An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta

 

Department of Education and Science

 

Subject Inspection of English

REPORT

 

 

Scoil Pól,

Kilfinane, Co. Limerick

Roll number: 64130W

 

Date of inspection: 23 March 2007

Date of issue of report: 17 January 2008

 

 

 

Subject inspection report

Subject provision and whole school support

Planning and preparation

Teaching and learning

Assessment

Summary of main findings and recommendations

 

 

 

 

Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in english

 

 

Subject inspection report

 

This report has been written following a subject inspection in Scoil Pól, Kilfinane, Co. Limerick, conducted as part of a whole school evaluation. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in English and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over two days during which the inspector visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with students and teachers, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and subject teachers.    The board of management was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report, and the response of the board will be found in the appendix of this report.

 

Subject provision and whole school support

 

Timetabled provision for English is in line with syllabus guidelines. The distribution of English is also good, with classes timetabled across all available days. Students have four classes of English per week in Year 1 and 2 of LCA and five classes of English per week in first, second, third, fifth, and sixth year.

 

Students are placed in mixed-ability classes for first, second, and third year and for Years 1 and 2 of LCA. They are set in higher or ordinary level classes in fifth and sixth year. English classes are concurrently timetabled in second, third, fifth, and sixth year to facilitate student movement.  School management is commended for creating these concurrencies. Not only do they support student choice, but they also make inter-class and year-group activities and team teaching possible.

 

General resource provision for the teaching of English is very good. All English teachers have their own classrooms, which facilitates resource storage and the creation of print-rich environments. Rooms are variously equipped with blackboards, storage cabinets, notice boards, shelves, and some audio-visual equipment. English teachers store their collective audio-visual materials in one area of the staffroom, for easy access by all department members. When teachers need to screen film clips or films for their students, they can book the school’s mobile TV and VCR/DVD unit. Alternatively, they can book the library, which houses a large-screen TV and DVD player and pre-arranged seats in front of the TV. As for ICT aids, the school has an impressive computer room, where students can be taken for research, word processing or demonstration purposes. The board of management supports teachers’ requests for resources, where possible. Finally, the school has an impressive website featuring text and digital photographs detailing the school’s ethos, history, trustees, board of management, calendar of events, programme and subject offerings, facilities, pastoral care arrangements, in-school student organisations, and general school news. It is encouraged that the creation of an additional webpage(s) for posting samples of student writing in various genres would be a useful tool for celebrating and promoting students’ achievements in writing to the student body and to the wider school community.

The English department and school management are equally conscious of the importance of promoting personal reading among students. In 2003/04, the school’s trustees made a significant financial investment in the school, funding an extension that included a whole-school library. By the time of the evaluation, high-quality mobile shelving units and books from a variety of genres and curricular areas had been located in the library and a post of responsibility had been allocated for administering the facility. At present, teachers can either take a class to the library for browsing and borrowing or can take boxes of books suitable for a particular student group to their classrooms. Those individual teachers are currently responsible for tracking borrowings and returns. It was also reported that the library is opened by the post-holder at lunchtime for general student borrowing once a fortnight.

 

To help develop Scoil Pól’s whole-school library service in the coming years, the following suggestions are offered. First, it is advised that the library stock be sorted into clearly-labelled genre and curricular areas and that stock that is not suited to second-level study either be grouped in one section for teacher reference or be removed from the collection altogether. Second, it is encouraged that sources such as the Kilfinane public library, the 2001 Children’s Books Ireland/ Department of Education and Science joint publication Book Choice for Post-Primary Schools, Room for Reading: The JCSP Demonstration Library Project, the School Library Association of Ireland, and or the UK School Library Association be consulted for ideas on library usage and on texts for acquisition. (See http://www.libraryassociation.ie and http://www.sla.org.uk/advice-and-support.php). To supplement these sources, surveys of students’ reading interests should be conducted and recommendations from the various subject departments on books that should be added to the stock should be sought. Third, it is encouraged that high-interest-low-reading-age texts and Readalong text/CD packs be added to the stock to support students with low reading ages. (A learning-support teacher and or the school’s NEPS psychologist could be consulted to provide a list of appropriate texts or text series for such students). Fourth, movable tables and chairs and a few internet-connected computers and printers should be placed in the library in time to encourage browsing and research, a print-rich environment should be created inside and outside the library, and student volunteers should be recruited to catalogue the library stock and to help administer its lending function. As Circular M16/99 (“Guidelines for reading at Second Level Schools”) intimates, emotional, social, and academic benefits will accrue from such a whole-school promotion of reading: “Habitual reading arouses curiosity about, interest in and confident command of language. The reader takes delight in language and is versatile and comfortable in speaking and writing. These are the factors that develop the more able Leaving Certificate examination candidate.”

