Teacher control vs student control in legal English

Stephen Horowitz is the Director of Online Legal English Programs at Georgetown Law.

Giving students more control and more voice makes teaching so much more effective. Yet figuring out how to do it is a process that takes time and effort and does not necessarily come naturally. (At least for me anyway.)

I’m thinking about this topic because of an excellent post on the EAP Essentials blog by Prof. Olwyn Alexander titled “They have to talk and you have to listen: The importance of collaborative conversations in online classrooms.”

The post explains that “Without student talk, the teacher has no immediate way of knowing whether the students understand the materials and tasks and therefore no opportunity to adapt to the in-the-moment needs of the students.”

I think as legal English teachers, most of us intrinsically understand that. We want our students to talk. We want to know what’s going on in their heads. But we’re not always sure how to make that happen. And when it doesn’t happen, it’s easy to shift responsibility to the students, particularly students from certain countries or cultures that teachers perceive as not as talkative in class.

Consequently, I think it’s helpful to be aware of the ways that we, as teachers, get in the way of ourselves and our students. And I think this may be particularly heightened in a legal environment where lawyers and law professors are expected to be sources of knowledge and much of one’s identity as a lawyer or law professor is connected with the ability to share knowledge that others seek or need. In my own experience, this is very true in law schools where the professors–even when they use Socratic method–still often maintain full control of the dialogue and shift frequently from questioner to explainer and knowledge-distributor.

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Among Us as a teaching tool with LLM students?

Stephen Horowitz is the Director of Online Legal English Programs at Georgetown Law.

My 11-year-old daughter plays Among Us frequently these days, as apparently does every other pre-teen I’m aware of.

I have yet to play it, though I understand it’s a multiplayer, social game you can play on a smartphone or tablet. It’s set on a spaceship, you play with a group of 10 people (could be people you know or random people you don’t know or a mix), and the aim is to solve problems or complete certain tasks with your crewmates. However, one of you is an impostor who apparently sabotages the crew’s efforts by killing crew members. And each time a crew member is killed, then everyone stops and has a discussion about who might have done it and tries to figure out who did it.

Question: How could this be used as a teaching tool? Especially given the desire and potential to engage students, particularly in the context of online or remote learning?

According to high school teacher Angelique Gianas, Among Us is an excellent vehicle for teaching students about argumentative writing. (“How ‘Among Us’ Helps Students Master Argumentative Writing“) It requires students to devise claims and then support them with evidence and analysis.

But could this also be appropriate and helpful in working with LLMs and other non-native English speaking law students?

My initial thought is that Among Us could be used as a first-day-of-class activity for a legal writing class or during orientation. And then in subsequent classes, the process in which students engaged can be referenced in discussing the discourse of legal writing or when providing feedback to students who tend towards conclusive statements.

This could be particularly helpful to students from other countries or cultural backgrounds who are accustomed to a different approach to argumentative writing. At the same time, some of this could get flushed out in the initial playing of the game if students from different backgrounds have different approaches to the problem solving and communicating entailed by the playing of Among Us.

Of course, I have yet to try any of this. So if you or anyone you know has incorporated Among Us into a class with their students, I would greatly appreciate hearing about it and hopefully writing about it in a future post.

Pronouncing Dictionary of the Supreme Court of the United States

Stephen Horowitz is the Director of Online Legal English Programs at Georgetown Law.

How do you pronounce the names in Supreme Court cases like D’Oench, Duhme & Co. v. FDIC, The Ship Virgin v. Vyfhuis, or Ylst v. Nunnemaker?

Well, thanks to a diligent group of Yale Law students, there now exists the Pronouncing Dictionary of United States Supreme Court cases.

According to the website, “The purpose of the Pronouncing Dictionary of United States Supreme Court cases is to help conscientious lawyers, judges, teachers, students, and journalists correctly pronounce often-perplexing case names.”

For each case, there are two or three phoneticized spellings to help with pronunciation. Plus, if you click on the phoneticized pronunciation, you get an audio clip of the tricky name being pronounced.

Now if they could just teach us how to pronounce certiorari. 😉

https://documents.law.yale.edu/pronouncing-dictionary

Special thanks to Kirsten Schaetzel, English Language Specialist at Emory Law School, for bringing this great resource to my attention.

