The Art of Law and Language

I am very excited about three new posters that will be up in the Office of Graduate Studies soon on the walls right outside my office, and right by my extensive reading library.

1. The first is “Mother Tongues and Queens: The World’s Language Capital,” created by the Endangered Language Alliance for use in the book Non-stop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. The map explains that the Borough of Queens (where St. John’s University is of course located) is not only the most linguistically diverse borough in NYC, but the most linguistically diverse place on the planet! It can tell you where to find the largest concentrations of speakers of Farsi, Mongolian, Greek, Uzbek, Thai, etc. in Queens. And it also includes great tidbits such as “Riker’s Island, one of the world’s largest jails, holds new languages created by gangs to evade the authorities.” Not only a stimulating resource, but a welcoming symbol to all of our non-native English speaking students who come to St. John’s Law School.

“Mother Tongues and Queens: The World’s Language Capital”


2. The second is Pop Chart Lab’sPop Culture Primer on Parts of Speech.” And while I appreciate all the entries, I think my favorite entry is under “Nouns” where it shows the categories of Common and Proper and has a picture of the celebrity whose name happens to be Common under both categories, listing him as “rapper” as an example of a common noun, and also as “Common” as an example of a proper noun.

“Pop Culture Primer on Parts of Speech”

3. The second is Pop Chart Lab’s “A Diagrammatical Dissertation on Opening Lines of Notable Novels.” “From Cervantes to Faulkner to Pynchon, each sentence has been painstakingly curated and diagrammed by PCL’s research team, parsing classical prose by parts of speech and offering a partitioned, color-coded picto-grammatical representation of some of the most famous first words in literary history.”

“A Diagrammatical Dissertation on Opening Lines from Notable Novels”

I appreciate the language and graphic design of all three posters on a personal level and also like that they communicate the significance of language in the context of the legal environment, where language literally is power.

But my real hope is that students, when waiting in our office or in need of distraction, will engage with the language-related content in ways that are helpful to their own language development. In that regard, it can serve as a passive, non-threatening way to spark language-related interactions and conversations, especially with students who might otherwise feel reluctant to identify themselves as wanting language support. Because after all, sparking conversations is one of the main purposes of art.





What Should I Do This Summer to Prepare for My LL.M. Program?

One of my LL.B. students in China asked me what she should do this summer to prepare for her LL.M. program. Here is a longer, written version of some tips that I gave her.

  1. Make Sure You Are Set Logistically. You ideally want to have your housing completed before you arrive in the United States. Does your university have a Facebook/Whatsapp/WeChat group for student housing? I think arranging housing before you arrive is one less major headache you will have to worry about, and am always surprised when I hear students arrive in America and start the housing search as they begin classes. Dormitories are likely more expensive than off-campus housing in most university areas, so you may have to ask around to find housing from abroad. Another surprising expense is the cost of buying casebooks. Are you going to buy expensive new books or used books? Are there current students at your school who can help you with that?


  1. Get Introduced to American J.D. Students. I say this all the time, but it is easier to become friends with Americans you already know than to start introducing yourself in the United States. If you still don’t have any American connections, ask your law school to be introduced to an American J.D. student or two. Share some of your hobbies or the area of law you are most interested in so that the school can try to match you. I recommend asking to be introduced to rising 2L (second-year) students. The students who just finished 3L will be preparing for the Bar Exam, and the rising 1L students will already be worried about On-Campus Interviews (OCI).


  1. Speak With Your LL.B. Alumni. Find alumni from your law school in your home country who went to America for LL.M. or J.D. programs. Ask them what they wish they knew before they arrived, and what advice they would give a new student. Better if you can find someone who went to your undergraduate law school and the same American law school. Successful students will be able to share great tips on their experiences, in the classroom and outside the classroom. Ask your undergraduate school if they can help you. This way, you will make a connection that you may not yet have had in your native country.

