Teaching and learning in transnational education contexts: Teaching English communication skills in law courses in Singapore


This chapter explores issues in transnational higher education in the context of law courses in Singapore, where rapidly increasing numbers of transnational students are coming to pursue legal studies. Currently, there is an absence of a core curriculum on written and oral communication skills for tertian' law students in Singapore. Indeed, there exists a general assumption that these students are able to write and speak well. However, embracing legal language in the initial stages has already been deemed to be a daunting task. This is particularly so for international/transnational scholars whose native tongue is not English.

With a growing number of transnational students in the Singapore legal education scene, the gap between learners of native English standard and those of non-native standard is more prominent. This is especially true of students who are engaged in offshore forms of learning (Chapman and Pyxis, 2013). To address this concern, some tertiary institutions of law in Singapore have facilitated workshops and training seminars for their learners. However, these typically are ad hoc attempts that are limited as regards linguistic depth and analysis, as lawyers are progressively more exposed to a greater cross section of society.

This chapter explores the challenges faced specifically by non-native learners enrolled in legal education courses and discusses how the rapid expansion of transnational education, in particular in the field of legal scholarship, has implications for Singapore and beyond. To this end, it draws on the findings of a qualitative, empirical study of the teaching of English communication skills in legal education courses in Singapore. The aim of the study was to generate theory on this issue by drawing on the perspectives of teachers of law.

The main theoretical findings of this study posit: that students’ academic performance in legal subjects are directly influenced by their level of English language proficiency; that all learners of law should be provided with support in the English language; that it is the teacher’s duty to assimilate English communication skill sets in law lessons; and that the teaching of English communication skills is beneficial in both the academic and vocational contexts. Singapore provides an exemplary case study of the above issues due to its increasingly diversified and multifaceted legal landscape, wherein graduates are expected to adapt to changing demands and expectations at the workplace. Law courses delivered in this country' exemplify challenges facing transnational educators such as pedagogical approaches, modular design and policy and curriculum considerations.

The following section provides an overview of the literature that informed the study reported here, and the next describes the background and context of the study. The fourth section describes the research methods. The fifth section presents the findings in the form of a narrative inquiry' and a thematic analysis of the participants’ perspectives. It also discusses the theory' generated as a result of the study, in the form of four theoretical propositions. The chapter concludes with a summary’ of the relevance of the study to teaching and learning in the transnational context.

English communication skills and the teaching of law

This section provides an overview of the literature that informed the study to be reported. In particular, it highlights specific models where English communication skills have blended with the teaching of law. Before describing the extent to which this is achieved in the Singaporean context, we examine germinal works in both the United States and the United Kingdom. The rationale for the focus on these jurisdictions is that they' embody the common law tradition. In other words, they' influence related scholarship in Singapore and a review of such literature situates the present study' within a broader, well-established, empirical base. Each of these works are examined in turn; although we acknowledge that each report is not indicative of the full context in each specific jurisdiction.

Legal Education Best Practices Report (2010), United States

In a report prepared for the Global Network for Public Interest Law (PILnet), then referred to as the Public Interest Law Institute in the United States, Barry’, Dubin and Joy (2010) concluded that legal education in the United States still give emphasis to doctrinal teaching, albeit with some incorporation of experiential or practical learning. The aim of their study was to evaluate the teaching of law in Universities in the United States and to suggest reforms that could enhance the curriculum and educational methodology' in these law schools. The report was compiled upon analysis of documents furnished by' the various law schools and the standards set by the American Bar Association (ABA).

The report was based on the 210 law schools that have been approved by' the ABA. Of these 210 institutions, 75 are public schools while the rest are private ones that are not funded by' state or local governments. As the study was based on education objectives of the institutions rather than the perspectives of students, the average number of students per institution was not reported. The common ground amongst all the law schools, public and private alike, is that each student already possesses an undergraduate degree in some area of study. In other words, law is offered as a graduate entry' route in the United States. Unlike the United Kingdom and Singapore, law is offered as a Juris Doctor programme (JD) instead of the traditional Bachelor of Laws (LLB).

The JD programme has a three-year duration for full-time students enrolled in public universities and a four-year duration for those registered on a part-time basis at private institutions. Barry et al. (2010) found that the majority of the law schools adopted a theoretical approach when it came to teaching, with little emphasis on practical lawyering skills and professional values. While the law schools do encourage and imbue skills such as analysis and problem-solving, others such as ethics and communication skills were not heavily broached. In fact, their report presented that oral communication, in particular, was merely covered in the first year of the law courses. In other words, not all practical elements are covered throughout the entire duration of the course, which, according to the authors, makes the false assumption that students are readily equipped with the practical skills that are necessary for survival in the profession.

The report also made reference to an earlier report, the MacCrate Report of 1992, which outlined “communication” as one of the ten fundamental skills of good lawyering. Barty et al. (2010) found that little had evolved as regards the teaching of communication skills to law students since then. They assert that in order to reform this, law schools in the United States have to get over their resistance towards recognising that practical skills complement the traditional doctrinal approach in the teaching of law. Reforms suggested are two-fold. First, the law schools have to become comfortable with allowing their students to have as much clinical experience as possible. In other words, law schools need to create more opportunities for law students to have dealings with real clients. Second, the teaching in law schools has to be more deliberate than merely delineating the law in theoretical terms. In other words, institutions have to be more conscious of the goals of legal education that have been set as the national standard, and have to work towards remodelling their curriculum and teaching methodologies to suit legal career and vocational objectives.

The report confirms that a conscious approach towards developing practical skills for beginning lawyers should be adopted by law schools, not just on a supplementary basis but on a core basis. This study takes a similar view that the teaching of law should consider a more deliberate inculcation of English communication skills in order for learners to achieve academic and professional success.

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