Experiments in Teaching Legal Writing: The Natural Academic Method

bananapeelThis semester I’ve decided to try a new approach to teaching legal writing and critical thinking to my students in the ALDA Program. I’m getting ready to begin the experiment next week, but I thought it might be fun to introduce it here and then share my experience with it as I go. Any and all suggestions, comments, and perspectives will be extremely welcome as it evolves.

The idea is to work with a very simple, straightforward legal-ish critical thinking question that students must write a response to. The question–taken from Legal Analysis: 100 Exercises for Legal Mastery, Practice for Every Law Student (which was recommended to me originally by my colleague Professor Jane Scott)–involves a jogger at the beach who throws a banana peel on the ground. A police officer sees this and has to decide whether to issue a ticket for littering, taking into account that she previously observed her supervisor issue a ticket to someone who threw a candy bar wrapper on the ground while not issuing a ticket to someone who poured coffee on the ground.

The experimental part is that I have gathered about ten model answers to the question written by native English-speaking JD students as well as by myself and a few of my colleagues. In the past I’ve used one or two model answers written by myself and perhaps a colleague or JD teaching assistant to give my students a chance to compare their writing to our writing as well as to compare my writing to my colleague’s writing. Using models offers students an important opportunity to notice the organization pattern of the writing, the vocabulary used, different ways of expressing the same ideas, transition phrases, cohesive devices, etc. (It’s also great for recycling vocabulary which is beneficial to non-native speakers.)

However, as those ideas intersected with thoughts about Stephen Krashen and the Natural Approach (Krashen in a nutshell: Forget studying grammar; just immerse yourself), I found myself thinking: Why stop at two models? The more the merrier, right?

The criticism of the Natural Method is that it often works well with regard to daily conversations and interactions (known in the linguistic world as BICS – Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) but not so well with academic language (aka CALP – Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency). This is primarily because it’s harder to get exposure to academic language. There’s a great variety of academic vocabulary, grammar, and other language, and it’s used less frequently. (In contrast, with BICS there’s a smaller universe of words and structures that are used with high frequency.)

Additionally, while exposure itself is a major factor in language learners moving forward, there are also limits. For example, if learners don’t encounter certain language or are never aware of errors they make, there language development will stop  progressing. However, we can help learners progress past those limits by bringing conscious attention is various language features. (i.e., noticing). For example, noticing vocabulary, noticing transition words, noticing syntax patterns, noticing organization structures, noticing cohesive devices, etc. can be very helpful in getting over the hump from BICS to CALP.

“So let’s combine all of this and apply it to legal writing,” I thought to myself.

The challenge, however, is that it’s hard to get “exposure” when it comes to writing because the input (reading) and output (writing) is not as symmetrical as it is with speaking and listening. With speaking, you hear what’s said, you internalize it, and you mimic it. Plus, speaking is generally spontaneous and unpolished.

In contrast, in the case of law school academic reading and writing, students read in one form (e.g., textbooks, court opinions, law review articles, statutes, etc.)  But they are asked to produce writing in a different form (e.g., exam answers, short answer assignments, research papers, legal memos). Additionally, the texts the students read are generally polished, high level texts that have been through significant editing, often by more than one professional writer. This is not the level of writing we necessarily expect from non-native speakers who have not yet graduated from law school.

However, if the students have an opportunity to immerse themselves in reading and interacting with a number of texts that are native-speaker versions of what they are trying to write, I have a sense that, like with acquiring spoken language, they will begin to absorb and mimic some of the writing conventions in their own writing. And I believe that this will help them more than if I just give them rules, advice, and feedback.

One other important piece of the puzzle, I think, is using a topic and texts where comprehension will not be an obstacle (i.e., comprehensible input). That way the students have the luxury of focusing on and absorbing the critical thinking, discourse, and language features. Additionally, with each model answer they read, their comprehension of the issue and ability to think critically about the issue in different ways should hopefully increase as well.

My hope is that by using a high number of short but very comprehensible models writen by native English speakers, my students will steal and absorb wonderful chunks of language and organization patterns that they see in the models and that they will start to incorporate them into their own writing, because those language bits start to feel familiar and comfortable to the students.

In other words, it will help them develop an intuitive feel for written language. Because that same intuitive feel  is how we, as native speakers, seem to always just sort of know what “sounds right” when we write.

Stay tuned for future updates.

 

One thought on “Experiments in Teaching Legal Writing: The Natural Academic Method

  1. Pingback: Experiments in Teaching Legal Writing: Getting students to write more | St. John's Legal English Blog

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