Comprehensible input for legal English students: Resources, approaches and ideas

comprehensible_input_1International students in LLM and legal English programs at US law schools come to study law, not ESL. At the same time, law study requires deep engagement with texts and concepts that are complex and challenging even for native English speakers. But how do you have substantive class discussions or evaluate students’ legal writing when students are struggling to sufficiently comprehend the language of the reading?

In linguistics, the relevant term is “comprehensible input.” The British Council’s Teaching English website has a nice explanation of the term:

“Comprehensible input is language input that can be understood by listeners despite them not understanding all the words and structures in it. It is described as one level above that of the learners if it can only just be understood. According to [Stephen] Krashen’s theory of language acquisition, giving learners this kind of input helps them acquire language naturally, rather than learn it consciously.”

paperchasememeComprehensible input is important in graduate level programs like law school because, as I’ve discussed in a previous post, reading and listening ability tend to be the best predictors of success in the programs. Speaking and writing ability, while obviously important, are in many ways often a function of reading and listening ability. It’s much easier to produce the language needed to speak or write when the input needed to absorb that kind of language is comprehended by the learner.

In elementary schools, reading is often taught using “just-right” books. That is, books that are just the right reading level for students based on teachers’ assessments of their students. (My wife is an experienced elementary school teacher and a reading specialist, so I often find myself drawing comparisons from her levelreadersexperiences.) For ESL students–both adults and children alike–the equivalent is graded readers (or level readers, depending on the publisher) which are books or other texts that are written in a simplified way. A great example of a unique graded reading source that is appropriate for adults is the website which makes Washington Post, Reuters, and other news articles available, but re-written in 4 different easier-to-read levels along with the original version of the article.

In law school, unfortunately, there is no equivalent to just-right books or graded readers to be purchased. So what is a legal English teacher to do?

As I’ve been thinking back over my classes from the last few years, I realized I’ve been putting significant effort into figuring out how to develop and provide comprehensible input to LLM students when working with complex and sophisticated texts. Here are some of the resources and approaches I’ve used:


case-briefCase briefs: The closest thing to a graded reader in law school. What better way to build background knowledge and scaffold students’ understanding of a case than by reading the case brief first! Yes, it goes against the underlying purpose of reading cases which is to train your brain to organize and synthesize ideas like a lawyer. But for non-native English speakers (NNES) who may lack familiarity with the discourse, the language, and the background knowledge involved in a typical court opinion (e.g., one case I like to use involves a surplus store placing a first-come-first-served ad for lapin stoles), this is exactly the kind of scaffolding that can give them the context needed to dive deeper into the challenging vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and background knowledge of a court opinion. Teachers frequently like to urge students to “infer meaning from context.” Using case briefs first is a way to give them context from which they can infer meaning.

You can find free online case briefs (known derisively in the law school world as “canned briefs”) with a simple Google search. You can also write your own case briefs. And, if you know any JD students you can ask them to share briefs they’ve written or write new ones for your class.The canned briefs are notoriously unreliable and inaccurate if you’re a JD student preparing for a class. But for comprehension-building purposes, it’s not a deal breaker. Plus, if the students read multiple case briefs by different writers, they can notice the differences and also evaluate what makes a good case brief (which opens up a nice discussion of audience and purpose) when they compare the case briefs to the corresponding court opinion itself.

Another advantage of reading multiple case briefs is that you can use them in combination with noticing activities to familiarize students with the discourse of a case brief, i.e., the Facts, Issue, Holding, etc., as well as activities to help the students connect grammar and syntax to meaning and function in a case brief. The surprisingly wide variation among case briefs written by different authors for the same case also helps students figure out the parameters of what’s fixed, what can vary, and how much wiggle room there is when they go to write their own case briefs. This website contains a constantly growing library of news articles–all written and re-written at 5 decreasing levels of difficulty–for the purpose of helping NNES improve their reading. Newsela takes very recent articles from The Washington Post and other news sources and re-writes them at 4 different easier-to-read levels. Plus, each level of the article has it’s own unique 4-question quiz to help assess comprehension.


