An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Easkey, County Sligo
Roll number: 72320A
Date of inspection: 14 November 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 Coláiste Iascaigh. 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 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 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 Iascaigh is a small school managed by County Sligo Vocational Education Committee. Students are offered courses leading to examinations in the Junior Certificate, Leaving Certificate (Established) and Leaving Certificate Vocational and Applied Programmes.
This year, a single mixed ability class group has been formed for first years. There are two second year classes, which are banded to allow ordinary and higher level classes to be taught separately. The small number of third year students form a single mixed ability class group, though the majority are expected to take examinations at higher level. Class groups at senior cycle are mixed ability which means that both higher and ordinary level courses are taught together. All students taking the Leaving Certificate Applied Programme (LCA) are taught together and this necessitates careful planning to ensure that all modules are covered with all students. The structure of the LCA facilitates this and students are progressing as appropriate. The school has identified the raising of achievement in certificate examinations as a key development priority and is commended for establishing an expectation that all students will attempt the higher level courses, as appropriate. The effectiveness of this strategy was evident in the very good participation rates in these courses and the successes achieved by students at examination.
General resource provision for the subject is good. Of particular note is the allocation of seven class periods per week to the subject in senior cycle. This level of provision is excellent and reflects the concern in the school that students are given every support to achieve their potential in certificate examinations. There is no dedicated English classroom and this is regrettable. The creation of a distinctly ‘English’ room has the potential to be a very valuable resource for students. It would allow for the display of their projects, of posters and other materials designed to support their learning, and provide a place where resources for teaching the subject can be centrally stored. Book shelving and book displays in an English room could also support the work planned to promote literacy and the habit of reading. There were some displays of students’ work evident in the classrooms visited, but these were minimal and dwarfed by the excellent displays created in other subject areas. This should be addressed by all teachers of English, who are aware of the latent value of the visual environment in supporting learning.
As the school does not have a dedicated library space, student access to good quality reading material is mediated through the teachers of English and the book stock available is limited. It is strongly recommended that strategies to encourage the habit of reading are developed. These could build on the work already done through the paired reading scheme for first years and might include D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything and Read) interventions, setting aside time in programmes plans for reading for pleasure or Book Weeks. To further support this work, it is recommended that library boxes should be assembled for use with each of the junior cycle year groups so that a selection of suitable and stimulating reading material is available. Advice on developing a school library is available from the School Library Association of Ireland and information about suitable texts can be had from Children’s Books Ireland or in Book Choice for Post-Primary Schools, a publication of the National Reading Initiative, which is available in all schools.
Teachers have access to audio-visual resources to support their teaching and they also have the use of the ICT facilities in the school. There was little evidence available that these are being used to deliver the English curriculum, other than in LCA where they are an excellent support to the programme planned. Teachers of English are asked to consider how they might use these facilities to provide students with access to a range of learning materials available on the ‘Net. ICT has potential as a motivational tool and can be used to develop mastery of basic literacy skills. Word-processing packages can be used to draft and re-draft students’ writing, for example, and can enhance their understanding of the writing process.
Teachers are commended for their efforts to provide students with opportunities to engage with writers and actors and discuss their work. Workshops held in the school allow students acquire a deeper understanding of the creative process and to see language used in a variety of contexts. The involvement of the LCA class in a ‘Creative Engagement’ project is particularly valuable as it involves working with a practising artist to complete a school project. The generosity of school management and teachers in facilitating these experiences is acknowledged.
The opportunity provided in Coláiste Iascaigh for teachers of English to meet formally is an excellent support to the teachers, not all of whom have English in their degrees, to plan for delivery of the syllabuses. Time is allocated three or four times a year to facilitate subject department meetings and additional informal meetings take place as needed. The English teaching team are making good use of the planning templates available from the School Development Planning website, www.sdpi.ie, to progress their plans for the subject in the school. The schemes of work produced by individual teachers provide a very good basis for developing the plan for the whole department and it is recommended that such a plan should interpret the syllabuses on a year-by-year basis, using those schemes as a reference point.
Individual teachers had very good planning documentation available, for example one teacher had generated weekly schemes of work for a senior cycle class group which referred to learning targets to be achieved each week, the content to be taught, the resources to be used and also recorded progress made each week. This level of planning clearly ensured that students in a mixed ability setting were progressing through their different courses at an appropriate pace. In general, however, the emphasis in individual teachers’ plans was on the content to be covered rather than on the learning to be achieved. It is recommended that teachers should include in their own plans for class groups a clear indication of the language and critical skills to be acquired by students. This shift in focus may also provide some direction regarding choice of content when teaching two courses simultaneously.
Planning for supporting students with learning difficulties is excellent. Close liaison with feeder primary schools and in-house formal testing allows the school to identify the particular learning support needs of students and plan accordingly. No support is offered to first year students until the second half of the first term and this is done to allow students settle into second level school and form friendships before they are withdrawn for support. A learning support class group has been formed in second year and the level of support in English offered to these students is excellent. In addition to their five lessons in English, they are also timetabled for support as a class group four periods a week and individual students are also receiving one-on-one support as necessary. Support continues into third year and senior cycle.
Parents are also involved in the support programme in the school and, at the time of the inspection, plans were underway to provide training in paired reading to the parents of second year students. This is highly commended as excellent practice.
