An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Bothar Rath Tó, Átha Cliath 7
Roll number: 60450U
Date of inspection: 22, 23 April 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Mhuire, Bóthar Rath Tó, Átha Cliath 7. 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.
Coláiste Mhuire provides English in the Junior Certificate programme (JC), Transition Year programme (TY) and Leaving Certificate programme (LC).
Whole-school support is good across a number of areas. Timetabling allocation is good in first year with five lessons per week. Second-year and third-year JC students have just four lessons each per week. It is understood that the school is moving towards increasing provision to five lessons in each year of the junior cycle and this is very positive since the current allocation in years two and three does not provide optimal timetabling allocation for the subject. TY students have three lessons per week. Other subject areas complement English in the programme. Lesson allocation is excellent in LC years one and two with six lessons of English per week.
Because the student enrolment is small, class numbers are generally low and this creates very favourable learning conditions. The first-year cohort of just thirty-five students is divided into two class groups. Second year is the largest class group with twenty-four students at the time of the evaluation. The third-year group of thirty-two is divided into two English classes. In the LC programme, the fifth-year cohort of just seven students is taught in a mixed higher and ordinary-level class. The total number of sixth-year students was nineteen at the time of the evaluation. As there is some divergence in content between ordinary-level and higher-level English, particularly in the area of poetry, teaching a mixed-level group poses challenges. To compensate for this, the minority of students taking ordinary level in the sixth-year group are taught by a second teacher for three of the six lessons, allowing the first teacher to focus exclusively on higher-level material with the majority of the group. The resulting small number in each group optimises teaching and learning conditions and students at both levels benefit from individual attention. While Coláiste Mhuire is commended for its management of the sixth-year group, it is reported that the school found it necessary to use some of the learning-support allocation in order to create the two discrete class groups. This is a matter that should be reviewed and the school should ensure that the most appropriate use is made of the allocation.
All students are encouraged to aim for higher level in both the senior and junior cycles. Those who may wish to change levels are facilitated, advice is given and consultation takes place with parents and with guidance personnel. Generally, students retain the same teacher from one year to another subject to timetabling demands and teacher availability. The school has moved location in the last few years, and this, combined with other factors such as changing demographics, has influenced staffing and deployment. It is reported that further changes are likely in the short term. As the department develops its personnel, it is desirable that all teachers experience teaching senior cycle English at both levels in order to deepen the pool of expertise available to the subject. The need for English to degree level should be factored into future recruitment. Teachers are encouraged and facilitated to attend in-service courses.
A good range of resources is available for the subject including books, audio-visual equipment and a school library. The library is currently undergoing development and this is in no small measure due to the interest and dedication of a member of the English teaching team. The library is located in a room that facilitates small groups and the book stock is being developed and catalogued. Cognisance is taken of ability and interest range when book stock is purchased. The school might consider liaising with the School Library Association of Ireland (SLARI) and information is available on their website at www.slari.ie.
The school has good information and communications technology (ICT) resources with a computer room, data projectors and laptop computers. Teachers can also access computers in the staff room. The computer room can be booked and a booking system is in operation. It is reported that there is student use of ICT in TY and senior cycle students are encouraged to carry out research on the internet. Resources are updated after an end-of-year review. Requests for additional resources are met favourably within the school’s capacity to meet them.
There is good provision for students with special educational needs and for those who require additional learning support. The school has a learning-support policy. The learning-support teacher has attended a number of professional development courses. Students with literacy needs are identified through a good range of mechanisms. Test instruments are used to monitor and assess the progress of those identified as having learning needs. Individual educational plans have been developed for those students who need them. There is good formal and informal liaison between the learning-support department and the English department with personnel common to both. The school needs to develop ICT resources for learning support as it is reported that these are, at present, limited.
