See you at TESOL 2017 in Seattle next week!

I’m excited to be attending the TESOL International 2017 Convention in Seattle next week where I will be a panelist on the topic Legal English: Strategies for Effective Communication in Law School (9:30am, Thursday, March 23) together with panel organizer Pam Dzunu of Washington University in St. Louis, Kirsten Schaetzel of Emory Law School, and Shelley Saltzman of Columbia University–all ESL/linguistics specialists who work with their respective law schools.

I will be speaking on the sub-topic of Comprehensible input for legal English students: Resources, approaches & ideas and sharing a couple activities related to reading and briefing cases.

Looking forward to meeting many people and learning new things!

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!

 

Article: Shifting frames to construct a legal English class

I want to share a really interesting article titled Shifting frames to construct a legal English class which was published in the Journal of English for Academic Purposes. The article was written by Marta Baffy, Director of the Two-Year LLM Program and Senior Lecturer in Legal English at Georgetown Law.

I first met Marta after watching her presentation on this topic at the Language and Social Interaction (LANSI) Conference at Columbia Teachers College a couple years ago, so I was excited to see the article in published form. Also, I apparently made a comment to her after her presentation that was salient enough that she felt moved to include it in one of her footnotes. So I’m excited about that as well since it is the first time I’ve ever been part of a footnote to my knowledge.

Below is an abstract of the article and also a little more information about Marta. Continue reading

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

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!