An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Saint Dominic’s College
Cabra, Dublin 7
Roll number: 60731F
Date of inspection: 1 and 2 May 2007
Date of issue of report: 8 November 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Dominic’s 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 deputy 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.
St Dominic’s College is a large and long-established all-girls’ school situated in Cabra. Major building work is being carried out in the school at present and, while this was causing some logistical problems at the time of the inspection, both staff and students are looking forward to the new facilities and additional accommodation that will soon be available. The school is proud of its long tradition and its reputation for high standards of attainment. It has also demonstrated an innovative spirit and offers both an optional transition year and the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programmes in the senior cycle.
The school timetable makes good provision for English in the senior cycle in both the number and distribution of lessons. Transition year students have three English lessons per week and in addition each of the three class groups has a ten-week drama module. English is timetabled every day in fifth and sixth year and the class groups in each year are timetabled concurrently. Concurrence facilitates students who may wish to change level; it also assists teachers to work collaboratively and should therefore be a focus of planning for the delivery of the subject. Students following the LCA have four lessons per week in both years and this is in line with the recommended provision.
All years in junior cycle are timetabled for four English lessons per week. It is recommended that the current provision be reviewed and specifically that the possibility of increasing the number of lessons in first year from four to five be investigated as a priority. This is recommended in order to build and to reinforce on a daily basis the essential skills identified in the junior certificate syllabus and guidelines. For example, a fifth lesson in first year would facilitate the delivery of a planned reading programme which could be designed to develop students’ listening, speaking and writing skills as well. An immediate recommendation for next year’s timetable is that the four lessons of English always include a lesson on Monday and on Friday in order to minimise the gap between lessons.
Thirteen teachers are currently teaching English in the school. Such a relatively large number makes it quite difficult to arrange subject department meetings and to maintain collaborative practices. In addition, five teachers take one or two class groups only and two of these are currently teaching first year class groups only. While the demands of timetabling and of teachers’ other subjects are acknowledged, it is best to aim for a deployment of the English teaching team which gives the greatest opportunity to teachers to teach a range of years, levels and programmes, thereby developing their sense of the subject as a continuum of skills and knowledge from first year to sixth year. In particular, a system of rotation should operate so as to ensure that teachers of English have the opportunity to teach both higher and ordinary level, and that the teaching of first year English is an integral part of their work. Flexibility in deployment also serves to extend the range of experience and expertise available within the subject department.
In the junior cycle, classes are formed within broad ability bands which are established in first year following pre-entry cognitive ability tests. The merit of a greater element of mixed ability in class formation was discussed with the teaching team and with the senior management in the course of the inspection. It was suggested that consideration be given to a greater mixing of the upper and middle bands in first and second year in order to allow students time to demonstrate the level of their ability in the range of skills identified in the syllabus. The possibility of timetabling English concurrently in third year could also be investigated as it might be timely at that point to group students on the basis of the level at which they are likely to take the certificate examination.
Literacy support in the junior cycle is provided for through a combination of additional teacher deployment and an element of concurrent timetabling. The two class groups in the lowest band are timetabled concurrently for English and an additional teacher is timetabled to allow the creation of a third class group. The greater level of individual attention and monitoring possible in these smaller groups was observed to be beneficial to these students whose varying needs appear to be well catered for. However the current practice of timetabling additional ‘Social English’ lessons for students who do not take Irish or French means that some students have as many as twelve lessons of English every week with the literacy support teachers who consequently have a high number of timetabled lessons. While additional lessons will be helpful to some students, the present situation does not represent the best use of the literacy support teachers’ time. It should be reviewed before the next academic year and dedicated planning time should be allocated to the literacy support department. A dedicated budget for literacy support would enhance both the planning and provision of resources. It was noted that the issue of specific budgets is being actively discussed by senior management at the moment.
In the area of language support, lessons in English as a second language (ESL) are provided for newcomer students in the school. These lessons should be referred to as ESL rather than TEFL in all school documents. The ESL teacher was familiar with the support offered through City of Dublin VEC. It would be useful to make contact also with Integrate Ireland Language and Training (IILT) in order to avail of the resources they provide, including the European Language Portfolio and the language proficiency benchmarks (www.iilt.ie) .
The school has a spacious and well-stocked library and a member of staff acts as librarian. The space itself was not seen to best advantage during the inspection because of the building work taking place but it is certainly impressive. Its regular use as a study hall has made it less available to teachers wishing to bring class groups there and they hope that in future the library can be more easily accessed in order to foster the habit of private reading for pleasure as well as to facilitate reference and research. Greater access to the library would also assist in the implementation of recommendations made in an earlier subject inspection report.
Teachers have access to audio-visual equipment and a good stock of films on video and DVD. At present teachers do not have assigned classrooms but this is soon to change. The English teaching team has identified this as an opportunity to develop classrooms as a resource for the subject with displays of students’ work, book and film posters, word charts and other visually stimulating material to create a text-rich learning environment. These plans are to be commended.
