An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Westport, Co. Mayo
Roll number: 72160E
Date of inspection: 10 October 2006
Date of issue of report: 21 June 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in english
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Carrowbeg College, Westport, Co. Mayo. 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 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.
Carrowbeg College’s timetable provision for English is in line with syllabus guidelines. Students of English have five classes per week in first, second, and third years and a generous allocation of six classes per week in fourth and fifth years. Also, the distribution of classes is very good since English is timetabled on all five days for all year groups. English is studied in mixed-ability classes by all students because each year group consists of only one class group.
General resource provision for the teaching of English in Carrowbeg College is good. One classroom functions as the designated base room for English (and French), thus facilitating resource storage and the creation of a print-rich environment in that room. Teachers have access to a TV, VCR/DVD and CD player; to appropriate DVDs; to a digital video camera; and to literacy-support software and broadband-enabled computers in the school’s computer and resource rooms. The school makes funds available for the purchase of resources on request where possible. A book rental scheme for first and fourth years initiated in 2006 will be extended to all year groups by September 2008. Finally, since March 2006 work has been ongoing to build up the school library’s book stock and to develop stronger links with the local Westport public library to promote personal reading to all groups. Such actions are commended.
Among the co-curricular and extra-curricular activities that support the teaching and learning of English in Carrowbeg College is the preparation of students to achieve the President’s Award, to participate in public speaking and debate events, and to travel to theatrical productions. Writers in residence, guest speakers, and drama groups also work with students in the school from time to time. (The fact that one of the PLC courses Carrowbeg College regularly runs is a FETAC Level 5 course in Drama and Theatre Studies is helpful in this regard). Finally, key co-curricular highlights that supported students’ progress in English in the past include students’ participation in local arts festivals and students’ 2003 trip to the EU Parliament in Strasbourg as EU Ambassadors and their 2005 trip to Áras an Uachtaráin. The management and English teachers of Carrowbeg College are highly commended for their commitment to providing such stimulating co-curricular and extra-curricular activities for their students.
English teachers wishing to engage in continuous professional development are encouraged and supported in Carrowbeg College. Among the courses that have been attended by the teachers are courses on information and communications technology (ICT), on special needs, and an Inspectorate presentation on subject inspections of English. Another form of professional development both teachers have engaged in has been working as SEC examiners for English. Moreover, both teachers have plans to attend SLSS courses on aspects of post-primary English in the future and one is currently completing a Postgraduate Diploma in Education Studies (Positive Behaviour Management) through the SLSS. This shared commitment to continuous professional development is commended. Given that one of the teachers in the department was not able to participate in the official in-service that accompanied the introduction of the new Leaving Certificate syllabus, it is advised that the department organise in-house discussions on the main methodological and assessment innovations contained in that syllabus. Irrespective of whether or not individuals are/will be teaching LC English in the immediate future, collaboratively examining the Draft Guidelines for Teachers of English, Resource Materials for Teaching Language, and the LC syllabus itself will be a very useful stimulus for generating in-house professional discussion and development. Finally, the department is encouraged to continue consulting 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 (http://www.education.ie/servlet/blobservlet/insp_looking_at_english.pdf?language=EN).
At the beginning of the 2006-07 school year, the English department began the formal process of subject department planning to complement and enhance existing practices of individual planning and of informal consultation. Rather than appointing a single subject department co-ordinator, the two teachers of English share this work in a collaborative fashion. Before the evaluation, the teachers had engaged in subject department planning on a number of occasions during their free time. This commitment is commended. The other necessary support to the process will be the allocation of time for subject department planning during future staff meetings/development days. By the time of the evaluation, the English department had prepared a draft subject department plan that included a very thoughtful articulation of aims and objectives, curriculum content plans for each year group, and descriptions of planned co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. Looking toward the future, the following subject department planning recommendations are made.
First, it is recommended that the subject department further develop its curriculum content plans into schemes of work, starting with the plan for first years. At the outset, the department should identify what it considers the most appropriate student-learning outcomes (knowledge, skills, and attitudes) that need to be developed with those students. (See materials such as the JCSP learning targets for English for examples of such learning outcomes). To ensure that its first-year scheme of work delivers those specific learning outcomes, the department should ensure that units of work communicate the department’s common assessment expectations and approaches (see the “Assessment” section of this report) and that they plan for differentiation (either by text-selection, process or outcome) for the different literacy and cognitive levels in classes. Equally, the scheme should set out explicitly how, in the course of that year, teachers will incrementally set about honing their first-year students’ writing skills (by developing their pre-writing, drafting, proofing, editing, and modelling 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. Once the first-year scheme units and their sequencing are agreed, the same process should then be employed, over the coming years, to prepare schemes of work for the other year groups. Teachers’ existing schemes (for mainstream English and for learning-support and resource work) will constitute an important foundation for, and aid to, this work.