 

A number of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities support the teaching and learning of English in Scoil Pól.  Trips are organised to productions of plays being studied by third and sixth years for their State examinations. A talent show for first years was recently organised and LCA students study a drama module as part of their programme. School management and the English teachers are commended for organising these activities for students. However, there is scope for development in this area. It is encouraged that LCA students would be prepared to present scenes from their drama studies to other class groups, that student writing prizes would be added to the suite of already-established school awards, and that local writers would be invited to read from their work to class groups. Also, the English department should investigate the possibility of involving students in projects such as the Limerick County Council Youth Theatre and Film Maker in Residence schemes (see http://www.lcc.ie/Arts_Culture/Programmes_Activities/) and in Poetry Ireland’s Writers in Schools Schemes and Residencies (see http://www.poetryireland.ie/education/education.html).

 

English teachers wishing to engage in continuous professional development are supported in Scoil Pól. The school encourages and pays for subject association memberships and facilitates teacher attendance at in-service and professional development courses. In recent times, school management has organised whole-school in-service on topics such as “creating a positive classroom environment” and “teaching the reluctant learner.” Also, one member of the English department attended a course on LCA English and Communications for first-time teachers in 2006. As for its future professional development, the English department is encouraged to make connections with the Cork Teachers of English Association (http://www.cte.ie/index.htm) and or with the Midwest English Teachers' Association (www.meta.ie). Also, the department is encouraged to attend English-specific courses delivered by TESS that are advertised in Second Level Support Service (SLSS) brochures. Lastly, the department is advised to continue familiarising itself with the TESS website (http://english.slss.ie/Main/), the TESS magazine (http://english.slss.ie/Magazine.html), and Looking at English: Teaching & Learning English in Post-Primary Schools, a 2006 composite report published by the inspectorate.

(See http://www.education.ie/servlet/blobservlet/insp_looking_at_english.pdf?language=EN).]

 

Planning and preparation

 

Formal subject department planning was initiated in August 2005 to complement and enhance existing practices of individual subject planning and informal consultation. The process has been supported by the organisation of whole-staff inputs on subject department planning by an SDPI co-ordinator. Every year the English department elects a new co-ordinator for itself. It meets formally once a month for twenty minutes. In addition, subject department meetings have also been voluntarily conducted after school over the past year. The English teachers’ decision to engage in departmental planning in their own time manifests their professional commitment to continuous improvement and is highly commended.

 

A collaborative team spirit was evident among the English teachers. By the time of the evaluation, they had prepared a subject department plan detailing how students are placed in particular classes, arrangements for facilitating students changing their examination levels in English, curriculum content plans for each year group, a list of the methodologies and of the textbooks used by the department, some guidelines for working with students with special educational needs (SEN), and minutes of subject department meetings for 2006-07. The department is commended for this work. Looking toward the future, the following subject department planning recommendations are made.

