An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Mount Merrion, County Dublin
Roll number: 60050E
Date of inspection: 2 and 3 October 2007
Date of issue of report: 21 February 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Oatlands College. 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; a response was not received from the board
Oatlands College is a Christian Brothers School now under the trusteeship of the Edmund Rice Schools Trust. There has been an upward trend in enrolment in the last four years. In January 2006, a whole school evaluation was carried out in the school, which commended the school in a number of areas. Of particular note was the progress achieved in the area of subject planning. The WSE report also identified the need for a greater level of active learning in classrooms. During this subject inspection there was evidence of continuing good work in the area of subject planning and of significant use of active learning strategies in English.
The English teaching team comprises five teachers, all of whom teach at least two class groups. Most teachers of English in the school take a range of years, levels and programmes, and three of the five teach both junior and senior cycle classes. This concentrated delivery of the subject is to be commended, as it fosters a view of English as a continuum of knowledge and skills development from first year to sixth year. In the current year, one teacher is taking all the transition year (TY) groups for English, but this is a departure from the usual practice and arose from particular timetabling constraints. Deployment of teachers so that they teach a range of years, levels and programmes is desirable as it provides a breadth of experience and expertise within the English teaching team.
Timetable provision for English is generally satisfactory in terms of the number and distribution of lessons. In fifth and sixth year, classes are timetabled concurrently with an English lesson every day; this is optimal provision. TY groups have three core English lessons a week, along with separately timetabled modules of media studies and drama within a strongly cross-curricular TY programme. In third year, English is timetabled concurrently with five lessons over four days, but not Friday. Where it is not possible to timetable a lesson per day, English should be timetabled on both Monday and Friday in order to minimise the gap between lessons. The three second-year classes all have five English lessons, but they are distributed differently in each case, from the optimal lesson per day to a much less satisfactory distribution over just three days. Every effort should be made next year to timetable English on at least four days. First years have four lessons of English rather than the optimal five, owing to a taster programme for all the optional subjects that runs for the whole year. School management expressed support for the taster programme, while acknowledging its effect on core subject provision in first year.
In 2005, the school changed from a system of streaming or banding to a combination of mixed ability and setting. English classes are of mixed ability in first and second year and in TY, while third, fifth and sixth year are set in class groups more or less corresponding to examination level. This more flexible system of class formation is commended. Common assessments at the end of first and second year help to inform student placement in third year. Performance in the Junior Certificate and in TY informs placement in fifth year. Students wishing to change level must give their reasons on a special form, which also asks for comments from their parents and the school’s guidance counsellor. This is good practice.
Teachers of English have their own base classrooms. Most of these have bookshelves or lockers for storing books and resources, and also have either fixed or movable audiovisual equipment. Students’ work and relevant posters and word-charts were displayed in some rooms. However, the use of the classroom itself as a resource and stimulus for the subject should be regarded as an area for development in the school and could usefully be addressed in the context of subject department planning.
The increasing use of information and communications technology (ICT) within the English department is to be commended, both in the area of planning and as a teaching and learning resource. For example, TY students use ICT to prepare and transmit broadcasts for “Radio Oatlands”, a lively cross-curricular project. DVDs with laptops and data projectors are used to support the study of film and drama. A range of audiobooks giving authentic yet contemporary readings of novels and fully dramatised readings of plays would be a useful addition to the department’s shared resources. All resources should be inventoried and each member of the English department should know what is available in the school. The school library is a spacious room but is currently used for many purposes, although a planned extension to the school will provide a dedicated library area. A storage area for English resources has been organised in the present library. Class libraries are in use to encourage students to read for their own enjoyment.
A member of staff who recently obtained the diploma in special educational needs (SEN) teaching is the SEN co-ordinator and provides literacy support to students with identified literacy difficulties. There is a small dedicated resource room and a computer is to be installed there. Useful software and accessible reading material would further enhance provision. In the area of language support, a teacher with experience of teaching English as a second language has been appointed. Both literacy and language support are provided either in timetable gaps (where students are not taking a subject such as Irish) or through withdrawal. Withdrawing students from mainstream English classes for literacy or language support should be avoided where possible.
The school provides teaching hours for a number of postgraduate diploma students, usually through the sharing of timetabled hours with an established teacher. An agreed programme is followed and overall responsibility for the class remains with the established teacher.