Second, it is recommended that the department formally document the methodological strategies its members find most effective for student learning and supplement them with new strategies through group sharing of current practice and through research, where necessary. Handouts from professional development courses and copies of teaching strategies and resources being used by the learning-support and resource team could also be included in this section, if considered relevant. Where the department identifies a gap in its own methodological or resource repertoire, it may find useful supports in the teacher guidelines for Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate English, the inspectorate report Looking at English, the Junior Certificate Schools Programme publication Between the Lines, the TESS magazine and website, the NCCA website and teacher websites on the internet. Clearly, this sharing of in-house expertise and resources will equip all department members with a greater range of teaching strategies, thus heightening students’ enthusiasm for the subject even further.
Third, it is recommended that the assessment section of the plan be further developed. (See the “Assessment” section of this report). While Carrowbeg College’s whole-school homework policy will be a key document in that section, so too will 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 student work across the ability range for peer assessment and creative modelling purposes.
Consequently, over the coming years, the subject department plan for English will bring together year-group schemes, methodological strategies and resources, assessment approaches and practices, a list of the resources available in the school to support the teaching and learning of English, agenda and minutes of subject department meetings, relevant teacher guideline and syllabus documents, SEC chief examiners’ reports and marking schemes, TESS materials, and so on. Ultimately, what is envisaged is a planning process customised to the needs of the students of Carrowbeg College. Such subject planning will not only support the teaching and learning of English, but it will also support the process of school planning.
In all classes observed, the range of work planned was appropriate. The careful preparation of materials to be used in lessons indicated that teachers were engaging in short-term planning. Detailed daily, termly, and or yearly plans were presented for inspection. The best of them included evidence of review (such as brief reflective notes on how lessons could be improved/extended with future class groups). Such careful preparation shows great dedication.
Evidence of very good, student-centred literacy support for students of Carrowbeg College was gathered during the evaluation. (Literacy and numeracy support are the core components of learning support. This report will only discuss literacy support). For every in-coming student, available psychological reports are collected, diagnostic assessments are conducted, and information is gathered from the student’s sixth-class primary teacher (where appropriate), from his/her parents, and from relevant agencies to build up a profile of the student’s strengths and areas for development. Based on that information, on teacher observations, and on parents’ observations and consent, eligible students are provided with small group support. Regular re-testing is used to track students’ progress. Subject teachers are kept informed of students’ specific learning needs informally during breaks in the staffroom by the English teacher who also functions as the school’s learning-support co-ordinator. Finally, the school has a spacious resource room that is decorated with students’ artwork and written work, and that is equipped with computers, a bookcase for high-interest-low-reading-age readers, and with print and software learning-support resources.
Literacy support in Carrowbeg College explicitly promotes reading through the use of paired reading approaches, of teacher-drafted and typed short stories based on students’ interests for comprehension work, of visits to the Westport public library, and of lessons devoted to teaching “survival vocabulary” to students. Purposeful writing is another integral part of the literacy support provided to Carrowbeg College students. For example, one strategy that has been found to be effective is asking students to articulate their goals and how education might help them achieve those goals in writing and in artwork. In particular, the school has found that lifeskills classes have significantly helped students with significant special educational needs. When the learning-support co-ordinator identifies a literacy/cognitive problem a student is having in the classes of his/her subject teachers, the co-ordinator then designs experiential learning activities to help the student master that difficulty, in consultation with the school’s designated NEPS psychologist. Among the life skills activities that have been designed to remediate individual student literacy problems have been trips (with parental consent and with an SNA) to the library to fill out a borrower’s card and to select books for personal reading; to the shop/post office/butcher’s to purchase items on a list supplied by the parent/guardian. Related functional writing tasks that students have been asked to complete include preparing a fictional garda report on the loss of an ATM card, filling in application forms for a credit union/bank account, a passport, a provisional driving license, and so on. Similarly, students’ oral communication skills have been developed by interdisciplinary life skills approaches such as preparing students to publicly present their artworks to an audience. For its design and delivery of experiential units of work rooted in the student’s locality, the learning-support department is particularly commended. School management is commended for encouraging and facilitating such holistic education opportunities for students with profound literacy and communicative needs.