 

First, it is recommended that the department develop its curriculum content plans into schemes of work. Starting with its first-year plan, the department should identify what it considers the most appropriate learning outcomes for those students. (See pages 8-14 of the LC English syllabus for exemplars of such statements). Then the department should select, combine and add new units of work, as it sees fit, to create a common first-year scheme of work that incrementally develops the specified learning outcomes. In particular, schemes should set out explicitly how, over the course of each year, teachers will hone students’ writing skills (by developing their pre-writing, proofing, editing, modelling, and redrafting strategies; by widening their vocabularies; and by developing their spelling, punctuation, and paragraphing competencies), reading skills (by teaching word and text-attack techniques, library layout and usage, and dictionary and thesaurus usage), and oral communication skills. Individual teachers’ existing plans will be an important foundation for, and aid to, this work. The benefits of such year-group schemes will include more incremental, consistently-reinforced learning experiences for students and the creation of reference documents for new teachers and for teachers providing literacy support to students. The department may find pages 19-20 of Looking at English useful when undertaking this work.

 

Second, it is recommended that a section on homework and assessment be added to the subject department plan. The existing whole-school homework policy will be an important base document for that section. Other elements to be agreed and incorporated should include the department’s collective expectations for presentation standards for student work, appropriate types and amounts of homework (including the number of assigned essays per year), and samples of common assessments and of differentiated assessments. Also, common copy and folder systems of organisation should be agreed by the department, to enable students to easily access and revise their notes at the end of junior/senior cycles of study. Listing items such as a lever arch file, plastic pockets, a hard backed copy (for vocabulary and spelling development), and an A4 pad on students’ booklists, along with the required textbooks, should maximise the likelihood that students will be equipped with these materials when they start school each year.  Finally, SEC chief examiners’ reports and marking schemes should be added to the section for teacher reference.

 

Consequently, over the coming years the subject department plan for English should bring together year-group schemes, a section on the teaching of writing (see the “Teaching and Learning” section), a section on homework and assessment, relevant teacher guideline and syllabus documents, and SEC and TESS materials with the other materials that have already been prepared by the department. What is envisaged is a planning process customised to the specific needs of the students of Scoil Pól. Such subject planning will not only support the teaching and learning of English, but it will also support the process of school planning.

 

Individual teachers’ termly and or yearly plans and some accompanying resource folders and materials were presented for inspection. The best of them included evidence that teachers were gathering resources from reference books and the internet to enrich the study of particular units; were keeping samples of student work for future use as writing exemplars; and were keeping copies of assessments administered to class groups for review and future planning purposes. Such careful preparation shows great dedication and zeal. Where weakness in individual planning was noted, it was generally due to the allocation of disproportionate amounts of time to the teaching of literary texts (usually fiction), to the detriment of other syllabus elements (usually aspects of writing). Developing and consistently teaching common schemes of work will help the department overcome this deficiency.

 

[Planning, preparation, and provision of literacy and language support in Scoil Pól are discussed in the main WSE report.]

 

Teaching and learning

 

In all classes visited, there was evidence of short-term planning, lessons were structured, and the content being taught was in line with syllabus requirements. All had objectives or themes that were sometimes written on the blackboard at the beginning of the lesson. However, the learning outcomes that students were supposed to gain from lessons were sometimes not defined and thus were not achieved. For example, in a few classes the learning outcome that students would independently respond to and investigate unseen texts was not achieved because teacher-led, line-by-line questioning and explanation was used to teach the texts to students instead. Best practice is when lessons are planned in terms of intended learning outcomes for students and when those outcomes are then shared with learners at the outset of lessons. Such explicit sharing helps students connect new learning with previous work and also invites them to share responsibility for the lesson.

 

Teachers’ instructions and explanations were clear and precise in most classes observed. However, pair work was an area where precise instructions were not communicated in a few instances. It is encouraged that students’ understanding of the roles they are required to perform when in pairs, of the end-product the pair is expected to produce, and of the time allocated for their work be checked through questioning before materials are distributed and before pairs are told to commence working.

 

The resources used by the English teachers included blackboards, worksheets, textbooks, newspapers, and a popular music CD. Evidence was also gathered of the use of DVDs (for revising novels and plays), of downloaded materials from the internet, of printed exemplars of functional writing tasks, of OHP acetates, and of an audio CD for highlighting key scenes in King Lear. Given the wide variety of learning styles and of student abilities in the school, it is recommended that even more audio-visual stimuli be utilised in the teaching of English. In particular, CDs/audiotapes of play productions (such as radio plays) and of poems being read by their authors, clips from television programmes such as the news, educational websites, concrete artefacts (such as the use of props associated with texts as discussion and revision aids), and more print materials from the environment (such as job application forms and letters and articles from current newspapers, magazines, or journals) should be more frequently used in the teaching and learning of English.

