Academic language and literacy for participation in postgraduate law programmes

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In this extra post, David Caulton discusses developing postgraduate law students’ ability to participate effectively in seminars through a short course run jointly by English Language Education (ELE) and the Edinburgh Law School.

Students embarking on their Masters programmes face a number of challenges in their academic study, particularly if English is not their first language, it has been some time since they last undertook formal study, or if they come from another academic culture or field of study. Law seminars present students with an additional, quite unique set of challenges. Some students of course will relish the opportunities for discussion and learning seminars offer, while others may be horrified at the prospect of them! Will I be able to participate in seminars, and how can I do this? How will I manage all the reading for them? Unsurprisingly, participation in seminars is often limited to the same students who can confidently engage with the subject under discussion.

ELE and Edinburgh Law School teamed up to provide a short programme of four sessions over five weeks in semester 1, aiming to build students’ confidence and ability to participate effectively in law seminars. The first session focused on reading skills (preparation for seminars), the remaining three on participating effectively in seminar discussions. The course was open to all PGT students in the Law School, of whom, 124 enrolled into classes.

The three discussion sessions shared a common learning outcome of being more confident to engage actively in law seminars (both online and in-person), but each one had a specific focus:

  1. Raising awareness of the need for cohesion in discussion i.e. linking contributions clearly to the discussion;
  2. Asking focused and accurate questions; and
  3. Making critically-evaluative contributions.

Each session had its own discussion topic that participant students had prepared before class. A more general legal topic was chosen to allow students to be better able to focus on the language and skills they were practising without the need to worry about the complexity of the topic. Discussion questions were designed to encourage students to bring their own views and experience of their own legal jurisdictions to the discussions.

There were in fact two separate discussions in each session, following relevant language input.

  1. An intercultural training exercise2 which involved a very brief discussion of a simple topic that required no preparation (e.g., Studying law in your own country is better than studying abroad) but was subject to a specific rule (e.g., Before making your contribution, you must summarise what the previous speaker said). These rules oblige students to listen to what is being said and to consider how what they want to say contributes to the discussion.
  2. The main prepared discussion, the key feature of which was the way it was staged, or “scaffolded”. It was split into a pre-stage, where students met in a small group to discuss the topic questions and perhaps agree a common position, and the main discussion with the same or additional questions, which was open to the whole class. This kind of staging3 is more likely to boost participation in full seminar discussions as students have time to consider the questions, formulate their views and almost rehearse expressing them using, if necessary, some of the phrases they have looked at earlier in the session. It provides a supportive framework for those students who are less confident or unsure how to express their ideas.

A key thread running through the sessions was a reflective exercise that involved students evaluating their own performance in the class seminar discussions and how effectively they had applied what they had learned to their Masters programme seminars. Where students identified aspects they felt they needed to improve, they were encouraged to formulate their own action plan. The third and last classes began with students in groups discussing their reflection with each other before coming together in a short plenary. What was very rewarding about this, for us as teachers, is students reporting that they were indeed putting what they had learned with us into practice in their Masters programme seminars.


  1. Utley, D. Intercultural Resource Pack. (CUP, 2004)
  2. Ryan, J. ‘Improving teaching and learning practices for international students – Implications for curriculum, pedagogy and assessment’ in Carroll, J. and Ryan, J. (eds) Teaching international students: Improving learning for all (Routledge, 2005)

david caulton

David Caulton is the In-sessional English Language CAHSS Coordinator at ELE in the Centre for Open Learning. A SFHEA (EdTA), he coordinates and teaches on ELE’s academic language and literacies (ALL) provision in cooperation with Schools in CAHSS. If you think this would be useful for your School (also CSE and CMVM), you will find full information at

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