A commendable range of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities is provided in the school. Speech and drama are incorporated into the curriculum from first year to fourth year. A full-scale musical is staged every year. Students take part in public speaking and debating competitions and the school hosts visits from drama groups and writers.
Subject department planning in the context of school development planning is now in its second year, and good progress has been made. With the assistance of the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI), the school reflected on the findings and recommendations arising from the whole school evaluation in 2006. In the area of subject planning, a focus on learning outcomes for each year was identified as desirable, as was an emphasis on the syllabus rather than textbooks or examinations when drawing up yearly plans.
In the case of English, the current subject plan incorporates statements of aims and desired outcomes taken from the relevant syllabus documents and guidelines. This is a commendable step. In further developing the subject plan, it is suggested that the skills stated in the syllabus be written beside the material and topics chosen for each term. For example, in the first term of first year the reading of a novel or short story is part of the planned programme. If this is linked explicitly to the concept of “characters and relationships” or the skill of writing a character sketch, it provides a clear common focus for each teacher and makes it easier to devise a valid common assessment at the end of the term. This approach is also helpful when planning the shared teaching of classes with student teachers.
A planned programme for TY is included in the English plan, and makes reference to experiential and independent learning as a characteristic of the year. Commendably, the objectives for the year are in the form of a number of statements saying what students will do during the year and will be able to do at year’s end. This type of “can do” statement could be usefully incorporated into the plans for the junior cycle years. It is also suggested that a planned link be developed between the speech and drama programme and the English syllabus in the junior cycle, as the development of oracy is a key aim of the syllabus. The school is to be commended on its commitment to this area.
As part of the development of subject planning, formal planning meetings are held twice or three times a year, and informal meetings are held from time to time as the need arises. For the formal meetings an agenda is drawn up and minutes are taken. It is recommended that a meeting to review the year’s work and to facilitate timely forward planning be held in the final term each year. In further developing the subject department, the teaching team should focus on sharing good practice, including methods and resources. The English team has nominated a co-ordinator, and it is suggested that an agreed rota for this position be worked out and recorded, perhaps on the basis of a two-year tenure. A commendable feature of the subject department planning for English is the identification of a significant priority. For example, following a presentation on assessment from SDPI, the English teaching team formed a sub-committee to consider assessment strategies: this work is ongoing.
An anthology-style textbook is used in all junior cycle classes, and is supplemented by other teaching resources. Short stories are generally chosen from the anthology while novels are selected on the basis of their suitability for the specific class and the preference of each teacher. The teaching team is to be commended on the practice of reading a number of novels with junior cycle students, thus avoiding a minimalist approach to the open syllabus. Indeed, unusual and challenging choices were seen to be working very successfully in some of the junior cycle lessons observed.
Good planning to meet the needs of students with literacy difficulties is evident in the testing of students prior to entry, effective procedures for the transfer of information from feeder primary schools and the preparation of learning profiles to assist mainstream teachers in their work with these students.
Six lessons were observed during the course of the inspection, covering all years and programmes. Good lesson planning was evident in the selection and preparation of materials and resources and in the individual schemes of work that teachers had drawn up. Generally, the focus of the lesson was established quickly either through explicit statement or through swiftly engaging with the subject matter. In most cases, pacing was appropriate and a satisfactory amount of material was covered. Where it is important to reach a particular point in a studied text by the end of the lesson, priority should be given to that aim when structuring the lesson and a good forward momentum should be maintained. It should be remembered that students will find it easier to grasp a complete short text or a whole scene or chapter than part of one.
Occasionally, the pace was too slow where the class was working on a difficult text, such as a Shakespearean tragedy, and the teacher was concerned that meaning would be lost without a line-by-line explanation. In these cases, it is strongly recommended that audiotapes be used to give students an opportunity to hear lively and accomplished performances of Shakespeare while they read the text. Plot and character emerge much more clearly through this approach and it also provides an opportunity to reinforce the idea of play as performance, moving the text from page to stage. Pre-reading techniques, such as alerting students in advance to an important moment or inviting them to predict what will happen next, engage their attention and assist understanding. Although the policy of studying Shakespeare with all Leaving Certificate groups is laudable, it may be necessary to adopt more innovative and experiential approaches to the plays with some class groups. In all cases where choosing texts for study at particular levels, it is imperative that the criterion be the provision of the best educational experience for the students.