From a legal English perspective, Newsela offers a “Law” section, which means you can easily find articles on the Supreme Court nomination hearings and a vast array of other news topics tagged as “Law.” But wait, that’s not all! You also get a “U.S. History” and a “Social Studies” category which contain historic legal documents like the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Civil Rights Act, The Federalist Papers, Marbury v. MadisonPlessy v. FergusonBrown v. Board of Education and other sources of law written out in 5 different levels of readability. There’s a lot of productive fun you can have with this type of resource. (Disclaimer: I have not received any payments from Newsela. I’m just a big fan.)

streetlawStreet Law: This is a high school textbook created by Georgetown Law professors who designed for use with an eponymous course to be taught by law students to high school students. It contains sections on the court system, criminal law, tort law, contract law, and the Constitution–all written in a very straightforward style including pictures and other visual aids that support comprehension. Each chapter also has various cases and questions for discussion. Plus, there’s a glossary in the back with all the bolded words from the chapters. The topics and substance are challenging and engaging, while the language is much less so which is why it can be a great legal English tool. If students get a first crack at Torts from reading this book, when they get to the Torts case books in future classes, or when professors make various reference to Torts concepts in future lectures, the students will have a much stronger foundation for comprehending that level of input.

shorthappyguidetortsA Short & Happy Guide to Torts/Contracts/ Civil Procedure/etc.:This is the equivalent to a graded reader for native English speaking (NES) law school students. The books in this series are easier to read than the well-known Nutshell series (e.g., Torts in a Nutshell; Property Law in Nutshell; etc.), though they do make occasional cultural, jokey or snarky references which may confuse a NNES. But our LLM students who use supplements tend to gravitate towards Short & Happy and they can be used to good effect in a legal English class.

Commercial Outlines: These are books that JD students use to get the “black letter law” (i.e., straightforward statements of the key legal principles) that is not always easy to derive on one’s own from casebooks and lectures. These are not officially sanctioned by professors, generally speaking, since the point of law school is to learn to take the ideas and principles from cases and lectures and figure out how to synthesize it. But nearly all JD students use them. The upshot from a legal English perspective is that it is a more simplified and direct description of key concepts and words. The downside is that they are often streamlined, lack context as a primary source, and assume a certain degree of background knowledge on the part of the reader. But back to the upside, they’re also helpful from a teacher’s perspective if you need to quickly brush up on a topic yourself.

In addition, there are also outlines or similar texts used for bar study that can be useful. These are more difficult to obtain as the bar review companies are very proprietary about their materials and you generally need to sign up for the expensive bar review course to get copies of the materials. But most days in the cafeteria or student center of law schools, there is a table with student representatives for one or more of the bar review companies. And they generally have copies of the materials you can peruse (along with candy to entice people to stop by).

Table of Contents: You can take them from a variety of sources: casebooks, textbooks, commercial outlines, hornbooks, and anything else written on your desired topic. A great tool for scaffolding and helping students get familiar with the range, organization, and vocabulary of a topic as well as activating schema and building background knowledge. At the beginning of a torts-themed class, for example, I gave the students a table of contents from one torts textbook. The students reviewed it in pairs to try and figure out what was familiar and what was unfamiliar, and then they shared their knowledge with each other to build up everyone’s understanding to the extent they could. (They were only permitted to use dictionaries at certain points in the process.) Next I gave them a table of contents from a commercial outline and first had the students go through the same process, then compare it with the first outline. I subsequently had the students do this with two more outlines. By the end, they had a stronger sense of what torts covers as well as key vocabulary and concepts, plus a sense of what they still don’t understand. This activating of schema and building of background knowledge and vocabulary proved to be extremely helpful when they began doing the assigned readings.

Note: One of my tricks for acquiring useful legal texts, by the way, is that there is a bin in the faculty lounge where books are regularly discarded by law professors. They may be out of date, a review copy, or maybe they’re just clearing space from their offices. As a result, I’ve developed an eye for potentially useful materials and have been able to build up my legal English library. So if you’re looking for possible materials and happen to be in a law school, it’s worth asking if such a discarding bin exists there and searching through it.

Outlines created by JD students: Most JD students devote great effort during their studies to building an outline for each class that they can study from come final exam time. Of course, the value of making these outlines is foremost in the process itself. But like commercial outlines and tables of contents, student outlines can also be used as a resource for scaffolding comprehension by NNES LLM students as well as seeing quick and dirty summaries or paraphrases of cases and legal principles. Most JD students save all of their outlines in some sort of electronic format such as Word. So it’s just a matter of knowing a JD student who you are comfortable enough to ask. One of the downsides of student outlines is that they often incorporate a significant amount of shorthand which can make it more challenging to read for NNES LLMs. But then again, it’s also a great way to notice and think about the kind of shorthand needed for law school in English.

buffalocreekdisasterThe Buffalo Creek Disaster: How the survivors of one of the worst diasters in coal-mining history brought suit against the coal company–and won: Written by a lawyer, Gerald M. Stern who took the case on a pro-bono basis, this legal true-story drama is part of the liturgy for first-year law students in law schools across the U.S. because it gets into so many legal topics–torts, mass torts, civil procedure, motion practice, federal v. state, legal careers and professionalism, fee arrangements, legal ethics, negotiation and settlement, business organizations and piercing the corporate veil, legislation and policy, etc.–all while telling a compelling story of a big-firm lawyer fighting the good fight. But more importantly from a legal English standpoint, it’s written in a relatively easy-to-read style, almost like a graded reader, which makes it about as accessible as any authentic law story a law student might read.

