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!