Support is timetabled against Modern Languages or Irish in junior cycle, so that students in receipt of support do not take these subjects. The school is aware that this may limit their options in the future and is actively pursuing alternatives to ensure that all students who wish to may study French. It is recommended that consideration be given to the development of a whole school approach to literacy development and support. This would ensure that, for example, all subject teachers share a common understanding of the meanings of instructional terms such as “describe”, “define” and so on, thus establishing a necessary consistency in language use across the school. A literacy policy might also promote the teaching of subject-specific vocabulary in a consistent way also.
There are a small number of students who do not have English as their first language enrolled in the school and support is also offered to these against Modern Languages and Irish. In order to ensure that the support offered meets students’ needs in an effective, age-appropriate, manner, the school should make contact with Integrate Ireland Language and Training (www.iilt.ie) who make teaching and other support materials available to schools.
Teachers had prepared lessons well in all the classrooms visited. New information presented built on students’ prior knowledge and all lessons had a clear focus. This was most evident in those classrooms where the teacher shared the objective with the class and gave an overview of how it linked with homework. This was done in a junior cycle lesson observed, for example, where the teacher wrote the learning intention on the board at the beginning of the lesson and followed this by carefully checking students’ understanding of the concepts and terms which would be used.
Teachers used a range of support materials to help students work through their learning tasks. Handouts used in a junior cycle lesson provided students with directions on how to write a summary of the key points in newspaper reports and were clear and easy to use. The reports were well chosen to catch the interest of the students and the language in each was accessible to them. In one senior cycle classroom, the teacher had prepared detailed mind maps which were presented on a flipchart. These were used to develop a class discussion about the main character in a text and provided a model for how students might themselves organise their notes. This is a very good support to students in a mixed ability learning environment where two courses are being followed. A further example of excellent planning for the same class group was the fact that folders for every student had been prepared and the teacher had a practice of inserting relevant handouts and other supplementary material in these prior to the commencement of lessons.
In some classes, teachers integrated the teaching of language and literature and created links between texts studied and writing tasks. Having gained an understanding of how reports are constructed in one class, for example, students were asked to write their own newspaper account of a key event in a play they were studying. A brief question and answer session in class time on the main action in the episode was a good support to their completion of the exercise as a homework task. This thematic approach to English, linking themes across genre, is one that works well with students. It deepens students’ understanding and enjoyment of the texts and also provides an opportunity to use new knowledge and skills in different contexts. This lesson was successful because good use was made of models of a genre to support students’ own efforts and there was evidence in some students’ folders in another class that models of good writing across a range of genres had been provided. This is good practice, not least because such models can guide students in creating the appropriate structure and register for their own compositions. It is recommended that teachers of English should extend into all classrooms their use of creative modelling as a teaching strategy.
Teachers used questioning to check students’ understanding of the work being done and their responses were very positively affirmed. As a result, some interesting classroom discussions were facilitated. In general, a balance was maintained between questions directed at the whole class group and those posed to individuals, so that all students were ensured to be on task. Students with different levels of ability were catered for in all classes. However, it is suggested that the better able students should be pushed to develop their critical skills by asking them higher order questions from time to time and that these students be challenged further in the classroom rather than just being asked recall and comprehending type questions. This was done to good effect in some of the classes visited.
An examination of students’ copies indicated that they are making steady progress through their courses. In some cases, there was little evidence of opportunities to produce longer pieces of writing. Here, students generally completed tasks which required only short answer responses. This kind of work is particularly helpful where students’ recall and comprehension of a text are being measured or where the discipline of a tight focus on a question is being taught. However, students also need to practise composing longer responses, which allow them scope to engage in higher order thinking and analysis. Where students have produced extended pieces of writing, their ability to explore questions fully was evident as was their awareness of the importance of context and audience for their writing. Better able students demonstrated mastery of appropriate register and an ability to develop their responses to questions set. In some copies, it was evident that some students struggle with spelling and their mastery of syntactical structures was suspect. These latter tended to be comfortable tackling short answer questions and were reluctant to develop their answers. They should be pushed beyond this comfort zone. A review of homework set to date is suggested so that a balance between both types of exercise can be achieved.
Students’ learning was checked in class time through a combination of questioning and teacher observation, usually supported by the teacher’s movement around the room. Homework is set regularly in accordance with the school’s homework policy and students are provided with good feedback on their strengths and the errors they make. In some cases, teacher comments provided pointers to students on how they might better develop their arguments. In all cases, it was clear that the homework set builds on and develops the work done in class. During the inspection, it was observed that teachers quite often rehearse homework exercises in class as an additional support to students and this is acknowledged as a helpful strategy. In this way, students were clear not only about what was expected of them but how they might achieve it. To build on this good work, it is recommended that teachers of English should engage students in a discussion about the criteria which should be applied when evaluating homework, at the time when homework is set. This will create opportunities for students to acquire and practice critical thinking skills and will focus them more tightly on their own work.
Formal assessments are held for all year groups at Christmas and for non-examination classes at the end of the year. Examination classes sit mock examinations in place of the summer tests. In addition to parent-teacher meetings which are held annually for all year groups, parents are kept informed of students’ progress through reports which issue twice annually.
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.