One successful strategy used in the past to support students with literacy needs is paired reading and this involved TY students. Consideration should be given to reviving this worthwhile activity. A very good initiative has been introduced to encourage reading and develop literacy skills among incoming first years. After the pre-entry assessment, and while still in primary school, the students are invited to become members of a reading club. The library is central to the school’s approach to reading. To encourage reading in the junior cycle, sets of books have been purchased. Trips to the local library have also taken place. To complement good practice on the part of individual teachers, consideration should be given to issuing lists of books, a book club could be established using the library as the venue, and the department should develop a reading policy.
In some classes, student absenteeism was observed during the course of the evaluation. The school recognises that patterns of absenteeism among some students, and particularly in the TY, impact very negatively on learning. The school is endeavouring to address this issue and is currently developing an attendance strategy and adopting measures, which, it is reported, are beginning to have a positive effect in the junior cycle.
Extra-curricular and co-curricular activities such as visits to the theatre complement the teaching and learning of English.
Achievement in the junior cycle is a matter of concern as there is evidence to suggest that learning outcomes are below what should be expected for students in the upper range of ability. A multi-faceted approach needs to be adopted at whole-school, departmental and individual teacher levels. Senior cycle outcomes show a considerable improvement and are in line with the school’s expectations. This is commended. A thorough review of current practice in the teaching and learning of English should be conducted: as an initial step a SWOT analysis, (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) should be carried out to assist in strategic planning at whole-school level.
The department has a co-ordinator who has undertaken the role on a voluntary basis and has generously devoted a great deal of time and energy to developing a plan for English, with cooperation from other team members. As the department is very small, regular informal meetings take place. Designated planning time was provided at the start of the current academic year and it is reported that more formal regular planning time will be allocated in 2008/09. This is commended, as designated planning time is more likely to achieve greater cohesion across the curriculum as a whole.
The well-organised English planning folder contains a range of useful information in addition to schemes of work. There was some variation in the quality of long-term schemes of work. Some were detailed and indicated a well-planned, conscientious approach to syllabus delivery that was designed to challenge students to achieve. Others were sparse in detail. Good practice should be shared and long-term plans for all year groups should be standardised according to the best model. There are some very well-thought out elements in the TY programme and a good range of material is covered. The programme serves well as a bridge to the Leaving Certificate programme and mirrors LC approaches. The current programme suffers somewhat from an over-emphasis on LC content leaving less time for the innovative elements already built into the programme, for example, film studies, and public speaking and debating. In addition to planning for academic outcomes, the programme should ensure that life skills are learned and it should build cross-curricular links. The TY plan needs to offer more opportunities for experiential learning and project work. An example is the production of a school magazine, perhaps targeted at the TY competition sponsored by The Irish Times. This would provide students with a challenging opportunity to develop writing skills and to integrate the use of ICT into the learning of English.
In reviewing the plan for English, some areas for development have been identified through the subject evaluation process. To begin with, the department should access the Department of Education and Science composite report, Looking at English as this would be a useful resource for future planning. The JC and LC syllabuses in the junior and senior cycle should inform the English plan and the TY plan should be consistent with the principles of the programme. With specific reference to the JC plan, the department should document the specific learning outcomes that are expected for each year of the cycle across the three areas of personal literacy, social literacy and cultural literacy in the four modes of speaking, listening, reading and writing. A range of methodologies should be documented in the plan with a particular emphasis on active learning.
There needs to be more concerted focus on independent learning in all year groups. This is particularly valuable for differentiation purposes. Research projects, for example, can be designed to challenge both the exceptionally able students as well as those who find learning challenging. Students are also provided with the opportunity to practise communication skills and to engage in collaborative learning through project work. In general, and given the range of ability in class groups, the department should document differentiation strategies in the areas of teaching, learning and assessment for all year groups, appropriate to age and cognitive development. Consultation could take place with the learning-support department in this regard. To plan for students in the upper range of ability, teachers are referred to Exceptionally Able Students: Draft Guidelines for Teachers that can be downloaded from the NCCA website: chapter five (“Classroom Strategies”) may be of particular interest and page seventy-five offers a model for teaching Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that could be adapted to other plays and tailored to the full ability range.
