An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of French
Clondalkin, Dublin 22
Roll number: 60122D
Date of inspection: 11 December 2006
Date of issue of report: 26 April 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in French
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Bríde. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in French and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over one day 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 of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
Coláiste Bríde is a voluntary secondary school of 844 girls, situated in the suburb of Clondalkin, Dublin. The school has recently moved into its new building, which was constructed on a green field site. Coláiste Bríde offers an extensive range of programmes: Junior Certificate, Junior Certificate Schools Programme, (JCSP) Transition Year, (TY) Leaving Certificate (Established), Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) and Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP). With the exception of the LCA programme, where Italian is taught ab initio, French forms a central strand in all the above-mentioned programmes.
French is a core subject in the school, both in junior and in senior cycle. A small number of students in each year group, whose special educational needs have been identified, do not study a modern language, availing instead of extra tuition in English. It is commendable that students have the option of studying two European languages and Italian has replaced German as the second language on offer in the school. Mixed ability teaching is promoted and facilitated throughout junior cycle and staff in Coláiste Bríde have received specific training in mixed ability teaching methodologies. In senior cycle, when feasible, classes are timetabled concurrently to facilitate movement between higher and ordinary levels for Leaving Certificate.
In terms of timetabling and time allocation, the arrangements for French are very satisfactory with four single periods given to the subject in junior cycle, three in Transition Year and five in senior cycle. A system of sharing some class groups operates in the school at present. It was reported that good preparation and liaison ensures continuity and consistency of approach. Nevertheless, where the teaching and learning of French is concerned, this situation is less than ideal as the syllabus is designed to be taught as an integrated unit and it does not lend itself to neat division into different sections. It is recommended, therefore, that the current timetabling arrangements be kept under review and that possible alternatives be explored for the next academic year.
The allocation of base classrooms to most teachers of French has proven to be very supportive of the teaching of the language. This arrangement facilitates the storage of equipment and additional resources and the creation of an enriching language environment. Classrooms visited were of a very good standard, with high ceilings, large whiteboards and plenty of natural light. Most are sited on the top floor of the building on the languages corridor. The classrooms contained some nice examples of students’ work, posters and, in most cases, a map of France. Two lessons took place in the school’s well-equipped computer room to which all teachers of French have timetabled weekly access with each class group. In addition to the computer room, the school has a multi-media room and Broadband is available in every classroom. The use of information communications technology (ICT) to teach French is being gradually developed as teachers receive training and become more familiar with the software available.
The teachers of French have a good range of extra resources at their disposal to enhance the teaching and learning of the language. They intend to catalogue these resources in the near future with a view to rationalising the shared use of films, DVDs, books, CDs, flashcards and magazines. Due to the extensive building programme undertaken, the budget for the purchase of extra resources for subjects has had to be curtailed this year.
The French department has introduced a number of initiatives to extend the learning of French beyond the classroom. A school tour to France for junior cycle students takes place annually. Visits have been arranged to the Café des Amis in Kildare Street, where students have enjoyed tasting authentic French food. A school theatre group performs in the school annually and a number of students in second and third year avail of residential, language-based adventure weekends to improve their oral proficiency. The exchange with a school in Fontenay-le-Comte, which had been very successfully organised in the past for Transition Year and senior-cycle students, has been discontinued for the present, due to the lack of student uptake. However, the school continues to offer the exchange programme each year and is hopeful of renewed uptake. In the interim, it is suggested that it would be worthwhile maintaining links with such an important language and cultural asset through the exchange of e-mails, video links, postcards, photographs and school magazines.
Coláiste Bríde has been actively involved in whole school planning, under the auspices of a School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) regional co-ordinator, since 2003. The school’s own planning facilitator is currently pursuing a post-graduate qualification in this area. Subject planning has become an integral part of the planning process and formal departments have been established.
The large French department of eleven teachers is headed up by a subject co-ordinator. This position is rotated annually and is not allied to the posts of responsibility system. The scheduling of departmental meetings once a term supports the planning process and facilitates the sharing of best practice. The subject co-ordinator draws up the agenda and minutes are recorded. This is good practice.
A long-term plan for the teaching of French was presented during the evaluation. The plan, based on the SDPI template, includes the school’s mission statement, lists the general aims and objectives of the department and the topics to be taught. Interestingly, the plan also contains some information and ideas on the acquisition of a second language. Emphasis has also been placed on such practical issues as the choice of textbooks, the creation of links with France, State Examination results and the promotion of French outside of the classroom. The planning work completed by the department to date is praiseworthy.
In order to advance the planning process, it is suggested that, in the future, planning documents should specify achievable learning targets for each year group. Such a measure would guide teachers’ day-to-day work in the classroom and would help to promote continuity and steady progress from one year to the next. Some ideas and strategies on how to promote the integration of active teaching methodologies and the effective use of ICT could be included, as well as appropriate assessment policies and procedures for individual year groups.
