Using Apples to Apples (the game) in legal English teaching

I wish I had thought of this sooner, but this semester I finally started using Apples to Apples (the game) in my Legal Writing & Analysis class for the LLM students in St. John’s Advanced Certificate for Legal English program.

Why am I doing this? And how did this happen? It was sort of by accident. And perhaps sort of not. But either way, very glad I arrived at this place with my students.

First, about the game: I realized a year or so ago that it’s an ideal game for legal English. Because in it, one person is a judge and everyone else is essentially a lawyer trying to analogize and persuade. In the game, in each round one person is a judge. And the judge picks a green card which has an adjective on it. And everyone else has a hand of red cards, which are all nouns and noun phrases of various sorts (e.g., Woody Allen; My Love Life; Mice; Ginseng; Roman Numerals; Body Piercing; Tornadoes; Oprah Winfrey; etc.) From their hand, they pick a card that they think is the best match for the adjective on the green card. They submit their card face down so the judge doesn’t know who submitted which card (to ensure impartiality.)

Next, the judge turns over each card and then renders a decision. But the fun (and culturally and linguistically interesting) part is that as the judge turns over each card, she comments on it and shares some of her reasoning out loud in order to justify her eventual decision. And while she is doing this, other players interject their own comments and reasoning in an effort to sway the judge one way or another. At the same time, they try to do it in a way that doesn’t blow their cover (or sometimes does.) (If it’s still not clear, here’s a short youtube video that explains and demonstrates the game.)

I first taught the game to students a few years ago, as an end of the semester activity. They really enjoyed it. And from a language learning perspective, games are a great way to lower students’ affective filter (i.e., make them relax) and also provide excellent motivation as well as opportunities to practice oral communication in a low stakes environment.

Fast forward to August 2019, the week before classes. I was running an optional intro class for my Advanced Legal English Certificate students and decided to introduce them to a series of games to get them using more English and also to get them to bond and feel more comfortable together as well as learn a little something related to American culture.

Complicating the situation was the fact that I had promised my 9-year-old daughter that she could come to work with me that day. An additional complication popped up that morning as my colleague informed me that she was bringing her 9-year-old and 6-year-old daughters to work that day because they wanted to see my daughter. (Thus, history recorded what may have been the first Bring Your Children to Legal English Work Day. Though if you know of others, please don’t hesitate to let me know!)

But then I had a thought: I’ll have the kids explain the games to the students. The kids get to feel like experts. (Which in turn reduces complaining about being bored and requesting snacks.) The students’ affective filters are further lowered. And everyone (hopefully) has fun. I wasn’t sure how it would play out, but it worked exceedingly well! The kids relished their role as experts. The students (all fairly reluctant speakers) had to step up and take control of the communications more since they were dealing with kids. And a high level of both communication and fun ensued.

The kids explained Apples to Apples to the students, and everyone enjoyed it. One strategy that helped, by the way, is keeping Google Images up on a computer screen so that you can efficiently help explain any unfamiliar words (e.g., grasshopper; Sean Connery; etc.) and keep the game moving. I should also mention that in addition to Apples to Apples, the kids explained several other games which were also popular: 1) Headbanz, a game where everyone has a headband on with a slot in which to put a card with a word on it, so only the other players can see it. The other players then have to try and help the “it” person figure out the word; 2) HeadsUp, the version of Headbandz you can play using an app on your smartphone; 3) Bop-It!, a hand-held game that issues computer-voiced instructions you have to execute in synch with an emanating rhythm without making mistakes. And 4) “Concentration 64,” a rhythmic hand-clapping game (which I remember being popular among girls in elementary school) done with a partner that involves some introductory rhymes followed by the declaration of a category and then the back-and-forth of naming items in that category until one person messes up.

By the way, I think these kinds of games–the ones we played as children–are immensely helpful for learning and acquiring a second language. In addition to helping with fluency and lowering the affective filter, they also create associations with words that we all have in our native languages but that we often lack in a second language, even if we know the definition of the word. Knowing a word involves a lot more than knowing the definition of a word. It also involves associations, collocations, context, wordplay, etc. All the things we learn about words and language as children playing all these seemingly frivolous games which are highly valuable for language development.

