As my Legal Writing students reminded me the other day, it’s one thing to know a word when reading. It’s another to figure out how to use it correctly in writing.
In this case, the troublesome legal English word is “precedent.” Below are a few sample sentences from my students’ writing with attempts to use the word:
“According to the precedent case, the police officer’s supervisor issued a ticket to a person who threw a candy wrapper on the ground.”
“The precedent shows that coffee poured on the ground is not litter while a candy wrapper is litter.”
“The precedent is the police officer’s supervisor has issued a ticket to a person who threw a candy wrapper on the ground.”
“One precedent is that a person who threw a candy wrapper on the ground was issued a littering ticket.”
Grammatically, these sentences are fine. Yet, as a native English speaker and teacher of legal writing, the use of “precedent” sounds decidedly off. But why? What you might find yourself saying is, “It just doesn’t sound right.” Yet that feels like an insufficient explanation given that the fundamental ability a non-native English speaker lacks is the ability to know what sounds right.
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.
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 →
This past week for the frist time I did a full unit of syllogism and analogy activities with my legal writing students to prepare them for the concepts and language of IRAC-style writing. And it not only went very well–it also taught me something new.
Previously, I had taught the concept of IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis/Application, Conclusion) first and then had the students work on it through the Jogger/Banana Peel question. This question is the vehicle through which I have been teaching students IRAC-style discourse as well as the written language of that discourse. It involves a jogger who throws a banana peel on the beach after passing a sign that indicates a fine for “littering.” A police officer sees this and has to decide whether to issue a ticket, remembering that her supervisor did give a ticket to someone who threw a candy bar wrapper on the ground but did not give a ticket to someone who poured coffee on the ground.
In my approach, the students come to understand the IRAC concepts and signal words, but they still struggled in many ways with the underlying style of argument expected. For example, they would see the exercise as a simple application of a rule. The jogger littered; there’s a rule against littering; hence, the jogger should get a ticket. To not give a ticket would be to undermine rule of law and all that is good in our society, etc. Or, if they focus on the coffee and the candy bar wrapper, they make conclusory statements without really explaining or showing how those ideas connect. (Or rather, they don’t do it in a way that meets expectations for our writer-responsible writing culture.) Continue reading →
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 →
In other words, it is an entire book that thinks deeply and conceptually–far more deeply and conceptually than I would be able to–about how to teach law with language support to non-native English speaking law students (e.g., international LLM students). If I can read and absorb even 10% of what’s in this book, I feel like I will ascend to a higher legal English plain. Which suggests that if I absorb the entire book I will attain some sort of legal English nirvana. (Side note: Wondering whether this is the first instance of “legal English” collocating with “nirvana.”) Continue reading →
On Tuesday, August 1 at 10:15 a.m. I will have the honor of being part of a panel discussion at the Southeastern Association of Law Schools (SEALS) Conference. The panel, organized by Kirsten Schaetzel of Emory Law school, is titled “International Learners and Legal Writers: Pitfalls and Promising Practices” and also includes Marta Baffy of the Georgetown University Law Center and Catherine Schenker of American University, Washington College of Law.
I will be speaking specifically about ideas and approaches for teaching IRAC (Issue Rule Application Conclusion) discourse to non-native English speaking LLM students in ways that incorporate ESL concepts and pedagogy.
This is my first time attending SEALS and needless to say I am very excited amd looking forward to it as well as the chance to interact with and learn from colleagues at other law schools.
Here is a full description of the panel:
At many law schools today, the number of international students is increasing. These students come from different legal and educational systems and may have trouble understanding and learning the conventions of American legal discourse. This panel, composed of legal writing and English as a Second Language specialists from various law schools, examines areas in legal writing that may be troublesome for non-native English students. Beginning with an overview of cultural differences in writing conventions and expectations, panelists present how they teach different aspects of American legal writing. Panelists cover teaching summaries of legal rules and their various sources of law; IRAC discourse organization and answering essay exam questions; and understanding fact-pattern exercises and responding to them.
If you happen to be attending, then hopefully we will see each other. Stay tuned for a post conference report.