The school takes advantage of its relative proximity to the city centre and to DCU to arrange regular theatre trips and to invite writers and storytellers to speak to the students. Debating has a high profile in the school and students have competed successfully at local and national level. In a most praiseworthy initiative, transition year students organise a debating competition for local schools as a fundraiser for Respect. Senior management and the teachers of English are commended for facilitating and organising these co-curricular activities.
School development planning (SDP) is an ongoing process in St Dominic’s. The principal and the SDP co-ordinator have weekly meetings and current planning activity is focusing on induction and assessment procedures for incoming first years and also on the use of the additional accommodation. SDP has had an impact on subject department planning and on formalising arrangements for planning. In the current school year two two-hour sessions were devoted to subject department meetings and this arrangement is currently under review. It is suggested that a formal meeting every term would be useful.
The teaching team has agreed a system of rotating co-ordinator with a one-year tenure. The possibility of extending this term of office could be explored in the interest of continuity, but this should be balanced against the need to ensure that the system of rotation is carefully maintained so that everyone has an opportunity to experience the role in a way that builds collegiality and mutual support. Records of meetings are kept in the English planning folder which is maintained by the co-ordinator. An emphasis on action planning is evident from these records. Particularly commendable is the focus on developing and sharing teaching materials and resources, and on identifying specific objectives for English in first year, transition year and fifth year. This kind of targeted planning, which goes beyond discussions on choice of texts to considerations of effective methods and the sharing of good practice is the right way forward and should be pursued.
The planning folder contains a programme for first year based on the syllabus and guidelines and adapted to meet the specific needs of different class groups. The inclusion of some extracts from the primary curriculum for English is both unusual and commendable, particularly in relation to the planning for first year, as it emphasises the continuum of skills. Further planning for other years along the same lines is the next step to take. When there is greater access to computers, it is suggested that the possibility of keeping all planning documents and related materials in an electronic folder be investigated.
Among the documents in the English planning folder are the previous subject inspection report on English and notes on matters arising from it. One of the issues raised in the previous report concerns the need to plan coursework and to choose texts so as to accommodate students who may need or wish to change level. From the records it appears that teachers would like to make their own individual choices, for example in relation to the comparative texts. Consideration could be given to agreeing on one comparative text initially and deferring the choice of the other texts until teachers have a sense of what is likely to work best for the particular class group. A level of consensus in relation to text choice also assists in identifying and working towards agreed learning outcomes, sharing resources and developing common assessment procedures, all of which the English teaching team has identified as desirable.
An outline of the transition year English programme is included in the planning folder. In keeping with the earlier recommendations on teacher deployment across a range of programmes, it is recommended that planning for both the transition year and the Leaving Certificate Applied programme be collaborative and call on the collective wisdom and experience of the teaching team. In the case of both these programmes, students should be made familiar with the plan for the year’s work, perhaps through having their own copy of the year plan.
The form to be used for referral of students for possible literacy support is also included in the folder. The form itself and its inclusion are exemplars of good practice and, along with other material relating to the provision of literacy support, suggest a good level of liaison between literacy support and the mainstream subject teachers. Planning for literacy support is well documented and structured. Dedicated time to carry out assessments and draw up individual learning plans is required, and the recommendations already made in the previous section on the deployment of the learning support allocation are intended to address this need.
There was considerable evidence of individual planning by teachers. This is commendable and should be seen as complementary to the collaborative subject planning which has already been discussed.
Eight lessons were observed during the course of the inspection, involving class groups in all years and programmes. Lessons were generally well paced and structured and covered an appropriate volume of material. The practice of beginning the lesson with a statement of the topic and learning objectives was observed in a number of lessons and should be followed in all cases as it creates a focus and a sense of purpose at the outset. Good preparation for lessons was evident in the materials distributed to the students and the range of references teachers drew on in their commentary on texts and topics.
The board was used in a number of lessons to note important points made during class discussion. Where discussion of a topic is used as a pre-reading exercise to engage students’ attention, it should be structured and directed towards the learning objective so that it becomes more than chat or anecdote as often happens with younger students. Recording relevant points from the discussion on the board is a simple and effective method of keeping students on target. The board was also used to give students a framework of headings for written assignments, thereby offering them a model of how to plan their own writing. Work on the board should be set out very clearly given its exemplar function, and the use of a separate spelling and vocabulary margin is to be encouraged so that the board does not become cluttered.
