Video: Practical ways for LLM students to use the iWeb Corpus for legal English help

Here’s a 15 minute video I recently created for my LLM students at St. John’s Law that explains what the iWeb Corpus is along with several practical ways it can help LLM students (or any non-native English speaking students) with vocabulary.

When I’ve demonstrated the iWeb Corpus to students in my office in connection with specific language/vocabulary problems, they’ve responded in amazement that such a tool exists. But when I demonstrate it in class in a more general context, then the response is more muted. So I finally decided to (1) create a short video that demonstrates some practical applications and then (2) require all of the students to watch the video as part of their orientation and then (3) demonstrate they have watched and understood the video by taking a short quiz which is really a series of tasks designed to get them to take the iWeb Corpus for a test drive and share their results with me. (See full quiz below.)

By the way, this is my first attempt at really flipping the classroom as a way to teach specific legal English skills that I don’t have time to teach in my classes. I think and hope it will work well. But wish me luck anyway. And let me know if you have any suggested improvements for the video and/or quiz.

Additionally, please feel free to use this video with your students if you think it would be helpful. And feel free to use the text and ideas from my quiz to re-create your own version of the quiz as well if you think it would be helpful. (Because if you give them the link to my quiz, then all the results will go into my Google Sheets file and you won’t be able to see them unless I keep forwarding them on to you, which is not a particularly convenient process for either of us.)

Additionally, here are some prior or related posts I’ve written in connection with the iWeb Corpus.

And, finally, here’s the quiz: Continue reading

Letters from a Nut: A great book for helping LLM students with the MPT?

A year or two ago I saw some books left out in a box on a Brooklyn stoop for anyone to take. And from that box, I picked up the book Letters from a Nut by Ted L. Nancy (with introduction by Jerry Seinfeld) and added it to my LLM reading library.

The book is–and stay with me here–a series of actual letters written by Nancy to various businesses that express absurd problems or concerns with the business’ products or services, and the reply letters from said businesses attempting to grapple in a serious manner with said absurd problems or concerns. (Here’s a link to Jerry Seinfeld explaining it and reading from it on the Jay Leno Show.)

In other words, from my legal English perspective, it’s a linguistic corpus of business letters–hundreds of actual business letters written by real people using real-life business letter language, punctuation and formatting. None of that phony sample business letter template from Mr. Jones to Ms. Smith at ABC Co. on 123 Main St. that you get when you Google “sample business letter.” Continue reading

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

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

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.

TESOL 2017 Seattle: Legal Language – Strategies for Effective Communication in Law School

Pam Dzunu, Stephen Horowitz, Shelley Saltzman, and Kirsten Schaetzel

I had the honor of joining an esteemed panel of legal English professionals last Thursday at the TESOL 2017 Convention in Seattle for a presentation titled “Legal Language: Strategies for Effective Communication in Law School.” The panel was organized by legal English expert Pamela Dzunu of Washington University of St. Louis School of Law and also included experienced legal English practitioners Kirsten Schaetzel of Emory Law School and Shelley Saltzman of Columbia University.

Pam Dzunu presenting on Using Storytelling to teach legal English.

The topics presented were:

An amusing slide from Michelle Ueland’s presentation on Empowering Teachers to Address the Challenges of ESP Curriculum Design

In addition to our panel presentation, I also had the opportunity to attend several other excellent, informative and thought provoking presentations, including:

  • Collectivizing for Reading Developing in the L2 Legal Classroom – English for Specific Purposes, by Lindsey Kurtz of Penn State University. (Lindsey is one of a handful of people conducting linguistic research on law school language and learning.)
  • Beyond Exit Tickets: Teaching Pre-service Candidates Linguistic Assessment Techniques, by Beth Clark-Gareca, University at New Paltz-SUNY
  • A slide from Kirsten Schaetzel’s panel presentation on Engaging, Enriching and Empowering ESP Teachers and Students

    Engaging, Enriching, and Empowering ESP Teachers and Students, Cynthia Flamm and Maria Tameho-Palermino, Boston University; Marta Baffy and Michelle Ueland, Georgetown University Law Center; Kirsten Schaetzel, Emory Law School; and Shelley Saltzman, Columbia University (all legal ESL professionals with extensive experience)

  • Empowering Teachers to Address the Challenges of ESP Curriculum Design, Heather Gregg Zitlau, Business English and Jennifer Chang-Lo, Business English, Georgetown University; Julie Lake (legal English) and Michelle Ueland, Legal English, Georgetown University Law Center; Robert Engel, Defense Language Institute; and Liz England, Liz England & Associates LLC (plus general handout, and Ueland  handout)

Unfortunately, I also had to miss two presentations I was very excited about seeing:

Other highlights:

  • I joined the English for Specific Purposes (ESP) Special Interest Group meeting and had the opportunity to connect with and get to know not only legal English professionals, but also teachers, consultants, and administrators (e.g., outgoing president Robert Connor of Tulane and ESP group newsletter editor Kevin Knight of Kanda University in Japan among others) who develop and teach curricula related to engineering, business, tourism, and medicine among other relevant ESP fields that are increasingly in demand.
  • Having a nice chat with Christine Feak of the University of Michigan’s English Language Institute. Feak, together with John Swales, has published a number of influential books and research articles on teaching academic writing at the college and graduate level to non-native English speakers. She has also developed and taught curricula for legal English in the past, and I discovered that, like me, she also has an affinity for the Lefkowitz case as a vehicle for teaching students to read and brief cases.
  • Meeting Ted Chen, a lawyer who now teaches legal English at Edmunds Community College in Lynwood, WA near Seattle. He’s the first person I’ve met who teaches legal English at the community college level. (If you know of others, I’d love to hear about them.) He’s incorporated some interesting ideas into his course including inviting a police officer to visit his class and answer questions–an idea I would love to incorporate when we teach criminal law in the ALDA Program next semester!

Final comment: Seattle is a beautiful city with a wonderful vibe, even in the rain. Especially in the rain, come to think of it.

Early morning by Pike Market in downtown Seattle.