Monday, July 21, 2008

teaching grammar

Everyone who has taught legal writing for a number years knows that, year by year, each incoming class arrives with weaker grammar skills.  At the LWI conference last week, two professors presented ideas for helping students learn or recall the grammar they need to write at a professional level.

Blais Professor William Blais from DePaul University described an innovative approach he uses to help his students overcome their grammar challenges, as he presented A Narrative Approach to Teaching Grammar.  He analogized storytelling elements to sentence elements:

character -- noun/subject (the familiar information)
action -- verb/predicate (passing the reader's attention from the old to the new information)
consequences -- object/predicate (the new information)

Then to tell the story better, the students need to attend to these storytelling-like elements at the sentence structure level.  For example, to use correct subject/verb agreement, a student can think in terms of telling the reader how many characters were acting.  Or, as another example, to use correct verb tenses, a student can think in terms of telling the reader when the action happened and what sort of action it was.  It seems with experience teaching this way, a professor could develop a store of handy analogies students could understand quickly, remember easily, and actually apply in their writing.

Professor Ed Telfeyan, from the University of the Pacific-McGeorge School of Law, spoke about The Telfeyan"Grammar Bee" -- Taking Taking the Pain Out of One-L's Grammatical Deficiencies.  He described a TV-game-show approach, projecting questions in the front of the classroom, with a few wrong and one right answer to choose from.  He takes just a few minutes at the beginning of each class to have the students play a few questions, starting with very easy grammar concepts at the beginning of the semester, then later in the semester bringing up more sophisticated points of grammar, style, and legal writing mechanics.  The students have fun at the beginning of each class and learn the grammar they need.  It seems the key to this approach would be "borrowing" Ed's game show questions, and then tailoring them to the needs of your particular class.


Click here for another blog entry describing this panel.

| Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference teaching grammar:


As an incoming 1L, I'm surprised that my peers lack the grammar skills detailed above (subeject-verb agrement, for one). Exactly how rampant is this grammar misuse? Is there a type of student especially prone to making these mistakes--recent college grads, for example, versus non-trads?

Posted by: MSD | Jul 21, 2008 8:47:39 AM

In any given 1L class, there will be someone who makes errors in subject-verb agreement. There will also be some talented writers. "Non-traditional students," i.e., older students, usually have no problem with grammar, because they much more likely learned a lot about grammar in primary and secondary school, learned to diagram sentences, studied a foreign language and so learned grammar consciously as a non-native speaker of a language, and used writing in a setting where mechanical errors had an impact on their jobs.

Posted by: Sue Liemer | Jul 24, 2008 4:42:49 PM

I found your website researching the internet on grammar in legal writing. My office is having a discussion and we just cannot figure out which way is the correct way to do this and I was hoping that you'd be willing to just help us out!

Our title of the document is:

Plaintiff's Answer to Defendant's Counterclaim.

Seems clear enough, but when you add in the defendant's name, it becomes an issue for us.

Is the correct way (notice the placement of possession):

Plaintiff's Answer to Defendant, John Doe's, Counterclaim

or is it:

Plaintiff's Answer to Defendant's, John Doe, Counterclaim

Posted by: Amy | Sep 19, 2008 12:49:54 PM

Post a comment