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. While all lessons observed were focused on a particular objective, that objective was primarily defined in terms of progressing through a text in some classes. Best practice is when lessons are planned to serve specific student-learning outcomes and when those learning outcomes are shared at the outset of the lesson with the learners. Such explicit sharing of the desired learning outcome(s) 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, group work was an area where precise instructions were not communicated. It is encouraged that students’ understanding of the roles they are required to perform within a specific group, of the end-product that the group is expected to produce, and of the timeframe assigned for task completion be checked through questioning before groups commence working.
The resources used by the English teachers over the course of the evaluation included handouts, textbooks, black/whiteboards, students’ family photographs, revision notes, a teacher-compiled book of poems for junior cycle study, and exemplars of advertisements pre-cut out and sorted from magazines. It was also reported that film clips are sometimes used by teachers to consolidate the teaching of specific texts. 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 and of poems being read by their authors, educational websites, concrete artefacts (such as the use of props associated with texts as discussion and revision aids) be more frequently used in the teaching and learning of English.
The uses of the blackboard/whiteboard observed over the course of the evaluation included the setting of homework assignments, writing support notes on the board for students to transcribe, and students writing brief summaries of scenes studied for homework on the board at the prompting of the teacher. These are sound educational practices and are commended. However, more written reinforcement of new vocabulary, grammatical and syntactical features and of pre-writing and writing strategies is essential for the incremental development of students’ writing skills. Other structured blackboard/whiteboard uses the department might find useful could include providing students with more writing frames for organising their ideas and information, using different coloured markers/chalks to help students discriminate between headings and subpoints, and the consistent use of vocabulary and homework columns. 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 varied from whole-class questioning to a mix of directed and open questioning. Where best practice was observed, questions were carefully sequenced and graduated, leading students to higher-order thinking and encouraging them to make personal aesthetic responses. Building on this shared methodological strength, guiding questions should also be set by teachers before they ask students to view/read unseen texts, 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 and student reading, group work, brainstorming, oral presentations, and peer learning (where students were asked to listen to and comment on samples of others’ work read out to them). Evidence was also gathered of the use of teaching strategies such as visualisation (students imagining and designing their own advertisements) and creative interventions (students identifying themselves as characters in a text and imaginatively writing from those characters’ perspectives to other fictional characters). Both teachers built on students’ prior knowledge and experiences to deepen their understanding of texts being studied or to stimulate skill development. For example, students’ awareness of the prejudice sometimes encountered by persons of Muslim faith in Western societies had been activated by teacher-led discussions in one class to help students understand the character of Shakespeare’s Othello. Similarly, students’ familiarity with CSI and other forensic detective television shows was drawn on in teasing out the theme of the poem “The Identification.” Such linking of lesson topics/tasks with students’ personal experiences is highly commended. To ensure that all students get the benefit of the excellent pedagogical practices taking place in individual classrooms, it is recommended that the English department pool its teaching resources and professional expertise as part of the subject department planning process.
In terms of identifying pedagogical areas for further development across the department, the following two recommendations are offered. First, the department should pool its resources and strategies in relation to teaching the process and subskills of writing. A consciousness of the need to teach writing skills already existed in the department before the evaluation, as evidenced by the designation of one of the senior cycle English classes as a writing class in September 2006. This initiative is commended and it is encouraged that a designated writing class be established for all junior cycle classes as well. Not only can these classes be used for teaching writing skills, but they can also be used for in-class writing exercises, so that writing becomes a natural activity for students over the course of their school careers. Explicit, incremental teaching of writing strategies (such as the five “W” questions) to help students structure their ideas and of the various stages of the writing process (getting students to prepare an initial draft of an essay and then requiring them to edit their work to produce improved second, and possibly a third, draft) will provide students with an even firmer foundation for their learning in all subjects. So too will the systematic departmental promotion of language development (where a teacher records new words/phrases encountered in a lesson on the whiteboard and requires students to transcribe that new information into their designated vocabulary copies) and the integrated teaching of grammar, spelling, and punctuation through literary texts. Second, it is recommended that the department continue to expand its repertoire of active learning methodologies by experimenting with techniques such as prediction, language games, Readalong, teaching with ICT, team teaching, role play, and hot-seating. (See pages 68-69 of the Draft Guidelines for Teachers of English – Leaving Certificate English Syllabus).
