I just returned from a unique and excellent conference–the Consortium on Graduate Communication’s Summer Institute, which was held at Yale University this past Thursday, June 9 through Saturday, June 11.
It brought together the community of writing support professionals and community of English language support professionals to discuss and share ideas relating to the increased need for graduate level writing support. And it was a wonderful opportunity to think about law school in the greater context of graduate level programs and to get to know and chat with with ESL program directors and professors, writing program directors, and writing center directors.
One aspect that made the conference uniquely productive was the emphasis on discussion and working groups. Each attendee was requested to “bring” a writing curriculum or course project that we would have time to discuss and work on with members of our assigned working groups.
In my case, I focused on the Bar Exam Language Support (BELS) course that I recently developed and have been teaching with my colleague Kathryn Piper since late May. One of my takeaways from the first three weeks of the course has been that in addition to language issues, the biggest need of our students has been to improve writing speed. In particular, I cited a comment from my students that they have been advised “to memorize the rule” for bar prep. Yet as non-native speakers, spitting those rules out in written form actually takes a fair amount of time.
I explained to my group that I’ve helped students by working on writing strategies such as outlining quickly before writing their answer, which most students were not doing. This in turn led to work on developing a repertoire of shorthand and abbreviations key terms to reduce writing time. Shorthand is easy in your own language, but not as intuitive in another language.
Additionally, I described the read/think/write activity I’ve been using to help them build their writing-processing speed. Using a model answer, students (1) read a part of the text–perhaps a sentence or part of a sentence, (2) try to remember it, (3) turn the page over, (4) count to 3 in their heads, (5) try to then write (or type) as much as they can remember, (6) write a slash (/) after the last word written, (7) look at the model answer text again and repeat. The idea, as I explain it to my students, is that it’s like doing pushups for the short-term memory muscle in your brain. You build up lexical chunks from a writing perspective which builds writing fluency. That is, the brain shifts from seeing words as individual units to recognizing and retaining groups of words that go together, to recognizing and retaining larger groups of words that go together. And that means the brain can process larger chunks at a time using less energy which in turn enables you to write faster.
My group also included a law professor interested in improving her own curriculum for international students as well as an ESL program director and an ESL professor, each from different universities, who are focused on developing graduate level language and writing support for students in connection with architecture programs.
One of my key takeaways from the conference was a comment from a presentation by George Mason University’s Karen Mallet who runs their ESL program. She pointed to research showing that, of the traditional language learning skills, the best indicators of success seemed to be reading ability and listening ability, as opposed to speaking and writing ability. This aligns with an observation made to me last year by a St. John’s Law professor that a key indicator of success in our LLM program seemed to be reading speed. It also is supported by my former ALDA students, whose biggest lament in their post-ALDA coursework has been the amount of reading they need to get through.
Mallet’s comment affirmed for me the approaches I’ve been taking to helping students improve reading comprehension, reading speed, and use of reading strategies. It also affirmed the approach I’ve been taking to the teaching of legal writing–recognizing that writing is primarily a function of reading comprehension. When a student doesn’t fully comprehend the question, or part of the reading, then any feedback I give them on their flawed writing will be unhelpful–because at that point I’m no longer evaluating their writing but rather their reading. To truly help students with their writing requires making sure I’m evaluating writing on a topic they understand well in response to a question they understand well. In other words, it all comes back to reading ability.
More thoughts on the CGC Summer Institute and related ideas in a future post. But overall an inspiring and energizing conference that has provided new ideas to spur continued innovation in our “legal English” curriculum.