Vocabulary and Transnational Legal Practice

lawwordcloudOver the last few years, a list of key vocabulary–with definitions–has been developed for the Transnational Legal Practice course that all of our LLM students in the TLP Program take. These are key words, terms, and phrases that all LLM students in the program need to become comfortable with, and it is a work in progress as my colleague Professor Katy Piper continues to add words to the list as appropriate each semester.

The list has over 50 items and includes basic legal terms such as “torts” and “judicial review” as well as specifically transnational legal practice terms such as “letter of credit” and “INCOTERMS”.

A great resource for my ALDA students preparing for the TLP Program! But what to do with it? Just tell them to go home and memorize and then have a test on it?

Research has shown that,with regard to learning new vocabulary, working with long lists is not necessarily effective as there tends to be information overload which interferes with remembering meaning. Additionally, research shows that vocabulary is retained better when it is discussed out loud as opposed to read. Thirdly, vocabulary learning benefits greatly from multiple exposures to the word. And fourthly, truly knowing a word involves knowing a number of things about the word, including the context in which the word exists and functions.

VocabularyMatchWith those ideas in mind I employed two very simple activities.

Activity #1: Vocabulary Matching

I put the students in small groups and gave them a pile of terms and a pile of definitions, and they had to try and match them together. This forced them to collaborate, discuss, and negotiate about the words and definitions. It allowed them to reinforce any words and phrases they already knew, to try and deduce the ones they were less sure of, and to try and guess at any that were completely unfamiliar. In each instance, however, they had to fully engage in reading the definitions and analyze the terms (as opposed to skimming a long vocabulary list). At the end of the set time limit, the groups were assigned to review the work of another group to see if there were any differences. Then, each student received a full list of terms and definitions so they could check their answers and begin to confirm and process correct answers.

To help reinforce the vocabulary, two days later I had the students do the exact same activity to see how much they could remember and match. It proved to be just as engaging and challenging as the first time. If anything, the students were more motivated, strategic, and organized in their approach.

An added twist: The second time, I asked the students to first organize the vocabulary terms into alphabetic order. For students who come from cultures with non-Roman alphabets, it’s an opportunity to build fluency with regard to alphabetization.

Activity #2: Vocabulary Categorization

In a subsequent class, I gave the students cut-outs of each term with the definition included. And I asked them to organize the words into 3 to 6 categories. It was up to them to determine the category titles. In addition to providing additional exposures to the vocabulary, this forced the students to think about the relation of words to each other and helped build associations that would aid in vocabulary retention. Additionally, it required them to think about general versus specific categories, a skill that is required in legal writing as well.

After each group had finished, they then had the opportunity to review the work of the other groups to get a sense of different ways of categorizing the terms and discuss and debate any differences of opinion on the matter.

In the next class, I gave them the terms plus definitions again, but this time I gave them an additional pile of categories such as “Constitutional Law”, “Business Organizations,” “Commercial Law,” etc., and the students had to match the definitions to the existing categories as best they could.

These activities, of course, are not the end of the vocabulary learning but just the beginning. Additionally, a term such as “letter of credit” is laden with background knowledge that is not done justice in a simple definition. But they provide a foundation and an initial exposure to the terms in an engaging way that aids with retention and lays the groundwork for future exposures in their reading and other activities. And when they are sitting in the TLP course in a future semester, at the very least they will not be surprised by any of these terms.

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