion is a whole new story with its own context and cultural references. You can’t possibly teach all of them in advance. Railroad history. Shirley MacLaine and the film business. Ansel Adams and his “Moonrise” photograph. The New York Times and the Pentagon Papers. School segregation in Brown vs. Board of Ed. The Ku Klux Klan. Each of these topics could take up an entire class if not more. And American students have had a lifetime to absorb all of this information.

One option which I’ve found effective and appreciated by students is to “gloss” texts that students will read, which means creating a list of blocking words and phrases from the text with definitions and giving these lists to the students so that students can read along without having to constantly check their dictionaries. In these lists you can also include explanations that provide background information, and you can even include photographs. (What better way to aid the explanation of a “lapin stole” or the “Ku Klux Klan” than with a photo?)

Providing lists like this requires a combination of common sense and plus an intuition developed over time regarding what might impede comprehension by your international students. It can also involve a fair amount of preparation time. A disadvantage is that it reduces spontaneity, i.e., you can’t just pick and use an article you read that morning since time is needed to gloss the text. However, the upside is that less time is spent in class explaining the background information (including lots of statements ending with, “You know what I mean?” followed by blank stares) which means more time can be devoted to the substance of a court opinion or other text.

Another helpful option is to find a video that relates to the case and let the students watch that prior to reading a text. To have images and parameters and context for what they’re about to read is extremely helpful to comprehension. For example, before my students began engaging with The Buffalo Creek Disaster, they first watched an eight-minute documentary on YouTube about the disaster in order to give them a visual sense of what the disaster looked like, the geographical characteristics of West Virginia, who the people involved were, etc.

Being aware of the presence of background knowledge can make the difference between an engaged class and a foggy, lost class. The more it is acknowledged and addressed in some way, the easier it gets to develop a nose for what may block student understanding and how to best help students absorb the text.

If you have approaches you’ve tried for building your students’ background knowledge, it’d be great to hear about them. Please feel free to share here. Or email me directly and I’ll incorporate into a future post.

Stay tuned for more solutions and approaches in future posts.

1 thought on “Reading is not a skill: Helping LLM students comprehend law school texts

  1. Pingback: Using Legal Humor: “Lawyer Joke of the Day” Activity | St. John's Legal English Blog

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