IRAC, mirroring and language control for LLM students in legal writing

“Lacks control of language” — This is one of those feedback comments that sounds incisive and succinct to us writing instructors but which, for non-native English speakers, is actually very subjective. It describes a writer who isn’t communicating her ideas in a clear or accurate manner.

In my writing work with LLM students, we work on the fundamentals of IRAC-style essays in the context of law school exams. And I work with my students on an idea we call “mirroring,” which means that certain key words from the Rule section need to also be present in the Analysis section. And those words then need to be equated with key facts to demonstrate that such facts do or do not meet the standard set by the Rule.

However, connecting rules and facts in one sentence frequently requires students to have the grammar to connect their ideas. Otherwise, the sentences come out as separate, seemingly disconnected statements. That is, they lack control of their writing. Also, when students lack confidence in their control of their writing, they often avoid the language they need to connect rule and facts, and the Analysis can end up just being a recitation of the facts followed by a leap to a conclusion. Continue reading

Recent innovations in academic support for LLMs at St. John’s

With each additional year I work at St. John’s Law School, my role seems to evolve increasingly from “legal English” teaching toward a larger umbrella category of “academic support for non-native English speaking LLM students,” with language support of course being a significant component.

This is because, while much of my direct teaching has been with “pre-LLM” students (i.e., our 4-week summer English for American Law School (EALS) course; our concurrent Spring EALS course; and our full semester ALDA legal English program), my colleagues and I have recognized that the majority of our LLM students still have continuing language and academic support needs and areas for improvement throughout their time in the program. This shift has grown in part out of conversations I’ve had with our legal English counterparts at Georgetown Law, who have been offering extensive legal English support to their LLMs for some years now. And it’s also benefited from interactions with our very collaborative Dean of Academic Achievement, Susan Landrum, whose focus is on JD students but frequently has tuned us in to helpful resources and best practices in the field of academic support in general as well as the existence of a large and collaborative community of law school academic support professionals.

Armed with increased awareness and knowledge, the challenge has been to somehow squeeze in substantive ongoing language support while also adapting other forms of academic support for non-native English speaking LLM students (and also for the increasing number of international JD students) without burdening or interfering with students’ already busy schedules and coursework. To that end, here are some of the solutions I and my Office of Graduate Studies colleagues have developed:

1. Conversation Partners Program: Native English speaking JD student volunteers are matched with LLM students who express interest in having a Conversation Partner. (This includes my ALDA students who are required to have a Conversation Partner.) A key “innovation” that I think has helped encourage participation is setting 15 minutes as the amount of time for Conversation Partners to meet (as opposed to an hour or 30 minutes). Also, building relationships with and soliciting JD student volunteers from student groups such as the International Law Student Association and the Multi-lingual Legal Alliance.

2. Written Language Feedback Project: Currently, two Writing Fellows from the law school’s Writing Center are now providing written language feedback to a sample group of 8 students from the LLM Legal Research & Writing course during the semester with guidance and oversight from me. Continue reading

A simple yet sophisticated vocabulary trick for getting to know a legal English word

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:

  1. According to the precedent case, the police officer’s supervisor issued a ticket to a person who threw a candy wrapper on the ground.”
  2. The precedent shows that coffee poured on the ground is not litter while a candy wrapper is litter.”
  3. The precedent is the police officer’s supervisor has issued a ticket to a person who threw a candy wrapper on the ground.”
  4. 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.

So what is a legal writing professor of LLM students to do? Continue reading

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.

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

Legal Writing: Connecting IRAC, syllogisms and analogies for LLM students

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

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