 

The uses of the blackboard observed over the course of the evaluation included stating the theme for a lesson, recording new vocabulary encountered in texts, listing brainstorming responses from students, and detailing the components of a newspaper’s front page. These were sound educational practices and are commended. Providing written reinforcement of new vocabulary, grammatical and syntactical features, and pre-writing and writing strategies is essential for the incremental development of students’ writing skills.  Other structured blackboard uses the department should consistently employ include dedicated vocabulary and homework columns and different coloured chalks to help students discriminate between headings and sub points. Lastly, the requirement that students transcribe board work into their copies (a practice already established in some classes) will provide them with an invaluable revision aid.

 

All teachers used questioning to good effect to stimulate and interact with students and to structure the learning activity. Their questioning styles generally interspersed questions directed to particular students with questions open to the entire class. Where best practice was observed, students were asked to find textual evidence to support interpretations. Also, where questions were carefully sequenced and graduated, leading students to higher-order thinking and encouraging them to make personal aesthetic responses, that was best practice. Where weaknesses were observed, inaudible answers were accepted without asking students to repeat their answers with more volume, leading to some students becoming disengaged from the lesson. In such circumstances, it is recommended that random students be asked to repeat other students’ answers, to verify if an answer was audible for the entire class. Two other suggestions are offered to further develop teachers’ questioning styles. First, when asking students to listen to a classmate read out his/her homework assignment, a task should be set for listeners (such as to identify information that was left out of the answer that should have been included or to suggest one way in which the answer could have been improved). In this way, peer listening will lead to higher-order thinking and learning for students. Second, in presenting students with unseen texts, it is recommended that guiding questions be set for reading or listening to them, to ensure that students’ comprehension efforts are guided by a purpose derived from the lesson’s desired learning outcome(s).

 

A variety of teaching methods was observed over the course of the evaluation including question and answer, teacher reading, student reading, peer learning (where students were asked to listen to and comment on samples of others’ work read out to them), pair work, brainstorming, in-class writing exercises, a freeze frame technique, linking textual references to students’ prior knowledge and experiences, the use of audio clips to help students identify the tone and mood of a text, and visualisation (asking students to draw their favourite image from a poem). Evidence was also gathered of explicit vocabulary development, when students were instructed to record new words encountered in texts at the back of their copies. (Directing students to keep a personalised vocabulary and spelling copy from the beginning of first year is best practice). Moreover, it was clear that students in some classes had been taught to use grids to organise their ideas for essays and for examination-style questions. To ensure that all students get the benefit of these excellent pedagogical practices taking place in individual classrooms, the English department should continue to pool its teaching resources and professional expertise as part of the subject department planning process.

 

As for identifying pedagogical areas for further development across the department, the following recommendations are offered. First, it is recommended that the department pool its resources and professional expertise in relation to the teaching of writing. A systematic departmental promotion of the teaching of vocabulary, grammar, spelling, punctuation and handwriting (where necessary); of sentence, paragraph, and essay building; of dictionary and thesaurus use; and of writing frame and drafting/re-drafting approaches will help raise standards of writing even higher in all classes. So too will the consistent integration of writing and language development activities with the study of literary texts through approaches such as creative interventions (where students write in different registers and for different purposes from the perspective of a character in a studied text). Such an explicit approach to the development of students’ writing will benefit all students, and especially those who are reluctant writers. The literacy-development techniques at the heart of the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) would be useful in this regard. (See http://jcsp.slss.ie and the JCSP publication Between the Lines).  