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St John’s LLM Summer Pre-Bar Prep Program

This summer we are excited to roll out our first-ever Summer LLM Pre-Bar Prep Program. This is a self-study program for St. John’s LLM students who are planning to take the bar exam in 2019, and it focuses on helping those students continue to improve language fluency as well as general and specific knowledge over the summer months.

The self-study curriculum will consist of:

1. An extensive reading program to build vocabulary, reading speed and fluency, and background knowledge.

  • Time is perhaps the biggest challenge for LLM students on the bar exam. It takes LLM students longer to read the questions and process the information. Additionally, vocabulary and background knowledge can be significant impediments to comprehension. e.g., A fact pattern that references American football. And the best way to “tackle” all three of these aspects is extensive reading, i.e., 1) reading a lot; 2) of texts that are easy to read (90% of vocabulary is familiar); and 3) and of texts that are enjoyable to read (because if it’s not enjoyable, then students don’t read a lot).
  • For our extensive reading program, we rely in a large part on Newsela, which contains a very large and constantly growing library of actual news articles and other texts, all re-written at 4 additional (and easier) levels. In other words, if an article is too difficult, you can simply choose an easier version to read. Or viewed from another perspective, there are tons of very easy-to-read and genuinely interesting texts which is fantastic for building reading speed and vocabulary. Additionally, Newsela has a trove of articles on law and American legal history and culture–all written at 5 different levels–including the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, Brown v. Board of Ed, and Plessy v. Ferguson. All of this content, including the non-legal content, is great for building the kind of cultural and background knowledge that American students learn growing up and that professors and test makers assume students possess.
  • Additionally, each article (and each level of each article) has a 4-question quiz that can be used to check and see how well the student understood the article.
  • Drawing on this resource, we put together a collection of law-relevant content that students can choose articles from each week.
  • Using the tools provided via our Newsela account, we can easily track the students’ reading and quiz scores over the summer.

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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

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.

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:

READING RESOURCES Continue reading

Calvin and Hobbes, capital letters and LLMs


Upon closer inspection, it is indeed written in all caps.

About a month ago some of our LLM students were perusing my mobile extensive reading library and one of them started flipping through one of the Calvin & Hobbes books on the shelf (generously donated by my colleague Kathryn Piper). The students were pulled in by the drawings, but soon after reading a frame or two they quickly pointed out to me that this book would be difficult to read for them.


Mobile book cart with pleasure reading. John Grisham novels on the middle shelf to the right.

This surprised me. “Why is this difficult?”

They replied: “Because it’s written in all capital letters.”

Not only had I never noticed that Calvin & Hobbes is written in all capital letters, it had also never occurred to me that it was any more difficult to read something in all caps.Yet when I mentioned this to my wife (an experienced elementary school reading specialist) that night, she said, “Oh yes, it’s difficult for kids, too.”

all-caps-warningAnd as I thought about it, I realized that it’s not so easy for native English speaking adults either. Think about those parts of contracts that are in all caps to warn the reader that something is extra super-duper important. This is because part of reading is recognizing word shape, and with all caps you lose that aspect.

Despite the appearance of difficulty, one of the students nonetheless took the book home for pleasure reading. I made a point of promoting the book by explaining that yes, in one sense it’s a children’s cartoon, but on another level it’s very adult and philosophical which is part of the genius of Bill Watterson. Plus, it might help your reading fluency with all caps.

Then out of the blue yesterday, the student came up to me and said, “Hey, I’m still reading Calvin & Hobbes and I really like it.” I said that’s great and then asked, “Has it gotten easier to read capital letters?” To which she replied, “Yes, definitely. It’s been really helpful with that.” The key to building all caps reading fluency, as it turns out, is a text with lots of all caps that’s actually enjoyable to read, i.e., Calvin & Hobbes. In contrast, had I recommended reading a bunch of contract language in all caps, I don’t think the student would have spent as much time engaged in such reading.

So there you have it. To help your LLM students prepare for law careers in which they will have to quickly read over transaction documents laden with all caps sections, make sure to include Calvin & Hobbes in your LLM legal library!