Identifying and Exploring Learners’ Prior Knowledge about Technical Legal Vocabulary

Primary Author: Sandra Bancroft-Billings

Faculty Sponsor: Tom Salsbury


Primary College/Unit: College of Education

Category: Arts and Education Sciences

Campus: Pullman



Principal topic

Technical vocabulary is specific to a “particular topic, field or discipline” (Nation, 2001, p. 198). In U.S. law schools, technical legal vocabulary is a significant portion of the new language, legal English, that initiates must learn. Increasingly, those initiates are internationally-trained attorneys, enrolling in U.S. law schools because English has become the lingua franca of international commerce (Breeze, 2015). This study identifies and describes technical legal vocabulary used in a law school course and assesses students’ prior knowledge about that vocabulary. Principals of second-language acquisition (SLA) are used as a theoretical framework.



In part one, transcripts of a contracts course were analyzed by comparing those transcripts to transcripts from an academic corpus that did not contain law courses. Additionally, transcripts were qualitatively coded to quantify and describe classroom discussions about legal vocabulary.


In part two, law school initiates who speak English as an additional language were tested on a 40-item sample of the vocabulary identified in part one. Participants’ self-reported vocabulary knowledge, and evidence of that knowledge were collected.



Keywords identified by comparing transcripts were found to more effectively identify useful vocabulary than did compiling a list of terms explicitly defined in class discussions. Further, keywords’ meanings as used in class tended to connect to core meanings of those terms. Ongoing analysis of initiates’ prior vocabulary knowledge indicates that they could benefit from exposure to specific vocabulary, particularly vocabulary that occurs with lower frequency in typical spoken English, before beginning U.S. law school courses.