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 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

Calvin and Hobbes, capital letters and LLMs

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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.

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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!

 

Merry Christmas from your lawyer

Not just an accessible example of American legal humor, but a great example of American-style contract language and culture. It’s also giving me ideas for new activities around teaching English for contract reading and drafting as we get ready for 2017.

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Wishing everyone a happy and safe holidays and New Year from the St. John’s Legal English team!

Lawyer-client practice for LLM students

20161110_161115Yesterday for the second time we completed another successful U.S. Legal Studies (USLS) + Transnational Legal Practice (TLP) Program + American Law: Discourse & Analysis (ALDA) Program collaboration activity based around lawyer-client practice.


20161110_161019The activity
: The USLS and TLP students are the lawyers and the ALDA students the clients. Each lawyer is part of a group or firm of two or three lawyers. And each client is actually two or three ALDA students.  The clients are given a fact pattern which they study, review, and discuss prior to their meeting with their lawyers. The clients then join the USLS and TLP students’ Legal Writing class and are matched with their lawyers at separate tables. The lawyers then need to lead the meeting and ask questions to learn about the client’s issue. The clients tell their story (and occasionally have fun making up facts where necessary and appropriate.)

20161110_161032The lawyers have 45 minutes to try and understand the client’s situation, identify the legal issues in the fact situation and help the clients figure out who they can or can’t sue and evaluate the strength of the case.

Following the activity, a group discussion was held to reflect on the experience. Everyone had a good time and expressed appreciation for having the opportunity to step into their roles and really think through the situation.
20161110_161105For homework, the ALDA students were tasked with writing a follow-up email to their lawyers confirming their understanding of the main points of the discussion. And the TLP students have been tasked with writing a client letter describing the issues and offering their evaluation and recommendations for how to proceed.

20161110_095808This is an activity that will certainly continue each semester as the students greatly enjoy
it and derive great benefit in terms of experience, critical thinking, and language use.

 

Extensive Reading: The Book Cart Approach

stevelambert-library-book-cartI’ve been working on more effective approaches to building extensive reading into the ALDA curriculum. Research consistently shows that it is the best way for non-native English speakers to build reading comprehension, vocabulary, and reading fluency. And reading comprehension and listening comprehension ability are believed to be the best predictors of success for students in a graduate program such as an LLM program.

Extensive reading, which I previously discussed a bit in this post, means 1) reading easy texts (i.e., where the reader understands 90% of the vocabulary), and 2) reading for enjoyment. It relies on the seemingly obvious premise that the best way to improve reading is to read a lot.

And it doesn’t matter what the learner reads so much as that the learner reads. In other words, even if you read novels or cartoons, it will still help learners when they go to read more challenging legal texts. This is because reading a lot and reading in a fluent way leads to building of larger lexical bundles by the reader. That is, rather than reading and decoding each word, the reader begins to see and process groups of words as a lexical bundle. This in turn means the learner is devoting less cognitive energy to that part of the reading and has more energy to devote to more challenging language that arises.

But how to do that in a legal English setting, where the focus is on texts and concepts that are challenging for even native speakers of English? Texts that render every reading an intensive reading, where the reading process involves constant dictionary use, which in turn reduces engagement and big picture comprehension? Continue reading

Bar Exam Language Support Course: Things we learned

Professor Kathryn Piper and I just finished the Bar Exam Language Support (BELS) course this past week and we wanted to share a few takeaways and things we learned given that this is a new course and, we believe, the first ever bar prep course at a law school that incorporates language learning pedagogy and perspective.

  1. Working with familiar topics: By using bar exam prep questions that the students had already studied and written answers for in a separate bar preparation course, we cleared away most of the obstacle that is background knowledge. This meant that we had the luxury of being able to truly focus on helping them with their writing. If we had used unfamiliar questions, and they in turn wrote poor answers due to lack of comprehension of the question or topic, or inability to remember the rule, then we would not have been evaluating their writing, but rather their knowledge or their comprehension. And it would have meant that we would have spent time teaching the relevant bar exam topic rather than working on writing. Working with familiar topics to enable a better focus on writing opened the door to identify and work on the actual writing issues faced by our non-native English speaking students (NNES).
  2. Speed is king: By the end of the first day of class, discussion of the bar exam writing process with our students made clear to us that speed and language processing were the biggest challenges for our students, all of whom were NNES. The speed issue manifests itself Continue reading