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

Calvin and Hobbes, capital letters and LLMs

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Upon closer inspection, it is indeed written in all caps.

About a month ago some of our LLM students were perusing my mobile extensive reading library and one of them started flipping through one of the Calvin & Hobbes books on the shelf (generously donated by my colleague Kathryn Piper). The students were pulled in by the drawings, but soon after reading a frame or two they quickly pointed out to me that this book would be difficult to read for them.

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Mobile book cart with pleasure reading. John Grisham novels on the middle shelf to the right.

This surprised me. “Why is this difficult?”

They replied: “Because it’s written in all capital letters.”

Not only had I never noticed that Calvin & Hobbes is written in all capital letters, it had also never occurred to me that it was any more difficult to read something in all caps.Yet when I mentioned this to my wife (an experienced elementary school reading specialist) that night, she said, “Oh yes, it’s difficult for kids, too.”

all-caps-warningAnd as I thought about it, I realized that it’s not so easy for native English speaking adults either. Think about those parts of contracts that are in all caps to warn the reader that something is extra super-duper important. This is because part of reading is recognizing word shape, and with all caps you lose that aspect.

Despite the appearance of difficulty, one of the students nonetheless took the book home for pleasure reading. I made a point of promoting the book by explaining that yes, in one sense it’s a children’s cartoon, but on another level it’s very adult and philosophical which is part of the genius of Bill Watterson. Plus, it might help your reading fluency with all caps.

Then out of the blue yesterday, the student came up to me and said, “Hey, I’m still reading Calvin & Hobbes and I really like it.” I said that’s great and then asked, “Has it gotten easier to read capital letters?” To which she replied, “Yes, definitely. It’s been really helpful with that.” The key to building all caps reading fluency, as it turns out, is a text with lots of all caps that’s actually enjoyable to read, i.e., Calvin & Hobbes. In contrast, had I recommended reading a bunch of contract language in all caps, I don’t think the student would have spent as much time engaged in such reading.

So there you have it. To help your LLM students prepare for law careers in which they will have to quickly read over transaction documents laden with all caps sections, make sure to include Calvin & Hobbes in your LLM legal library!

 

What part of the case brief?

The other day in class, working with another one of the Lefkowitz v. Great Minneapolis Surplus Store, Inc. case briefs, I again asked the students what tense they noticed in the Issue section. The students pointed to past tense in the two questions conveniently labeled (1) and (2). But then there was an additional sentence that followed on the next line:

Defendant contends that it was a “unilateral offer” which could be withdrawn at any time without notice.

 A student correctly pointed out that present tense was being used. But then I asked, “Where’s the question in this statement?” The students talked for a minute and quickly concluded that that statement really didn’t belong in the Issue section.

Next question: So where does it belong? And more importantly, how do you know?

One student suggested the Facts section since it seemed to be providing information about one of the parties to the case. So I then asked, what tense do we generally find in the Facts? Past tense, yet this is present.

Also: When do the facts happen? In the past, before the trial starts. What does “contend” mean? Argue. When do you argue? During the trial. Hence, this sentence should not be in the Facts section. Continue reading

The legal “Issue” of present tense vs. past tense

case-briefFacts: Earlier today, I was teaching LLM students about reading and briefing cases. The previous week they had examined a number of case briefs and noticed various features and characteristics. For example, after reviewing the Facts section of several case briefs, they were able to confidently conclude that nearly all verbs were in the past tense. This will help them be cognizant of tense when they write the Facts sections of their own briefs, and it will also give them a grammar-based strategy to help them more successfully identify what the facts are and are not when they read a court opinion and attempt to write a case brief.

The previous week the students also came to notice characteristics of the Issue section of the briefs. They noticed that sometimes the Issue was written in present tense and sometimes in past tense.

Today I gave them two different case briefs of the well-known Contract law case Lefkowitz v. Great Minneapolis Surplus Store, Inc. and, among other tasks, asked them to analyze and compare the Issue section of the briefs. They quickly noticed that one was past and the other was in the present.

  • Past: Did Defendant’s advertisement constitute an offer?
  • Present: Under what circumstances does an advertisement for the sale of goods constitute an offer?

Issue:

  1. How do you decide if the Issue section of your brief should be in present tense or past tense?
  2. What are the implications in terms of meaning and in terms of grammar and syntax?

Rule: Past tense is used to indicate events that already happened and are completed. Present tense is used to indicate something that is generally or always true. Continue reading

New article by Alissa Hartig: “Intersections Between Law and Language: Disciplinary Concepts in Second Language Legal Literacy”

alissahartigIntersections Between Law and Language: Disciplinary Concepts in Second Language Legal Literacy” is a recent article published by Alissa Hartig in Studies in Logic, Grammar & Rhetoric (The Journal of University of Bialystok) that discusses a distinction between discourse-structuring concepts and discourse-relevant concepts in ESP. Don’t be intimidated by the linguistics terminology, though. The article describes her work with two LLM students from China and two from Saudi Arabia and provides concrete examples of the complex issues and dynamics at play when teaching them in a law school context.

Hartig is an Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics at Portland State University. She is the author of a forthcoming book titled Connecting language and content in English for Specific Purposes: Case studies in law. (Publisher: Multilingual Matters) Her previous research and writing on the intersection of law and linguistics includes a 2016 article titled “Conceptual blending in legal writing: Linking definitions to facts” and a 2014 article titled “Plain English and legal writing: Comparing expert and novice writers,” both published in the journal English for Specific Purposes.

 

Extensive Reading: The Book Cart Approach

stevelambert-library-book-cartI’ve been working on more effective approaches to building extensive reading into the ALDA curriculum. Research consistently shows that it is the best way for non-native English speakers to build reading comprehension, vocabulary, and reading fluency. And reading comprehension and listening comprehension ability are believed to be the best predictors of success for students in a graduate program such as an LLM program.

Extensive reading, which I previously discussed a bit in this post, means 1) reading easy texts (i.e., where the reader understands 90% of the vocabulary), and 2) reading for enjoyment. It relies on the seemingly obvious premise that the best way to improve reading is to read a lot.

And it doesn’t matter what the learner reads so much as that the learner reads. In other words, even if you read novels or cartoons, it will still help learners when they go to read more challenging legal texts. This is because reading a lot and reading in a fluent way leads to building of larger lexical bundles by the reader. That is, rather than reading and decoding each word, the reader begins to see and process groups of words as a lexical bundle. This in turn means the learner is devoting less cognitive energy to that part of the reading and has more energy to devote to more challenging language that arises.

But how to do that in a legal English setting, where the focus is on texts and concepts that are challenging for even native speakers of English? Texts that render every reading an intensive reading, where the reading process involves constant dictionary use, which in turn reduces engagement and big picture comprehension? Continue reading

Reading Support in Law School

We recently decided to set up a Reading Support program for our LLM students. This was in response to a recent conversation I had with a student I had taught in our summer course who is now full swing into our LLM coursework. Her comment echoed the challenges that a number of her classmates have voiced: It’s hard to keep up with and comprehend all the reading.

In particular, she cited Continue reading