Some very good instances of the preparation of imaginative resources were observed. In a junior cycle lesson, students engaged very readily in a pre-reading ‘brainstorm’ exercise on the title of a love poem, jotting down their ideas on a simple but eye-catching handout, a pink page with a heart containing the title word, “Valentine”. Having read the poem, they were able to see and discuss the difference between stereotypical love imagery and the poem’s striking originality. In the same lesson, visual props were used as a way of actualising the poem’s symbolism and this was also most effective, prompting some very perceptive responses. In a senior cycle lesson in which students were revising the main events in a play, they had to select and arrange in the correct order flash cards, each one of which contained a plot detail. This was a well-prepared group-work and active learning exercise and this kind of carefully prepared resource also has the merit of being re-usable with any group studying that text. It should be noted that the shared development and use of such resources is one of the great strengths of collaborative work practices.
Questioning was used effectively to stimulate discussion and to lead students towards deeper thought and engagement. It is commendable that most questioning did not focus on the recall of facts but rather sought and often elicited a higher order of response, requiring students to read for implied meaning and to consider and accept the complex nature of some of the material they were dealing with. This was particularly noticeable where students were engaging with poetry. With this level of questioning, it is important that students be given time to formulate a sufficiently thoughtful response and that teachers resist the temptation to finish students’ thoughts for them. Students should instead become accustomed to prompts to take their thoughts a step further or to follow them through to some conclusion which they know they can support. In this way, class discussion becomes a stimulating prelude to the students’ own writing, especially where time is given within the lesson for students to write down the various ideas that have been put forward.
Some very good practice was observed in relation to the development of writing skills. In one junior cycle lesson, a reading of a short story provided the springboard for a creative modelling exercise in which the focus was on writing an effective climax to a story. Students identified the emotions triggered by the climax of the short story and then, through questioning, investigated the techniques used, noting sentence structure, choice of words and point of view. They then applied these techniques in the short story writing exercise they were currently working on. At a further stage in the writing, they were asked to read over their work and make one change which would further heighten tension. This ‘re-read and change’ technique teaches students how to be critical readers of their own work, and is extremely effective when handled in the focused way that was observed here. This technique can of course be applied to all writing exercises, whether creative, critical or factual, and can also be a useful way of formalising basic proof-reading. All students should be encouraged to re-read work as if reading aloud; this is particularly useful in checking on punctuation and syntax.
In the lessons observed students were generally expected to take part in class discussion and activity and to be involved in their own learning. In some instances, discussion was strongly teacher-led, but it was noticeable that many students were prepared to respond with their own views and felt free to disagree with or to accept only part of an interpretation or opinion expressed by the teacher. That such independence of thought was encouraged is commendable. In planning the further development of successful methods, the English department could consider ways of encouraging less confident students to engage in these discussions. It is important that all students develop a sense of their responsibility for their own learning and it should be made clear to them that the work they do is primarily for themselves and their peers and not for the teacher.
The classroom atmosphere experienced throughout the inspection was positive and productive. A pleasant rapport existed between teachers and students, and classroom activity and interaction was characterised by co-operation and courtesy.
Questioning of named students, looking at students’ written work in class and observation of the level of students’ participation in class activities were used to monitor students’ understanding and progress in the lessons observed. The practice of circulating in class to check on students’ work and to offer assistance or instant feedback was noted in a number of lessons and is commended. This practice is particularly effective when the focus is on improving writing or answering skills. Chorus answering was dealt with by a clear ‘hands-up’ policy and teachers generally ensured that they directed questions at named students so as to ensure participation by most members of the class.
An inspection of students’ copies showed that students have completed a substantial number of assignments and that in many cases very helpful feedback has been given in the form of affirmative comment and clear suggestions for improvement. Teachers discussed with the inspector the difficulty of eliminating common errors from students’ writing, although they expressed the view that the standard of written work among their students is generally high. It is helpful to discuss with students the difference between proof-reading and developmental feedback. Proof-reading must be seen as primarily the students’ responsibility, once the teacher has prepared the ground by identifying, explaining and correcting common errors. Developmental feedback addresses issues other than the mechanics of accurate writing and is essential if students are to become more effective writers.
The practice of setting a written English assessment for incoming students has been discontinued although a number of teachers expressed the view that it was a helpful indication of a student’s level of competence. If the system of placing students in ability groups in first year is to continue, then an example of sustained writing by each student is a valuable discriminator in the case of English. Where Christmas, summer and other formal testing is being planned, the greatest possible use of common assessment and of agreed marking schemes is recommended.
The approach to assessment known as Assessment for Learning (AfL) should be further investigated by the English department as it forms part of the teaching and learning continuum: identifying the skills to be taught, then devising the most effective methods for developing them and the clearest means of assessing whether they have been learned. The April SDPI News Bulletin contains a useful article about AfL. It has been sent to all schools and is also on the SDPI web site (www.sdpi.ie). A key aspect of AfL is that students should be aware of the criteria on which they will be assessed. It is recommended therefore that the official documents giving assessment advice to teachers and students of Leaving Certificate English be accessed on the SLSS web site (www.slss.ie) and be included in the planning folder. Sharing goals with TY students through giving them a copy of the programme and the assessment criteria to be used for their assignments would also be a useful addition to the planned TY programme.
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.