A variety of resources was used in the lessons observed, including worksheets, informative handouts, film, audio recordings, the board and overhead projector. Worksheets were used to guide students through a topic and to reinforce learning. The handouts included one which gave very useful information on effective delivery of a speech, along with an assessment form to facilitate peer assessment of a speech assignment. Good use of the board was observed to record and organise points made in class discussion, to note down and reinforce new vocabulary and to alert students to significant aspects of the text before reading. Greater use of the board is recommended where students are learning the mechanics of language such as spelling and punctuation, as it provides very useful visual reinforcement for students who may find such aspects of language difficult.
Good questioning techniques were observed in all lessons. Focused questions were put to named students to check on factual recall and straightforward comprehension. More open questions were used to invite a range of responses and to challenge students to think more deeply. In junior cycle lessons, a hands-up rule was maintained, and students who might tend to dominate were handled well. Leading and prompting questions were used to direct students towards a conclusion or a connection between two ideas, a much more engaging strategy than is explicit statement by the teacher. In furthering this good practice, students should be reminded of the difference between a response and an answer. Time should be allowed for formulating responses to challenging questions and a range of responses should be encouraged and validated where appropriate, in order to reinforce the concept of the informed personal response.
In general, students participated well in class activities and discussion, and for the most part there was a good balance between teacher and student talk. In the junior cycle in particular, students were noticeably eager to take part and to respond. Pair and group work was undertaken in a number of the lessons observed. It worked most effectively where students were clearly accustomed to it and arranged themselves quickly into preset groups. In these instances, clear instructions about the task were given to each group and they knew that they would be reporting back to the whole class. The teacher circulated to check that all members of the group were involved and that they were remaining on task. It was especially noteworthy that one of the aims of group work, the creation of a variety of responses and ideas, was emphasised to the students and that they listened carefully to the different findings of each group as they reported back. The sharing of procedures to manage group work effectively and the sharing of good questioning techniques would be useful areas to explore at subject department meetings as a means of further developing active learning methodologies.
Classroom management was uniformly good and was centred on a purposeful approach to the task in hand. The atmosphere in the English classrooms was friendly yet respectful, and students were at ease in expressing their views and in looking for assistance where necessary. As has already been stated, the classrooms themselves could be further developed to create a more stimulating and print-rich environment for the study of English. In particular, the practice of displaying students’ work as a form of publication is to be encouraged, as it provides students with an incentive to produce more substantial and imaginative work and to present it carefully.
In relation to ongoing and formative assessment, good practice in reviewing previous work through questioning at the beginning of the lesson was observed, and students were well-monitored as they worked in class. Errors in answering either in class questioning or in written assignments were used positively as an opportunity for on-the-spot revision. The very good practice of consolidating learning through a swift recapitulation was observed at the end of some lessons, and this practice should be generally adopted wherever possible.
Review of students’ copies and folders showed that a reasonable volume of written work has been assigned in most cases. Correction of this work varied from tick-marking to very helpful and encouraging comment. The setting up of a working group to investigate various aspects of assessment demonstrates a commendable commitment to the development of good practice in this area. Its work should help to establish agreed practice in giving developmental feedback to students for substantial assignments to affirm the efforts they have made and indicate areas for improvement. In relation to the correction of common errors, the inspector suggested that, after teachers have highlighted and explained the correct spellings and so on, responsibility for proofreading should be the students’ in the first instance, and all teachers should insist that students re-read, correct and sign work before submitting it.
The issue of inconsistent marking in house examinations was raised during the inspection. In line with good practice in assessment for learning, teachers should share with students the criteria for assessment and should agree on these beforehand. This includes indicating clearly to students from first year onwards what marks are assigned for different questions. The setting of common assessments in first and second year was noted and is commended. In all cases a common agreed marking scheme should also be in place and should be shared with the students.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Teachers of English take a range of years, levels and programmes and all teachers take at least two class groups.
· The move from streaming to mixed ability and setting is to be commended.
· There has been good progress in subject planning and in setting up a subject department.
· Good questioning and active learning techniques encourage a good level of student participation and classroom management was uniformly good.
· The English teaching team is working constructively to develop good assessment practices.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· English should be timetabled on at least four of the five days in junior cycle.
· The use of the classroom itself as a resource and stimulus for the subject is an area for development.
· A meeting to review the year’s work and to facilitate timely forward planning should be held in the final term each year.
· Audiotapes should be used to give students an opportunity to hear fully dramatised recordings of Shakespearean drama.
· All teachers should insist that students re-read, correct and sign work before submitting it.
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.