Very good rapport between teachers and students was evident in all classrooms visited. Teachers consistently affirmed students’ responses and integrated them into the lessons. While the presence of a few potentially challenging students in a few classrooms was noted, discipline was sensitively maintained in all classes. Almost all students observed were attentive and engaged in their learning. To stimulate that disengaged minority, it is recommended that more audio-visual resources, differentiation, and active learning approaches be used. However, for these actions by the teachers of English to have maximum effect, they will need to be supported by a whole-school literacy policy. In particular, it is advised that concerted efforts be made to increase the literacy levels of first-year students. Useful starting points for prompting school-wide discussion and planning on this issue would include the JCSP publication Between the Lines, educational websites such as www.literacytrust.org.uk, and approaches for literacy teaching in various subjects developed by Integrate Ireland Language Training (www.iilt.ie).
In all classes observed, teachers had made efforts to create motivational print-rich environments to support their teaching of English. The English-related resources displayed in rooms included posters of Shakespeare’s plays and of his world, student-designed advertisements, hand-drawn character sketches to support the study of Othello, posters advertising the M.S. Readathon and for tracking students’ progress in relation to that challenge, and an excellent character map (to help students remember the interrelationships between characters in Wuthering Heights). Other visual aids teachers may wish to develop and display in their classrooms could include commercial posters advertising books, plays, films, and or literary events/festival; visual aids to reinforce key concepts and skills of courses (the structure of the JC and LC English examinations, colour-coded representations of the single and comparative texts for senior cycle English students, strategies for reading unseen poems, key quotations from plays) and more samples of students’ written work in various genres. The department is commended for striving to provide a motivational environment for its students.
A range of assessment modes is used to monitor student competence and progress in English in Carrowbeg College, including oral questioning, written assignments, oral presentations, and formal examinations. One teacher also uses assessments as diagnostic instruments, identifying common errors in students’ corrected essays and then designing follow-up lessons to address those errors. This is best practice. Appropriate class records of students’ results are kept using a teacher diary system. Also, a whole-school homework policy is another support to the assessment of students’ work.
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. Best practice in relation to the setting of homework was noted in a number of classes over the course of the evaluation. In one class, homework activities were written on the black/whiteboard for students to copy down before the end of class. After transcribing the task, students were then questioned to ensure that they clearly understood the work they were expected to do. In another class, specific instructions were given to students on how homework was to be presented and on the criteria that work should meet (page length, number of points and quotations required.) It is recommended that such practices be adopted consistently across the department.
From a review of student copies, it was evident that homework was being set and corrected in all classes. However, variations in the treatment of student work were noted. The department is encouraged to discuss this issue and to arrive at a consensus on it, so that teachers’ responses to students’ writing are relatively consistent from first to fifth 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.
Over the coming years, four other aspects of departmental assessment policy should be developed. First, consideration should be given to the allocation of some marks toward end-of-term results for tasks such as homework completion, essay work, spelling tests, folder maintenance, oral presentations and/or project work. Such an approach to assessment would be more student-centred because it would combine measures of students’ progress in relation to the specific learning outcomes for their year group with results awarded for their performance in formal examinations. Second, the English department should agree its homework expectations (types and amounts of homework assignments, minimum number of essays per year, standards of presentation in copies, copy and or folder systems of organisation for junior and senior cycle students so that they can easily access their notes for revision purposes at the end of both cycles and so on) as part of the subject department planning process. Third, 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 developed using the criteria for assessment that were published as Appendix 1 to the LC English syllabus materials for senior cycle students and possibly by using a simplified version of those criteria with junior cycle students. (See http://english.slss.ie/resources/Appendix_1_HL_and_OL.pdf). Fourth, the department and school management should systematically compare students’ results in SEC examinations with national norms and use SEC chief examiners’ reports and marking schemes in reviewing those comparisons, as a reference point for the guidance of future examination candidates to the appropriate level and for tweaking examination preparation techniques as appropriate.
All non-examination classes are assessed at Christmas and at the end of the school year. In addition, third and fifth-year students sit pre-certificate examinations every spring. Parents are informed of students’ progress through the issue of school reports, at twice-yearly parent-teacher meetings, and in individual meetings requested by parents or where parents have been invited to the school to discuss a student’s progress.
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.