IRAC, mirroring and language control for LLM students in legal writing

“Lacks control of language” — This is one of those feedback comments that sounds incisive and succinct to us writing instructors but which, for non-native English speakers, is actually very subjective. It describes a writer who isn’t communicating her ideas in a clear or accurate manner.

In my writing work with LLM students, we work on the fundamentals of IRAC-style essays in the context of law school exams. And I work with my students on an idea we call “mirroring,” which means that certain key words from the Rule section need to also be present in the Analysis section. And those words then need to be equated with key facts to demonstrate that such facts do or do not meet the standard set by the Rule.

However, connecting rules and facts in one sentence frequently requires students to have the grammar to connect their ideas. Otherwise, the sentences come out as separate, seemingly disconnected statements. That is, they lack control of their writing. Also, when students lack confidence in their control of their writing, they often avoid the language they need to connect rule and facts, and the Analysis can end up just being a recitation of the facts followed by a leap to a conclusion.

A very useful cohesive device for establishing connections and demonstrating control over language is the clause. Subordinated clauses get a lot of use in the Analysis section, but relative clauses also come in handy. And so I make sure my students get to look at various writing samples so that they get to look for and identify the words and phrases used to connect facts and rule words and see how they get used. For example:

Here, Jefferson slowed down at a crosswalk to wait for the children to cross the road and view the directions on the cell phone, which means at that time, the car was still operating because the car was not completely stopped and it could start driving again at any time.

And more recently I’ve started to focus on giving students opportunities to practice control of the language. An easy way to do that is to take a sentence like the one above and ask the students to re-write it with a new sentence starter. For example, what if you have to start with “Here, when Jefferson…..”? How might you finish it? And maybe you end up with something like:

Here, when Jefferson slowed down at a crosswalk to wait for the children to cross the road and viewed the directions on her cell phone, the car was was not completely stopped and it could start driving again at any time which means that the car was operating.

Or, what if you want to change the order of the information? What if you start with: “Here, at the time when Jefferson viewed the directions…..”? What might that sentence look like?

Here, at the time when Jefferson viewed the directions on the cell phone, she had slowed down at a crosswalk to wait for the children to cross the road. Therefore, the car was still operating because it was not completely stopped.

Each change leads to different permutations and possibilities, yet not limitless ones. And it’s helpful for students to start noticing the range of words and phrases they need and can use to accomplish their communicative purposes.

It’s also helpful to notice patterns such as how the word “when” is followed by facts and the word “because” being preceded by a rule words and followed by facts.

As students learn the strategy of noticing these types of phrases and corresponding language patterns, they can acquire the vocabulary and grammar they need to improve their control over their language in the context of IRAC-style writing.

And if teachers are aware of these patterns, then they can better help students by pointing out specific problems and offering possible solutions to accompany a “lacks control of language” comment.

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