LLMs and the intersection of typing, punctuation, formatting and proofreading

snoopy-typingAs a legal English professor, my primary focus is law and language. However, I’ve also come to realize the importance of teaching and incorporating the basic skills of being what I call a “professional law student.”

I became aware early on that many of my students did not touch type, perhaps because they are accustomed to doing all of their written communications on smartphones with their thumbs. This becomes a significant obstacle when students are required to submit numerous assignments in Word documents. I point out to the students that touch typing ability can be the difference between spending 6 hours researching and 1 hour typing versus 1 hour researching and 6 hours typing.

To address this, I’ve previously required students to register on typing.com where they must practice regularly and join a class I’ve set up to monitor their progress. I then give them periodic 1- minute typing tests in class using typingtest.com and track their progress. This has led to modest gains.

Additionally, I’ve seen the various ways that punctuation can be confusing for students in formal, academic writing. This confusion carries over into not just when to use which punctuation marks, but also formatting and spacing with regard to commas, periods, parentheses, quotation marks, etc. An interesting example: Professor Piper and I have both noticed that students often believe that the purpose of quotation marks is for emphasis as opposed to indicating the words of others. (Though based on our current President’s tweets, it’s clear they are not alone in this misperception.)

Further on the topic of formatting, I recently realized that two of my students were not recognizing the difference between text in italics and plain text. Italics is not just for aesthetics. It communicates something to a reader. It can indicate emphasis, or the word is a term of art, or a title of a publication, or a Latin word.

As a result, I’ve designed a new approach to helping students improve their typing that also is helping with punctuation and proofreading. I call it the Typing Challenge. I give the students several printed pages of a legal text. It could be a textbook, a case book, a legal memorandum, a law review article, a statute, etc. Each week the students must type at least 100 words. For every additional 100 words they receive bonus points. However, the catch is that if there are more than 3 errors, they receive no credit for their work.

My teaching assistant, a 2nd year JD student, checks each one and provides feedback and comments using track changes (another important tool for students to become familiar with if they are not already). Errors can be for formatting, spacing, wrong font, different sized fonts, not noticing italics, capitalization, paragraph alignment, etc. in addition to spelling. This has forced students to pay close attention to all of these issues and becomes a noticing exercise for them. It also helps us flush out any misconceptions by the students. For example, some students will indent a paragraphs by hitting the space bar several times not realizing they should use the Tab button. One student included a hyphen in the middle of a word becausehe saw it used in a word that carried over to the next line.

This process also of course gets students in the habit of proofreading and familiar with the expectation of proofreading, all while giving them a chance to work on and improve their typing.

The result has been better awareness of spelling, punctuation, and formatting issues in their other submitted assignments. And the real beauty of it is that I spend very little actual class time on this!

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

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

Observations from a visiting Chinese professor of legal English

ecupl-bannerWe are fortunate to have a guest post by Haiyan “Eileen” Li, Instructor at School of Foreign Languages East China University of Political Science & Law (ECUPL), who spent 2015-2016 as a visiting scholar at St. John’s School of Education and devoted extensive time to observing the law and “legal English” courses taught to LLM students by myself, Professor Piper, and Professor Alter.


Professor Li (middle left) observes students in a joint TLP/ALDA lawyer-client role play activity.

I was very honored to have an opportunity to study as a visiting scholar at St. John’s University from August 1, 2015 through July 31, 2016. During this period, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to freely sit in and observe several legal courses at St. John’s Law School taught by Professor Horowitz, Professor Piper and Professor Alter. Here I would like to share some of my observations and reflections from those classes.

1. Task-leading Teaching Methodology

I was impressed by the various teaching methodologies used here in connection with legal study for non-native English speakers. For example, the professors would frequently provide a list of reading questions for students to answer in connection with an assigned legal text as a way to guide their reading process and assess comprehension in order to better inform instruction. They would similarly provide a list of engaging questions in connection with field trips to the court or the United Nations, or when students were tasked with observing a particular law school course. These questions helped give structure to the students’ experience and helped them better engage.

In addition to these types of questions to aide comprehension of texts and interactions, the professors often prompted students to explore the discourse and language of legal texts in order to help them identify grammar, syntax, and discourse clues specific to legal texts that helped the students with comprehension. This type of detailed guidance led the students to be able to then produce coherent and professional legal texts in their own writing.

2. Communication Opportunities with Alumni and Experts

Continue reading

Proofreading practice activity

ProofreadingI recently tried out a simple proofreading activity in my class that turned out to be fairly effective.

A legal writing assignment was due today. However, before collecting it, I asked students to trade with a partner and proofread their partner’s paper. Their instructions were to circle or make a small mark by any errors but not make the correction themselves. After they were done, I asked them to trade with another person. Once this was done, everyone got their own paper back and had time to review and make hand-edited corrections on the paper to be submitted to me.

The students seemed to really enjoy the process, and it led to some good questions and discussions. Continue reading

Legal writing: Noticing cohesion

MilkywayHave you ever read something written by a non-native English speaking LLM student, and the grammar seems fine, it makes sense, and yet something seems off? Something you can’t put your finger on?

That something might be “cohesion.”

Cohesion is the glue that holds our sentences together. It’s second nature to us as native English speakers and teachers of legal writing, and therefore can seem difficult to teach to LLM students. And that means it’s a good candidate for a noticing activity! Continue reading

Lateness, apology letters and strict liability

I was having an issue with student lateness early in the semester, despite a lateness policy we discussed as a class the first week. Threats of a lower grade and of required meetings with program directors to discuss recurrent lateness seemed to have little effect. So one day, borrowing a concept I picked up from a parenting book, I presented the question to my students: What would be an appropriate consequence for lateness?

After some discussion (including input from me), we decided that an appropriate consequence would be: If you’re late for class, then you must Continue reading