Teaching summarizing to LLM students: Some recent thoughts

i-love-to-summarizeAs I’ve discussed in a previous post, teaching LLM students to summarize can be deceivingly difficult. Summarizing requires control of language as well as an intuitive understanding of what is expected the relevant audience in a summary. Additionally, it’s difficult to explain to others how we learned to summarize–somehow we just learned it–and that, in turn, tends to further inhibits our ability to teach summarizing to others.

And now I have one more layer of complexity to add that I hadn’t previously considered: The category of “summary” actually consists of a number of different kinds of summaries, each with their own purposes, contexts, structures, styles, and expectations.

The source of this new thought (for me) was a presentation I recently watched (viewable on YouTube) titled “Teaching Effective and Varied Summarizing” by Ann M. Johns, Professor Emerita of Linguistics and Writing Studies at San Diego State University. In the presentation, Professor Johns makes a point of listing some common summary forms in the academic community such as a functional summary detailing the structure of a written or spoken text, the one-sentence summary of content (often of a paragraph or paragraphs which can lead to a full summary of the text), an abstract, a problem/solution summary, an argument summary, a plot/story summary, a summary + critique, and synthesis, among other types.

As I contemplated this list of summary types, I started to think and wonder about 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

Experiments in teaching legal writing: The Yogurt Precedent Phase

sc-french-vanilla-low-fat-yogurt-6oz_0When I first introduced the jogger-banana peel critical thinking question to my students, one of my strongest students commented during the class discussion that this wasn’t really legal writing. I responded that this was in fact legal writing, explaining that the “Issue Rule Analysis Conclusion” (IRAC) approach is a distinctive feature of legal discourse, it is expected by law professors in their students’ writing, and it is not typically used in other forms of academic discourse.

However, showing is always better than telling. So I’m excited–after having my students analyze, label, evaluate, and linguistically deconstruct nine different model answers to the jogger-banana peel question, plus write multiple drafts of their own answer along with a re-write arguing the other side–to introduce them tomorrow to the next phase in the process. I’ll call it the “Yogurt Precedent Phase.” 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