The department should plan for the integration of ICT into the teaching and learning of English. As an initial immediate step, the English department should carry out an evaluation of current resources available to the subject, the degree of current usage by students and teachers and an analysis of training needs. In general, the department needs to develop its own continuous professional development (CPD) policy and this should be documented in the plan and supported at management level.
To formalise and harmonise existing good practice, the English department should develop a subject specific assessment policy. The policy should emphasise both assessment for learning and assessment of learning. There should be agreement on the number of substantial written homework assignments to be completed in both the junior and senior cycle. A move to common assessment should take place in the event of an increase in school numbers or where there is more than one class group taking the same level. Information on assessment is available through the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) at www.ncca.ie.
There is discussion around choice of texts and decisions are made jointly where more than one class is formed in a year group in the junior cycle. There is some variation between teachers regarding the number of class novels and plays studied. In some cases, a very good range is chosen that is designed to challenge students. As the syllabus requires that students experience a “diversity of texts, materials and approaches” it is necessary to read in a variety of genres. Good practice should be standardised. The department should also liaise with feeder primary schools to establish what texts were read in fifth and sixth-class. As the school operates a book club for the incoming first years, and there is already a very good level of communication, such information should be easy to access.
The quality of lesson planning varied and some good practice was observed. In a minority of cases, preparation was limited to follow on activity that revolved around “reading the next pages of the text” rather than achieving any specific learning objective and there was limited preparation of resources.
Drama, language and poetry were the themes of the lessons observed and these were appropriate both to syllabus and class level. Good practice was observed where lessons were organised efficiently and purposefully. In most lessons students came to class prepared. Very good practice was observed where learning objectives were written on the board at the start of the lesson, or where questions were written on the board to give focus to learning. This good practice should be replicated in all lessons. It is recommended that the desired learning outcomes for all lessons be shared with students at the start of the lessons. The closing stage of the lesson should recap and review to assess if the learning outcome has been achieved.
Apart from text (either books or handouts), the most common resource deployed was the board and this was used effectively in the lessons observed. The board was used to record key points from the text and students’ contributions and to reinforce language and syntax. To supplement the board, and to use lesson time efficiently, consideration should be given to the use of an overhead projector with prepared acetates where appropriate. In the medium to long term, ICT should be deployed as a useful tool and the department should be moving towards the use of presentation software that would facilitate advance preparation of slides recording key points in addition to visual stimuli; eventually the use of an interactive whiteboard may be possible as the school develops its ICT resources. In addition to text resources and the board, it is recommended that a greater variety of resources be used, to include visual and aural resources.
The range of learning activities was fair overall. Good practice was observed where students were set the task of finding descriptive adjectives in the poem they were reading. Classroom discussion was encouraged in a lesson observed. In this case, the vast majority of the students’ contributed actively to the discussion and many were articulate and confident. A very small minority of students were insecure in their learning and therefore hesitant: such students should be kept under active review and strategies devised to build confidence. Some lessons consisted of reading from the text punctuated by questioning sessions for review purposes. Such sessions were designed to test student understanding of the material read. It is commendable that students were assigned the reading of specific roles in drama classes and many were enthusiastic as they competed for the opportunity. To build on this good practice, greater use should be made of drama techniques and greater emphasis placed on the specific features of the genre so that the concept of drama as a whole is learned. Question and answer sessions were the dominant teaching and learning strategy in lessons visited. Good practice was observed where a variety of question types was used. However questioning strategy needs to be reviewed in some instances. Far too many global questions were addressed to the group. This encouraged chorus answering and allowed more vocal students to monopolise lesson time or to speak out of turn while others disengaged. Some students did not contribute to classroom activity at all during the course of a lesson. This is a matter that should be redressed through careful lesson planning and execution. All students should be full engaged in learning activities. Questions need to be carefully planned: there should be a balance between global and targeted questioning and between lower-order and higher-order questioning. Students should be reminded of classroom etiquette and should only answer when asked. Good practice was observed where students who were asked questions were given adequate response time and where students listened attentively to their compeers.