 

Second, it is recommended that differentiation planning and processes for students in mixed-ability classes and for students with special educational needs be further developed. For students who are more academically able, developing independent learning targets and assignments for them (such as project work, internet research, personal reading and writing) will be important, particularly when class pace through a text does not challenge them. Likewise, ordinary level candidates in predominantly higher level junior cycle classes will need differentiated examination preparation and advice at different points. Given that second and third years are concurrently timetabled, it is suggested that the occasional grouping of those year groups into higher and ordinary level cohorts for instruction and advice specific to their intended examination level could be organised. Lastly, differentiation through text-selection, activity and or outcome may need to be performed for students with special educational needs. In-service training for the department on differentiation and on mixed-ability teaching from the SLSS or the Special Education Support Service (SESS) is recommended in this regard.

 

Very good rapport between teachers and students was evident during the evaluation. Teachers consistently affirmed students’ responses and integrated them into lessons. In a few classes, students’ eagerness to understand a topic in greater depth prompted them to ask their teacher unsolicited questions. Most students were attentive and engaged in their learning. To stimulate the disengaged (and occasionally disruptive) minority, it is recommended that teachers only accept audible student answers to questions; that more audio-visual resources, differentiation, and active learning approaches be used; and that mini-competitions and games between groups be occasionally utilised. Encouraging third and sixth year students approaching State examinations to identify what they perceive as their own weaknesses and negotiating revision plans with them to address those needs could also increase their motivation.  Finally, providing all students with copies of the learning targets they need to achieve in each term and then training students to track their progress in relation to those targets would give them a greater sense of responsibility for their learning. (See the learning target materials posted on http://jcsp.slss.ie/jcsp_statement/tree).

 

In both classrooms observed, teachers had created motivational learning environments. The English-related resources displayed in rooms included posters advertising a studied play, displaying key information on studied poets, listing the five types of language studied by LC English candidates, and combining individual poetic techniques with examples of them. In addition, the following student-penned materials were visible: posters combining illustrations and quotations from a studied play, book and film reviews, and creative interventions (letters to a studied poet and diary entries by a fictional character from a studied novel). The department is commended for these efforts. Other visual aids teachers may wish to develop and display in their classrooms, over time, could include relevant clippings from newspapers and magazines and lists of educational websites that support the study of particular units of work or that recommend books for personal reading for different age groups. Similarly, more visual aids to reinforce the chief concepts and skills of courses would also be useful. (Such aids could include keywords associated with genres, key quotations from plays, strategies for reading unseen poems and prose pieces, flowcharts summarising key relationships between characters in studied texts, and revision aids for the comparative modes and comparative texts for a particular senior cycle year group). Finally, it is encouraged that, in time, the library would also be turned into a visual showcase for whole-school activities supporting the teaching and learning of English. Erecting a notice board(s) inside the library would allow the posting of materials such as advertisements for second-level writing competitions and for upcoming plays, posters advertising local literary festivals (such as Limerick City’s Cuisle poetry festival and Newcastlewest’s Éigse Michael Hartnett Literary Festival), and reviews of current films and books.

 

Assessment

 

A range of assessment modes is used to monitor student competence and progress in English including oral questioning, spelling tests, homework, in-class writing assignments, and formal examinations. Additional assessment practices are also used by individual members of the department. For example, some diagnostic use is made of assessments, where the most common grammatical, spelling, and or organisational errors among students are identified and lessons are prepared to help remediate those problems. Moreover, the department has begun preparing and administering common assessments to first, second, and third years to establish their progress in relation to their year group. Furthermore, the department has developed a culture of comparing students’ State examination results with national norms, to identify areas where teaching strategies may need to be tweaked in subsequent years. These are best practices and are highly commended.