This subject inspection focused specifically on junior cycle and Transition Year French.
In the lessons observed, there was evidence of high-quality classroom management skills. It was obvious that all teachers set high expectations of behaviour and work ethic. Students were courteous and co-operative and they made a good effort to respond to their teacher’s questioning. The atmosphere was positive and productive in all classes and lessons were presented in a confident and capable manner.
A number of the language-teaching strategies observed reflected good practice. Flashcards and crosswords were used successfully to revise vocabulary in an enjoyable way and to maximise students’ participation. The writing of the lesson structure on the board at the start of class helped to focus students’ attention, as did the roll call in the target language on the classroom computer.
As previously mentioned, Coláiste Bríde has excellent ICT facilities and it was gratifying to observe a number of lessons where these facilities were used most effectively to teach French. Students and teachers were fully computer-literate and all were very much at ease with the technology. The fact that students were familiar with the terminology of ICT in French was further evidence of the good work done to date. The engagement of the students and their eagerness to complete the online exercises in the target language was notable. Teachers in Coláiste Bríde are to be highly commended for using technology to consolidate and enhance traditional teaching methods. ICT allows great scope for differentiated learning and students of all abilities can progress at a pace suited to themselves through the use of various interactive exercises. The vast array of material now available on language-learning websites complements textbook learning and equips teachers with the means to ensure that more able students are sufficiently challenged and enabled to learn autonomously.
The teaching of grammar was the central feature of some lessons. Clear explanations, together with relevant examples, of various adjectives and verb tenses were taught to students. Students demonstrated a good understanding of grammatical rules and had little difficulty in completing written worksheets. Such grammar work is important and is at its most effective when integrated into a theme-based lesson rather than dealt with as a separate entity. A full class period on grammar rules demands a significant level of concentration from students. When grammar is set in a communicative context, relating to the real environment of students, such work can be very productive.
Aural work was not an element of the lessons observed. It is recommended that, whenever possible, a short listening activity be built into the lesson. Purposeful listening, prefaced by appropriate pre-listening activities, is an essential element of language learning and it enables students to become familiar with a wide range of accents and intonations. It is worth noting that over 40% of the marks in Junior Certificate French are awarded for the listening comprehension. Aural work may also be seamlessly integrated into lessons using ICT through the activation of the headphones.
The commitment of some teachers to making full use of the target language for instruction and affirmation, for classroom management and for communication was impressive and is highly commended. Where French was spoken, the teachers’ linguistic proficiency was very good. The register of language used was appropriate to the needs and the language ability of the students in question. The ongoing use of French, taking cognisance of the age and ability level of the group, helps considerably to improve students’ competence and confidence. Teachers are urged therefore to sustain the effort to speak as much French as is practicable during the course of the lesson. As most teachers have their own classrooms, it would be helpful to students if key communicative phrases in French were prominently displayed above or around the whiteboards. Some active learning strategies, such as pair work, group work, brainstorming and language games, are particularly suitable in junior cycle and help to promote greater oral participation on the part of students.
Regular, well-structured student assessment is an intrinsic part of teaching and learning in Coláiste Bríde.
All junior cycle students sit in-house examinations at Christmas and in summer, apart from third-year students who sit mock examinations in the spring in advance of the Junior Certificate Examination in June. Formal tests are backed up by class-based teacher assessment and some teachers allocate a portion of marks to continuous assessment. Commendably, all classes sit a formal aural examination as part of their assessment.
Parents are kept informed of students’ academic progress through the school journal, through school reports and through the tutor/year head system. The school’s results in every subject in the State Examinations are tracked and analysed by management and staff and these results may be consulted by all staff members on the school’s IT system. It is recommended that teachers seeking further information on the State Examinations consult the website www.examinations.ie. The chief examiner’s report on the 2005 Junior Certificate French examination may also be accessed on the website. It is commendable that high expectations are set for students in Coláiste Bríde and that as many as possible are encouraged to sit the higher level examination in Junior Certificate French.
The regular monitoring of assigned homework must be seen as an essential element in the formative assessment of students. It is important that productive homework exercises in the target language be given and positive comments appended whenever possible. It was heartening to note that many students had special vocabulary notebooks and that words were often explained by clever drawings rather than by the use of translation. This teaching strategy is commended.
The school does not have a formal written policy on homework, although it is one of the policies listed for attention during the current school year. There is, however, a homework statement in the students’ journal and the importance of doing homework is addressed in the study and examination skills programme for first-year students. It is recommended that the French department agree its homework expectations (type and number of assignments) for each year group in the context of subject planning. Homework should, in general, focus on syllabus-grounded tasks such as writing a personal letter or postcard or leaving a short message for a friend.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of French and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.