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

Listening to Lefkowitz: Using recordings of actual lectures to help LLM students improve listening and note taking

law_17_460x305_1As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the two best predictors of success for non-native English speakers in American graduate programs are reading comprehension and listening comprehension–both input-related. Speaking and writing ability (both output-related) often get a lot of the attention since it is through these that deficiencies can be noticed and evaluated. However, the reality is that it’s extremely difficult to speak and write well about a topic if it is not first well understood.

Between reading and listening, reading is the skill that is taught and practiced most explicitly. There are tons of materials to read. And it’s a static form, so it can be used at any speed, and it’s easy to analyze, deconstruct, look at each piece, look at patterns, etc.

Listening, on the other hand, is more elusive. Once you hear something, it goes away. And even if you have a recording, you can listen until you’re blue in the face and you still may not understand parts of what’s being said, especially given factors such as connected speech, homonyms, and variations in pronunciation. Also, similar to reading, listening is highly dependent on background knowledge. If you know something about a topic, you’re much more likely to be able to understand it as opposed to something new or unfamiliar.

One of the primary listening activities for law students is listening to lectures and class discussions coupled with taking notes. How are students supposed to practice this other than just sitting in class each time and hopefully understanding more each time? Is there any way to actually practice and prepare for the listening that’s done in lectures? Continue reading

Reflections on Teaching Legal English for Six Months in China

On December 1, 2015, I boarded a flight for Beijing to teach “Legal English” at Beijing Jiaotong University. On June 1, 2016, I completed my last “Legal English for American Law School” (“LEALS”) course in Shanghai at East China University of Political Science and Law. In between, I taught LEALS in Chongqing at Southwest University of Political Science and Law. Reflecting on the entire experience, I am confident that I learned even more than my students! As I finalize my Fall 2016 and Spring 2017 teaching schedules, I am excited to spend the summer tweaking and revamping the courses to incorporate the amazing feedback from my students and improvements I noticed could make this an even better way to prepare students for American law schools.

Recently, my proposal for Teaching Legal English in China: Preparing Students for Transnational Legal Practice has been evaluated and accepted by the Organizing Committee of the 10th International Symposium on Teaching and Researching EFL and ESP Writing for Global and Professional Communication.  The Conference will take place in Taiyuan, China, in late September 2016.  As I began thinking through how I would frame my proposal (and ultimately, my presentation), I began to really think critically of the last six months teaching legal English. Below are four comments on the course from the first cycle of teaching, and one note on how I hope to improve the course going forward.

  1. In general, I structure the class by using one statute as my “vehicle” for teaching students legal English.  I have found that at the early stages of learning U.S. law, it is far less confusing and provides them with an opportunity to really focus on one area.  Due to the nature of short courses (anywhere from two weeks to one month with all other regularly scheduled courses), there is a premium on how much time the students can spend learning new materials.  So far, I have had the most success with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) and the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). I prefer using primary texts (in part to give the students the experience of using these texts, in part because I have not yet found any book that covers everything that I need), and collecting and editing down the statutes, legislative history and cases has been an extremely rewarding experience for me personally and professionally.
  1. While there are many ways to think through teaching legal English, this has been by far the most effective for the goals that the universities have for my visits. As discussed previously, universities want me to help their students improve their legal English, legal writing and understanding of U.S. law at the exact same time. By focusing on one statute to teach legal English, we accomplish all these tasks (and more). My students leave the course feeling confident that the skills they learned in relation to a certain statute will make them effective legal analysts no matter what statute they see next time. By understanding how to dissect the FCPA, I hope they can employ similar strategies to dissect the ESA, and any other statute.
  1. Specifically, the course takes a deep dive into statutory analysis, after a basic introduction to U.S. law. We go over the language of the statute or statutory provisions that will form the backbone of the class, which allows us to work together to determine which words are ambiguous and which words we think lead to litigation the most. From there, we discuss the plain language of statutes, legislative history, canons of statutory construction and cases that analyze the specific statute or statutory provisions. I complement this understanding of the statutes with specific writing assignments and group activities that reinforce what the students are being taught during the classes. The writing assignments tend to be analytical, and generally require predictions from the students as lawyers. The group activities tend to be more strategic, and generally require students to think through multiple arguments and determine which one would be the most effective for a lawyer to make.
  1. The cases that I use tend to be the most focused on language.  Students see that the courts have to determine laws after having to understand the language and meaning of a certain word or phrase. This reinforces the importance of English and legal English for my students, and lets them see firsthand just how important language is to law. The cases skew harder to read than the average case a legal English course would normally use, so I make liberal use of providing synonyms for complex words, summaries for students to read after they finish reading a paragraph to ensure they understood the main ideas and sample case briefs for the students to compare to the briefs they wrote.  My goal is for them to work hard to improve their language abilities, but feel like I am guiding them every step of the way.
  1. Because my classes are designed to be small, I have the opportunity to speak with students multiple times during class. During two 45-minute role play simulations, I took each student outside for 5 minutes and had an oral assessment of the background facts, strategy for the role play and their thoughts on the legal issues. My students loved this activity, and it has made me begin thinking through how to incorporate this activity into more classes. I was thinking about either (1) having a teaching assistant monitor the role plays while I am outside of the classroom or (2) teaching one or two less periods per class each week, and using extra periods to routinely conduct the outside the classroom spoken activity.