yeager_airportPerhaps the biggest challenge is background knowledge. There are many things LLM students from other countries simply won’t be familiar with without additional context provided. West Virginia for starters along with many other aspects of American culture not to mention the ins and outs of the American legal system and its politics. But there are a number of YouTube videos about the Buffalo Creek Disaster, some of which have animated computer simulations of how the disaster unfolded along with video and images of the destruction. And watching them before reading can provide very helpful context. There’s also a scene where the author devotes a couple pages to describing the characteristic West Virginia landscape he sees and anxiety he feels as his flight prepares to land at Yeager Airport, a small strip of runway amidst closely-bunched mountain tops. And it turns out there are a number of YouTube videos showing that descent that you can show to students so they can have a better image of what he’s describing in words.

Glossing Texts: Glossing texts means making a list of words or phrases that might block a reader’s understanding and providing definitions for those words. The goal is to help the reader to read more fluently so as not to lose the story line, which tends to happen if you’re frequently checking a dictionary. Glossing a text can take significant time and effort on the part of the teacher. But the benefits can be worth it if it enables students to stay engaged with an otherwise challenging text. 

I’ve glossed texts for court opinions and other assigned readings as well as for eight chapters of The Buffalo Creek Disaster. Sometimes I’ll create a separate handout, like a glossary. Other times I’ll copy and paste (or even re-type) a text into a Word document and gloss within the text so that students have all the information in one document (though aesthetically it’s not ideal).

When glossing a text, it’s important to not just include individual words but also phrases and collocations that you think might obstruct meaning. Also, for any words or concepts that require background knowledge, this is an excellent opportunity to provide short explanations. Lastly, a picture is worth 1,000 words, so grab an image off of Google Image and past it into the glossary if that will do the trick.

Here’s a sampling of some of the terms I included with brief explanations for the students for Buffalo Creek:

  1. slag-heaps

    two big slag heaps

    “An Act of God”

  2. in legal phraseology
  3. God-fearing
  4. involuntary manslaughter
  5. the Almighty
  6. awful mean
  7. artfully worded
  8. assuming liability
  9. set the record straight
  10. purports
  11. fighting words
  12. slag heaps
  13. claimed the lives of
  14. Nader’s Raiders

constitutionalamendmentbookmarkConstitutional Amendment Bookmarks: From you can order bookmarks with all the Constitutional Amendments listed on the two sides. A great simplified version of the amendments that students can more easily absorb, they also make nice gifts or prizes to give to students.

Reading multiple texts on the same topic: It’s always helpful for building vocabulary and comprehension when students have access to multiple texts on the same topic. This can be done with case briefs and the corresponding court opinion. With tables of contents and the assigned reading. With Constitutional amendment bookmarks combined with the original language of the amendments. A torts reading from Streetlaw followed up by a torts reading from A Short & Happy Guide to Torts. Or of course anything else you can think of.


listeningListening is another significant form of input that can be challenging for legal English students. And finding comprehensible listening input can be even more challenging. Yet comprehensible input for listening is also vital for student learning. Here are a few things I’ve tried:

Recordings + Transcript: It can be extremely helpful to provide students with recordings of “law school” speech events and then provide a transcript that can then be used in a variety of ways. Lectures, discussions, presentations, student conversations, etc.

Note: The best online resource for transcribing I’ve found is It enables you to upload an audio or video file (even YouTube videos) to a page where you can control the audio stream on the same page you’re typing. No more toggling back and forth between your audio app and your Word or Google Doc.

Lectures: In order to teach about case reading and briefing, I like to use a contract law case called Lefkowitz v. Great Minneapolis Surplus Store, Inc. But real law school students don’t just read and brief the case. They also listen to a lecture and have class discussion about the case. So I arranged with a Contracts Law professor to sit in on his class the day he would discuss the Lefkowitz case and received permission to record the lecture and class discussion which he anticipated would take about 10-15 minutes. I next transcribed the recording and then used the recording and the transcript in connection with several activities and assignments in my class. Essentially, all the reading and analyzing of the case we did previously served as scaffolding to turn the lecture into comprehensible input.

Interviews with JD students and alumni: Another option is to have legal English student interview a JD student or an alumnus on a topic, record the conversation, and then type up a transcript of it. It can be an initial step to help build background knowledge. For example, tasking my legal English students to ask a JD student for a definition of attorney-client privilege as a first step in getting their head around the topic before reading about it.