The quality of interaction between students and teachers varied and excellent practice was observed in some lessons. In most cases, students contributed well to classroom activity. Care should be taken to challenge students when they reach conclusions that the text will not sustain or when they use critical language that indicates a misreading of a text. Students also asked questions in some lessons and this indicated a good level of engagement in the lesson. To encourage greater engagement on the part of all students, and especially those who are diffident, more group and pair work should be used and this should be carefully planned to achieve learning objectives. Cognisance should be taken of individual learning styles when devising teaching strategies. In order to give students more ownership of their learning, to cultivate an aesthetic taste and to develop the affective aspect of their engagement with English literature, it is recommended that students be encouraged to make direct, spontaneous responses to texts that they encounter for the first time, and, in the case of longer works such as novels, from time to time thereafter. Ideally, students should keep a personal response journal. Such a strategy would also encourage students to reflect on the text. A personal response diary would be valuable in TY so that students could review their personal growth through involvement in a diverse English programme that should provide opportunities to learn in different ways.
Students practise a variety of writing skills in homework exercises. Challenging tasks were set in the senior cycle and this is highly commended. However, there is evidence that some junior cycle answering in particular lacked content and students are not developing critical and evaluative skills through their writing. In practising comprehension-type answers or evaluative writing, students should be encouraged to develop full responses and to back up their arguments with evidence. The integration of writing and literature is commended in the TY programme where very good practice was observed. It is of particular importance that students enjoy the experience of language and that they develop their fluency both verbally and in writing. It is commendable that teachers checked students’ understanding of words they encountered in texts: in such cases, new words should be written on the board. Good practice was observed in a lesson where a rich, critical vocabulary was written on the board for students to note down and use. In cases where students are assigned creative writing exercises, they should be free to write from their own experience and to experiment with language, mood and tone without teacher prescription or restriction.
At the time of the evaluation, examination classes were being prepared for the state examinations. Good practice was observed in a senior cycle class where a structured and intense revision programme was implemented. This good practice should be replicated in all classes preparing for the state examinations. Ideally the revision programme should be shared with students and preferably documented.
Classroom management was good in most cases and most effective in lessons where high expectations were set, where lessons were carefully planned to cater for all students and where all students were engaged. Classrooms were used well in some cases to create a positive learning environment and to display students’ work. In others there is scope for development. Good practice should be shared.
A combination of continuous assessment and summative assessment is practised. The school holds in-house examinations twice a year; “mock” examinations are held for the third and sixth years. The school reports students’ progress to parents in a variety of ways such as formal reports sent home, journals, letters, phone calls and parent-teacher meetings. It is reported that the department carries out analyses of examination and test outcomes. The information gleaned should be used to inform teaching and learning strategies and to identify trends. It is reported that analysis of state examination results will take place at whole-school level in the next academic year.
Assessment for learning takes place through classroom observation and questioning and the marking of homework. Homework is regularly set and conscientiously assessed in many cases. The quality of written feedback given to students in their copybooks was very good in some samples seen. In others there is scope for development. Assessment should direct students’ learning. When the English department policy on assessment is completed and procedures fully agreed, consistent implementation should take place.
Students record their homework assignments in the student journal and good practice was observed in many instances. In others, while there was regular recording in the earlier stages of the academic year, less was noted in the second term. Consistent practice should be enforced.
Teacher records of assessment are kept, particularly of major assignments and in-house exams. Records of assessment across a range of skills are useful in creating accurate student profiles and practice should be agreed at departmental level.
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 English and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published October 2008