United Nations class trip: Preparation activities

Students with tour guide 20160318_095840

LLM students listening to the UN tour guide.

Urban law schools present rich opportunities for learning outside the classroom. Our ALDA and TLP LLM students recently had a wonderful class trip to the United Nations Headquarters, located just across the East River in Manhattan. In addition to the standard tour of the building, meeting rooms and General Assembly, we arranged a private briefing by a United Nations legal officer on the topic of the Court of International Justice.

Briefing - Group shot

In the briefing room.

General Assembly - Group shot IMG_4464

Future UN delegates in the General Assembly.

Professor Piper and I knew that once we were at the U.N. we would have little control over the flow of the program. So we prepared in our respective classes the day before the trip by first having our students talk about what they do know about the United Nations as a way to aggregate shared knowledge and build background knowledge for the tour and briefing. Professor Piper had her writing class research the different U.N. bodies, and the briefing topic. Following their research, students predicted things they would see and learn during their tour, and composed a list of questions they wanted answered on the trip. ALDA students also developed questions they had about the U.N. that they might like to ask. I then turned the list into a checklist which I handed to ALDA students on the day of the tour. The students’ task was to check off any questions or topics that were answered or addressed during the course of the tour.
This type of prediction/question activity can function as Continue reading

Teaching legal thinking to LLM students: Oral vs. written

SocratesAs I continue to work through the “multiple model answer approach” in my experiment with teaching legal writing to LLM students this semester (aka the banana peel/jogger question), I’ve also begun exposing the students to multiple recorded oral model answers for the same question. That is, I’ve recorded a number of native English speaking law students (or law school graduates) answering the the banana peel/jogger question.

I’ve incorporated the recordings by assigning the students one recording at a time for homework. The students are also provided with a transcript of the recording (typed by me) that they initially review for comprehension and also to try and identify the IRAC components. Then they are required to Continue reading

Creative use of the law school as a resource

Friendly faces for sure. But also a great resource for building legal background knowledge and English language communication skills.

One of the great things about running and teaching the American Law: Discourse & Analysis (ALDA) Program is that it operates completely within St. John’s Law School. And working within the law school means access to resources that can be used creatively to enhance legal learning and also build important background knowledge in engaging ways while developing a strong sense of connection with the school.

Here are a few examples I’ve used. It would be great to hear of examples from other law schools.

Four-Star Assignments & Legal English Skills

Four Star Assignments

Engaging in a Four-Star Assignment with a student in my TLP Legal Writing I course, focused on the art of crafting counterarguments. Fall 2015, St. John’s Law School.

One of challenges for legal English educators is handling students’ frustration with the difficulties inherent in improving skills that may come naturally to American-born JDs. So at the beginning of my course, I tell my students that there are four skills relating to legal English that they need to develop over the course of our studies. I then ask them to rank the four skills below (listed alphabetically), based on how comfortable they already feel using each one.

LISTENING to legal English
READING legal English
SPEAKING legal English
WRITING legal English

Continue reading