 

A number of the classes observed began with a review of homework or of work done in a previous class, thus maximising the chances that students would retain their new learning. Also, homework was being set and monitored in all classrooms visited. In some cases, students’ work was acknowledged by a tick and or a short comment (very good/excellent). In other cases, a tick and mark/grade was accompanied by developmental feedback which affirmed the strengths in the piece of writing and gave concrete ideas for improvement. However, it was observed that developmental feedback generally focused on the content of student’s work only, ignoring presentation, linguistic, and or structural issues. (Comments of that nature might highlight that a student’s handwriting is particularly difficult to read, might emphasise that a student needs to prepare a plan and use paragraphs when writing an essay, might identify the three/four most commonly misspelled words in an assignment and so on). The department is encouraged to discuss this issue and to agree a departmental correction style, so that teachers’ responses to students’ writing are relatively consistent from first to sixth year. In arriving at a common policy on the correction of mechanical errors and on the provision of developmental feedback on substantial pieces of writing, the department may find materials such as the NCCA’s “Assessment for Learning” web pages, the JCSP publication Between the Lines, and the relevant section of Inclusive Dyslexia-Friendly Practice useful.

(See http://www.sess.ie/sess/Files/Dyslexia_crossborder.pdf).

 

Over the coming years, three other aspects of departmental assessment policy should be developed. First, depending on the specific learning outcomes being targeted with a particular year group, some marks toward end-of-term results could be allocated for tasks such as spelling and vocabulary tests, for folder and copy maintenance, for an average of the marks awarded to a student’s best three essays over a term, for oral presentations, and or for reviews of books read independently by students. Second, to enable students to gain a greater degree of understanding of the reasons why they earn the grades they do, the practices of peer and self-assessment should be further developed. The criteria for assessment that were published as Appendix 1 to the LC English syllabus should be introduced early in the senior cycle, a copy of the grid distributed to students and or posted on classroom walls as a visual aid, and students should be encouraged to use the language of the criteria when engaging in peer and self-assessment. (See http://english.slss.ie/resources/Appendix_1_HL_and_OL.pdf and http://english.slss.ie/resources/

Assessment_Advice_Students.pdf). All teachers of senior-cycle students should use the PCLM criteria when marking substantial pieces of writing. Third, as recommended in the previous section of this report, the department should consider providing students with their learning targets and training them in tracking their progress in relation to those targets.

 

Appropriate class records of students’ results are kept. In first, second, and fifth year, students are continuously assessed and also sit formal examinations in December and May. In third and sixth year, students sit formal examinations in December and pre-certificate examinations in the spring. LCA students are assessed by a combination of key assignments and formal examinations. Parents/guardians are informed of students’ progress through comments in students’ homework journals, through sending tests home to be signed, through school reports that are issued four times a year, through annual parent-teacher meetings for each year group, and through individual meetings (either requested by parents/guardians or where parents/guardians are invited to the school to discuss a student’s progress).

 

Summary of main findings and recommendations

The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:

 

·         The English teachers of Scoil Pól are a hard-working, collaborative group.

·         Whole school support and resource provision for the teaching and learning of English is very good.

·         The English teachers and school management are commended for the English-related co-curricular and extra-curricular activities they organise for students.

·         The English teachers began the formal process of subject department planning in August 2005 to complement and enhance existing practices of individual subject planning and informal consultation. By the time of the evaluation, they had established the practice of electing a new subject co-ordinator every year. Also, they had carefully prepared a subject department planning template, curriculum content plans for the different year groups, and minutes of their 2006-07 departmental meetings. The department is commended for this work, much of which took place during teachers’ free time.

·         In all classes visited, there was evidence of short-term planning, lessons were structured, and the content being taught was in line with syllabus requirements. Varied teaching methods were observed and all teachers used questioning to good effect.

·         Very good rapport between teachers and students was evident during the evaluation. Teachers consistently affirmed students’ responses and integrated them into lessons. Most students were attentive and engaged in their learning.

·         In both classrooms observed, teachers had created motivational learning environments.

·         A range of assessment modes is used to monitor student competence and progress in English. From a review of student copies, it was evident that homework was being set and monitored in all classes.

 

As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:

·         The English department should pool its resources and strategies in relation to the teaching of writing

·         The English department should further develop its differentiation planning and processes for students in mixed-ability classes and for students with special educational needs.

·         The department should further develop its assessment practices, as discussed in the main body of this report.

·         The subject department plan should be developed as discussed in the main body of this report.

·         The school library should be developed as discussed in the main body of this report.

 

Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of English and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.