Motivation: Friday Field Trips, The Newsela Challenge and The Grammar Challenge

Given that motivation is cited as one of the keys (along with aptitude) to language learning, I’ve been thinking a lot about student motivation and buy-in in connection with developing and teaching legal English curriculum to LLM students. I’ve also been thinking about grammar and how to help students improve. So when we decided to add an additional ALDA class on Fridays this semester (and that I would be teaching it), I decided to try and tackle both of these topics in one semester-long effort.

Friday Field Trips

Each semester I’ve made it a point to devote three or so classes to field trips: One to federal court, one to state court, and one to a law firm. In the past, we’ve also done trips to the United Nations and the Court of International Trade. The students, needless to say, love these trips. But they also are a fantastic way to build background knowledge for the students. And of course field trips provoke a basis, desire and motivation for learning more.

So this semester I’ve set a schedule of one field trip every two weeks. The first will be to the Supreme Court in Queens County to visit a judge whose clerk is a St. John’s Law School alumnus. Additionally, we plan to visit both federal and state courts (to watch trials, motions, jury selection, etc.) as well as a police station, a couple different types of law firms (large and small), Queens Legal Services, and the United Nations. The biggest development, however, has been that as LLM students not in my ALDA classes have learned about them, they too have expressed interest in joining along for the Friday Field Trips. And from my perspective, the more the merrier and the better overall experience it will be. Continue reading

Improving LLM students’ written grammar through listening practice

It sounds a bit counter-intuitive, but is it possible that a number of grammar issues we see in LLM student writing could be addressed by listening practice?

Missing articles. Incorrect prepositions. Dropping an “s” at the end of a plural noun or third-person verb.

What do all of these have in common? They’re all soft, unstressed sounds that are often reduced and connected with sounds from other nearby words. Say the previous two sentences aloud and notice which sounds are stressed clearly and which ones are soft, reduced, or connected.

Why does this matter? Because being a native speaker of a language essentially boils down to knowing what sounds right. Articles and prepositions in particular are notoriously challenging to teach in accordance with clear rules. They are very arbitrary and capricious, and if you look at article and preposition usage in other languages, you quickly see that. Did we learn how to use all these small words by studying rules? No, of course not. We just had a lot of exposure to what sounds right and it’s jarring to our ears when it sounds wrong.

So how can listening practice help? If LLM students hear these sounds, then it’s more likely that the voice inside their head will absorb them and start to incorporate them. The problem, however, is that because these are often soft sounds, students do not absorb them and incorporate them. When they are listening to professors or classmates or a tv show, they’re focused on the main content. Their ears are not attuned to the soft sounds if they aren’t already on the students’ radars. Continue reading

A long-winded discussion of summaries and paraphrasing

I have been working with my new international LL.M. students on summarizing and paraphrasing skills, to get them ready for a first research memorandum assignment.  I decided to spend some time on this because I have noticed that even when writing a single case brief exercise, some students do not feel free to depart from the court’s words. As a result, students can spend hours wrestling 6 pages of case law into a 3-page summary that really only needs to be a few ordered dots of thought the size of an index card.  So we have been working to condense information into different styles of case briefs, using the same legal text until they feel comfortable putting the case aside and writing main points from memory.

Stephen spied one of my latest worksheets, and we started an email discussion about how to distinguish the two concepts in a meaningful way, to make students aware of how we expect them to manipulate source material in writing assignments. Finally, I arrived at this, which I think will work. I am interested in learning how other instructors introduce and practice these ideas with the class.  Continue reading

Legal writing: Teaching analogy and comparison language to LLM students

I recently finished reading an excellent and exciting article titled Beyond Contrastive Rhetoric: Helping International Lawyers Use Cohesive Devices in U.S. Legal Writing, by Elizabeth Baldwin, a professor of legal writing who has an MA in Applied Linguistics and works with LLM students at the University of Washington School of Law. I say exciting because each page that I read seemed to open my eyes and my mind and spark new ideas about teaching legal writing to LLM students.

In the article, Elizabeth–one of the founders of the ETLEP legal English Google Group together with Alissa Hartig, Lindsey Kurtz and me following the 2015 Global Legal Skills Conference in Chicago–distinguishes between coherence (top down: does it make sense?) and cohesion (bottom up: does it feel connected and logical?) A text can be coherent, i.e., you understand what the writer is saying, yet lack cohesion, i.e., the ideas feel disjointed and unnatural in some way you can’t quite put your finger on.

The article explains how cohesion can be lexical (e.g., use of repetition and synonyms) as well as grammatical (e.g., use of conjunctive words and phrases to connect information between sentences; use of a subordinated clause to front information so that it feels connected to information in the previous sentence).

However, the article really grabbed my attention at one point when it described a particular cohesive device that involves use of the pattern: [determiner + abstract noun]. (Determiners include a, an, the, this, these, my, your, which, other, and a bunch of other words you know but just didn’t realize were determiners.) An example might be a sentence along the lines of: Continue reading

LLM Summer Reading Club

I find myself thinking a lot about ways to interweave extensive reading into the law school experience of our LLM students. So much time is spent engaged in intensive reading. Yet research makes clear that reading for enjoyment in English contributes significantly to improving much-needed reading speed, vocabulary, and background knowledge. At the same time, many of our students return to their home countries over the summer before returning for the fall semester and may not focus on improving their legal and language knowledge. Additionally, many LLM students may not have developed a habit of reading for enjoyment in English.

In response, this summer I decided to pilot our first ever LLM Summer Reading Club. I picked a book–24 Hours With 24 Lawyers: Profiles of Traditional and Non-Traditional Careers, edited by Jasper Kim–and invited any and all St. John’s LLM students to join the club if interested. (I also listed several other law-themed books that would make good reads for anyone looking for something to read on their own.)

The plan is that we will pick a couple chapters to read each week and then meet online to discuss the reading. (It looks like WeChat may be our platform of choice, though I just learned that video/voice calls have a 9-person limit which won’t work for us.) No assignments or homework. Just a relaxed, social way to engage in law-related reading and keep students feeling motivated and connected over the summer.

If anyone else has done something along these lines–or if you decide to do it this summer–please feel free to share your experience as well as any advice and perspectives.

Global Legal Skills: Mountains, Mariachi and Mentorship in Monterrey

I had the pleasure of attending the annual Global Legal Skills Conference this week, hosted by the Facultad Libre de Derecho de Monterrey. Sarah Kelly and I were glad to present the in-class role-play methods we use in our core LLM courses at St. John’s, and I was grateful to our audience, who engaged in all the steps of an introductory negotiation exercise and gave feedback on the experience.  This year Continue reading

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 Newsela.com 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:

READING RESOURCES Continue reading