EAP Essentials: “Should we teach grammar? Yes but no but!”

Stephen Horowitz is the Director of Online Legal English Programs at Georgetown Law.

The below blog post from EAP Essentials–“Should we teach grammar? Yes but no but!” by Olwyn Alexander is a thoughtful and healthy reaction to the shift away from “teaching grammar,” which itself has been a reaction to the perceived flaws in the traditional ways of teaching grammar. However, there’s been a shift back towards the teaching of grammar–conditioned on the premise that it’s “done right”–as more thought and research has gone into better ways to help students acquire grammar. 

What the “right” or “best” way to teach grammar is is still up for debate. But overall there is a recognition that grammar is not sufficiently acquired just by exposure (e.g., Krashen and the “natural method”), particularly when it comes to academic English (or legal English for that matter.) Intentional effort and guidance is needed to help learners acquire the grammar they need to communicate effectively at the academic English level.

But from that starting point of recognition, there is still a wide divergence on understanding and belief as to what “done right” ultimately means. I definitely don’t have all the answers. But I do have a few beliefs on the topic:

1. Form should follow function: The grammar that is studied should hue as closely to the content being studied and the communicative needs associated with that content. In this regard, a field like legal English is ideal from a teaching perspective because we have ready-made content and communicative purposes. It’s just a matter of scaffolding the content and then mining it for the grammar needed.

2. Grammar Fluency: It’s not enough just to learn and practice an aspect of grammar. There need to be repeated, natural exposures. And ideally in the regular course of studying the content. It’s hard to contrive natural ways to encounter grammar structures. But it’s a lot easier if you start with the content, work backwards to identify the grammar needs associated with it, and then develop grammar focus and curriculum based on those materials. And that allows for repeated exposures. Additional thought on repeated exposures: One of the advantages kids have is that they like repetition. As evidence, I cite the number of times my kids have watched and sung the songs from “Frozen” and other Disney movies as well as the number of times children like to read the same book over and over. Adults, on the other hand, are prone to getting bored. And that’s significant because motivation is a significant component of language learning. So creativity is key in figuring out how to generate repeated exposures for adult learners.

3. Ear Training: I think this aspect of grammar learning is vastly underrepresented in discussions of how to teach grammar. Especially since so much of grammar comes down to having a sense of what “sounds right.”

As native speakers of English, not only do we spend very little time thinking about the rules of the grammar we use, for the most part we never thought about them when we learned the appropriate grammar. This is particularly true of articles, prepositions, and -s endings (e.g., 3rd person and plurals.)

These are grammar points that so many of our LLM students struggle with. And these also happen to be parts of speech that are harder to hear, especially if your ear is not used to hearing them. In other words, if you can train your ear to hear those sounds, then you’ll hear them more and you’ll develop a sense of what sounds right and start using them more accurately in your own speech and writing. 

There is of course much more to learning and teaching grammar than my above points. But Alexander’s blog post got me thinking about what drives much of my focus and decision-making in teaching grammar to my students, so I thought I would try to add to the conversation. Feel free to share your own thoughts. 

Here are the first few paragraphs of Alexander’s blog post from EAP Essentials along with a “Continue reading” link at the end.


Should we teach grammar? Yes but no but!

Students need grammar but they don’t need grammar classes.

Olwyn Alexander

I was asked recently by a head of pathways programmes at an international college whether we should teach grammar in EAP. This manager was under pressure from some teachers to introduce a more structured approach to teaching and testing grammar. Some years previously, prompted by feedback from an external moderator, they had developed a bespoke grammar workbook, which was ‘aligned with the topics taught in the course, [covering] the language features which are considered to be salient in scholarly English [and targeting] areas where students show weaknesses when it comes to academic writing’. The workbook covers language patterns, such as noun phrases, active and passive voice, conditionals and modal verbs. However, teachers on the programmes have a number of issues with the resource:

  1. There is little time to teach grammar in the course
  2. It feels artificial to teach grammar this way (grammar rules and explanations, followed by practice)
  3. It does not address all issues that students have when it comes to grammar
  4. It’s dry and students do not engage with it

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