For example, if you tell me a given English word, let’s say “cat,” then a colorful medley of images and possibilities and words appear in my head. But if you tell me the same word in Japanese or Spanish, my find focuses on an image of the spelling of that word, which does not conjure up lots of other images and connections. It’s the difference between being in a well-lit room and being able to see and take in everything versus being in a pitch black room and having just the light of your iPhone (before they added the flashlight feature.)

One of the things I noticed, however, in playing Apples to Apples with my students is that they were inclined to sit back and allow the judge to efficiently render her decision each time. So I decided I needed to model how the game is played. The next day I invited my colleagues to join us for 20 minutes of Apples to Apples, so the students could see how Americans play the game. And I made an audio recording of the game, so that we would be able to go back and examine the language of these native English speakers playing the game.

Subsequently, I made a transcript of the recording and brought it to class a couple weeks later. In that class, we first played a few rounds of Apples to Apples. (There were a couple students who were not part of the first game.) Then I gave them a handout of the transcript, but with blank spaces for articles and prepositions and some other words and short phrases that tend to get dropped in speech. And I played the recording to them at a slower speed (using oTranscribe.com) so that they could try to figure out and train their ear to hear the missing words and phrases. Next, the students checked their answers and then practiced reading the dialogue out loud to each other in pairs, to get a feel for what it’s like to talk like a native English speaker.

After all of that initial work (which also served as a form of extensive reading and listening), I asked students to look for examples of persuasive or argumentative language in the transcript. And this was the real aim, because my legal writing class this semester will focus on analogy and persuasive legal writing.

The students found sentences like:

Player 1: “But when you look under the surface, it’s uh….”

Player 2: “It’s still the most magical place on earth.”

Player 3: “They treat their workers well, I think.”

And they identified several language items that help with persuasion:

  1. Contrast: “But….” and “still”
  2. Comparatives/Superlatives: “most”
  3. Adverbs: “most”, “still”, “well”

They also focused on the below sentence and (with my input) came to understand that it’s known as a rhetorical question, i.e., a question that’s intended to be a statement.

Player 3: “Doesn’t it depend what you do with your money?”

After spending time analyzing and noticing features of the language, I had the students use the language by working in pairs and reading the transcript out loud with each other. The idea is to allow them to step into the shoes of a native English speaker and feel what it’s like to use the exact words and grammar of a native English speaker. The aim is that by doing this (and if possible, doing this frequently), they will start to internalize some of the patterns and vocabulary. That is, they’ll start to develop a sense of things that “sound right.”

This activity also led me to an additional thought, which I have yet to experiment with: What if I have the students memorize the transcript? And then practice acting it out in class with their classmates? Would that help the students further internalize the words, grammar, and speech patterns, not to mention improving pronunciation, connected speech, and prosody? I’m tempted to try. Though on the other hand this is a legal writing course, so I can’t stray too far from the premise.

In any event, the way I wrapped up the class was to introduce the students to SAT analogy problems. I think they’re not on the SAT anymore. But if you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember them fondly, I’m sure. I like to use them because they’re a stripped down version of a discussion of case law: They involve analogizing and distinguishing.

But instead of just asking them to figure out the right answers, I also ask them to write out sentences explaining their answers. First, I teach them the basic sentence structure, “A is to B as C is to D.” Then I explain that we don’t usually talk or write like that, so they have to figure out other ways to express the same idea. For example, “A is similar to B in the same way that C is similar to D.”

In practice, this leads them to have to use words of categorization or classification. For example:

  1. author : novel :: __________ : song
    1. singer
    2. musician
    3. composer
    4. writer
    5. tune

The students discussed how an author writes a novel just as a writer writes a song. This is perhaps not the best answer. But I made sure they noticed how the word “writes” becomes a common denominator. They then discussed how an author only writes novels whereas a writer doesn’t only write songs. And then they focused on how an author creates and writes a novel in the same way a composer writes and creates a song.

And this is when I pointed out to them that identifying appropriate categorization or classification words is an example of comparing apples to apples. And that is how I demonstrated to them (and hopefully to readers of this post) that playing the silly, fun game of Apples to Apples is a good way to work on one’s legal English, and more specifically on legal writing!

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