Encyclopedia Brown and the Public Defender

I’m a big fan of The Moth Storytelling Hour podcast and also of the Encyclopedia Brown series. In fact, I often encourage my LLM students to read Encyclopedia Brown stories as a form of extensive reading and a way to build some cultural background knowledge and think critically and creatively. (I keep a few of the books in the Reading Library outside my office.)

So, I was very excited this past weekend when I was listening to an episode of The Moth Storytelling Hour (a great resource for extensive listening, by the way), and the first story was by a public defender telling about finally having an Encyclopedia Brown moment in his legal career. My favorite line was early on when he observes that while Encyclopedia Brown is known for solving cases, the job of public defenders is actually to unsolve cases and put the mystery back in them.

Alan Gordon, public defender, telling of us Encyclopedia Brown moment.

Here’s a link to the episode if you’d like to listen: https://themoth.org/radio-hour/bible-bucks-meatballs-and-big-brothers

Side note: Lest you think that Encyclopedia Brown is uniquely American, I learned that Chinese popular literature actually has a sort of equivalent character named Judge Dee based on the historical figure Di Renjiecounty magistrate and statesman of the Tang court.

Language and grammar strategies for non-native English speaking JD law students – Part 1

This past week I had the opportunity to work on language issues with a non-native English speaking JD student who was referred to me by the student’s professor. The student, who came to the US when he was 18, is doing well in law school, but has some language-related quirks popping up in his writing that didn’t seem to be fixing themselves.

Prof. Paul Kei Matsuda

Coincidentally, the previous week I happened to attend a guest lecture by Paul Kei Matsuda, Professor of Applied Linguistics and Director of Second Language Writing at Arizona State University, who is one of the thought leaders in the field of second language writing. The main theme of his lecture was that it is essentially unfair to grade second language writers on their grammar, in the sense that language is acquired in ways and at a pace that is not necessarily within our control. He likened grading such a student on their grammar to grading them on how tall they grow before graduating.

Image result for determiners articlesThis point reminded me and reaffirmed for me the notion that you can’t know what you don’t know. In the case of the JD student, he (like all JD students) was advised to read his papers out loud to help him catch his errors. And this strategy was helpful to him in some ways, but not with regard to identifying errors that he didn’t know were errors.

The student, in his embarrassment, actually attributed the issue to the fact that when he first came to the US, he learned a lot of English from watching videos and listening to music, and he fretted that that was a mistake since he didn’t learn proper English. I quickly pointed out to the student that this was not his fault. That his way of learning English was actually a great strategy and extremely important to his language development. I also explained the concepts of BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) and CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) and how it’s much harder to acquire native level proficiency in academic English, in part because the frequency of use of and exposure to CALP is simply much lower in daily life, particularly with regard to output (i.e. speaking and writing.)

Image result for bics calpI commented that no amount of reading his writing aloud would change this. Because his ear and brain can only recognize the version of English that he knows. This explanation helped him relax a bit.

Next, I had him read his paper aloud to me so that I could assess which types of errors he could catch himself and which kinds he was not noticing. As we moved along, I began to introduce him to some strategies for the errors that he was not able to identify.

I noticed that articles, prepositions, and words with “s” endings were common issues in his writing. Sometimes he knew what sounded right, but other times he didn’t. The common denominator, I recognized, is that these are all parts of language that we as native speakers tend to learn by ear–not by studying rules–yet they are all parts of language that tend to be dropped or de-emphasized in speech which makes them harder to hear. 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

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