Or, it can be a culminating assignment where students have an opportunity to try out and demonstrate what they’ve learned. For example, after spending the semester learning about key legal ethics topics, I’ve arranged for students to have phone interviews with alumni who are practicing law and ask them about legal ethics issues they encounter in their practice. My students don’t know what’s going to come out of the alumnus’ mouth. But when the alumnus talks the students are better able to focus on the substance of the comments and engage in a genuine dialogue since they have already built up their vocabulary and background knowledge.

acivilactionThe film A Civil Action together with subtitles: Possibly the best law movie for legal English students because the movie is primarily devoted to the trial, trial strategy, and the legal process. But while NNES students may be able to get the main idea of the story from watching and listening, following the details of the legal process can be challenging. One solution is providing the full subtitles in printed form, which can be read in advance of, during, and after watching the movie.

Note: Subtitles are different than the “script.” I learned this the hard way by ordering and paying for a copy of the script and then realizing that the script gets changed significantly during the film making process to the point that it no longer corresponds well to what you see in the movie.

Make your own audio book for the students: I frequently record myself reading out loud the reading assignments I give to my students. I also get my native English speaking JD student teaching assistants to help out with recording as well. I’ve made recordings of court opinions, chapters from textbooks, chapters from The Buffalo Creek Disaster and other sources. Listening to a text that you’re already familiar with is a great way to build up listening skills. It also helps connect a student’s visual knowledge of a word with their aural knowledge, which are not always aligned.

To encourage students to listen to the audio version, I’ve assigned them to listen to the recording once while reading along and then listen again without the text while taking notes. Then in the next class I give them a quiz where I play part of the recording and they have to take notes on it.


Writing is of course not reading. But writing in the legal world (just like in the academic world) is generally a reaction to or synthesis of texts or ideas presented by others. As a result, the process of teaching legal writing can benefit from using materials that provide comprehensible input to enable students to reduce the amount of cognitive processing energy devoted to comprehension and increase their ability to focus on the writing process.Here are a couple of resources I’ve used:

Legal Analysis: 100 Exercises for Mastery – Practice for Every Law Student by Cassandra L. Hill & Katherine T. Vukadin (LexisNexis): This book contains many self-contained legal writing exercises that do not require outside research. Additionally, chapter 1 of the book contains nine critical thinking exercises that are very simple and straightforward to read and understand. They are not legal questions, but they mimic legal exam or memo writing questions in form and what is expected of the writer. I’ve gotten a great deal of mileage out of even just the first question–a very simple fact scenario about a jogger who drops a banana peel on a beach in front of a sign that says no littering. A police officer sees this and has to decide whether to give a ticket. She remembers two other incidents, one where her supervisor did give a ticket and one where the supervisor did not give a ticket. So in that question is a rule and two previous decisions–a nice introduction to the interplay of statutes and case law, and a nice set-up for a basic IRAC (Issue Rule Application/Analysis Conclusion) memo. You can read more about my use of the jogger-banana peel case for teaching legal writing here.

Model answers written by native English speakers: One of the biggest challenges for learning writing in a second language, in my view, is that students do not get sufficient exposure to the kind of language we expect them to produce. There’s a symmetry with speaking and listening–the kind of language you hear is the kind you want to produce. But with reading and writing there’s an asymmetry: We don’t expect our students to write like textbooks or judges or newspaper articles.

The solution I’ve been using is to create a library of model answers for the writing questions I give to my students. The answers have been written by myself (usually one arguing one side and a second one arguing the other side) as well as by my colleagues and by my teaching assistants and other JD students.

Reading multiple texts on the same topic is good for building vocabulary and reading speed. It’s also good for building ability to paraphrase and summarize. Plus, if you analyze the model answers for discourse (Issue, Rule, Application/Analysis and Conclusion) and for language and grammar patterns, then the students start to absorb for themselves a sense of how their writing should look. It also makes them stronger readers of other legal writing.

Additionally, it actually doesn’t even matter so much if the model answers you get are good or not. Part of the value is for students to evaluate the answers and notice what makes a strong or a weak answer. And to notice different effective approaches and the language used. Plus, even a weak answer written by a native English speaker will have natural-sounding transition words and other cohesive devices that non-native English speaking legal English students can learn from.

These are a sampling of things that I’ve done or used to develop comprehensible input in the legal English classroom. I hope these ideas may be helpful to others in the legal English field.

Request: Do you have your own examples of comprehensible input for legal English that you’ve developed or discovered? Please feel free to share in the comments section below or by emailing me.

3 thoughts on “Comprehensible input for legal English students: Resources, approaches and ideas

  1. Pingback: St. John’s Legal English: Comprehensible input for legal English students |

  2. Pingback: See you at TESOL 2017 in Seattle next week! | St. John's Legal English Blog

  3. Pingback: Legal writing: Teaching analogy and comparison language to LLM students | St. John's Legal English Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s