An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Donaghmede, Dublin 13
Roll number: 76085N
Date of inspection: 16 October 2006
Date of issue of report: 26 April 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Gaelcholáiste Reachrann, Donaghmede. 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.
Gaelcholáiste Reachrann is a small school, sharing a campus, and some teachers, with Grange Community College. Founded in 2001, the first cohort of students will sit the Leaving Certificate examinations in June 2007. Education is provided through the medium of Irish.
Timetabled provision for the subject is in keeping with the requirements of the syllabus. The allocation of an additional class period in sixth year is a generous support to preparation for the Leaving Certificate examination. Two class groups are formed in each year and the choice to take the higher or ordinary level course is delayed until the end of second year in junior cycle. This is very good practice as it allows students good time to settle into second level and to demonstrate their interests and abilities in the subject. Separate class groupings for each level are formed in senior cycle and lessons are timetabled concurrently to facilitate students’ choices.
General resource provision for the teaching and learning of English is very good. The principal English teacher has been allocated a classroom and has created a bright, stimulating and print-rich environment for learning. This attractive room has a strong ‘English’ atmosphere and displays include students’ projects and other learning material. The school also has plans to develop an English room in the new buildings as they develop. Teachers have access to audio-visual and make good use of these to deliver the subject. ICT resources are limited in the school and it is planned that teachers will make greater use of these when the school acquires its own computer room in 2009.
There are a number of strategies in place to promote and encourage reading, including a paired reading scheme, a reading club and participation in the MS Readathon. A mobile library has been set up, comprising texts particularly attractive to younger readers. It is suggested that extending this provision, through the purchase of books for students in second and third years, will support the work already underway to establish a more permanent library as the school develops.
There is a very good range of co-curricular activities pertaining to English available in the school. Students are given opportunities to participate in debating and in the Irish Times magazine competition and they have visited theatres to see professional productions of texts being studied. These learning opportunities allow them to practice the full range of language and literature skills taught in the classroom.
There are three teachers of English in Gaelcholáiste Reachrann and, given that one of these is also working in another school, the necessity of careful planning to ensure effective teaching of the subject is recognised in the school, which facilitates formal meetings of the subject team two or three times annually. Very good progress has been made in developing the subject department plan and the inclusion of a module on short stories in each year of junior cycle is good practice. It is particularly positive to see the emphasis on developing students’ oral skills in English in the plan for junior cycle classes.
Two teachers share responsibility for the fifth year group. This means that all fifth years are taught English together for two class periods by one teacher and those students taking the higher level course are taught in a distinct group for three periods by the other. This arrangement is a consequence of the small size of the school and the resulting limited teacher allocation. However, there was no evidence that it disadvantages students taking either course and this is due to the level of professionalism of both teachers involved. They meet on a weekly basis to plan for and review their work, not just with this group but across the six years in the school.
The programme planned for English in Transition Year is an ambitious one which reflects the commitment of teachers to providing students with a comprehensive preparation for the Leaving Certificate course. The opportunities planned for students to engage in a range of projects have the potential to encourage and advance the development of independent learning skills which will be particularly valuable in senior cycle.
There is ample evidence in the plan of close liaison between the English teachers and the learning support function in the school. Teacher plans reference the specific learning needs of individual students and the in-service support that has been made available to the whole staff to meet these. Responsibility for planning and delivering literacy support has been invested in the learning support teacher, who implements a thorough assessment process for all in-coming first years. In this way, difficulties and support needs are identified early.
The support programme offered focuses on helping students settle into and cope with the demands of second-level education. All first years do a study skills/organising for school course in September and, from October, those students identified as needing literacy support are offered subject focused support by their teachers in groups of four. A social skills programme is provided for all second years.
Work is on-going on the development of a learning support/resource teaching policy in the school, which is making good use of the support available from County Dublin Vocational Education Committee to advance this work.
The effectiveness of the subject department planning process was evident in the well-ordered and purposeful lessons observed. Clear objectives could be identified for each lesson and the necessary resources were available. Sharing the learning targets with students at the outset of a lesson, and using them to sum up at the end, is an excellent way to provide direction and focus for students’ attention. It is suggested that teachers in Gaelcholáiste Reachrann should consider how adopting this practice would complement the good work they are already doing to establish a strong working atmosphere in English classrooms.
The dominant teaching style in the classes observed was expository, with the teacher taking a lead role. This approach is best when it is coupled with well-prepared discussion sessions that are informed by the students’ personal responses to texts or research on the topic. An example of this was seen in a mixed ability junior cycle lesson on the maturing of a character in a novel. Here, the lesson opened with an opportunity for students to comment on the character, based on what they had read in earlier chapters. The teacher encouraged them to provide evidence for their opinions and used their contributions to build the lesson. This was followed by reading from a new chapter and each paragraph was punctuated by brief discussions, directed by the teacher, on what was being revealed about the character. There was scope in this lesson, however, to make use of the board to record students’ insights, perhaps in the form of a mind-map or bulleted points. In this way, students across the ability range may be better supported. This was done in a senior cycle lesson, revising a poem studied the previous year. The lesson was carefully structured to move students through a quick re-cap of what they already knew about the poem, towards a brief written exercise to be completed in pairs. A spidergram summarised the key points made and provided a model to students for organising their own ideas. It was noted that students in this class copied the diagram from the board without any prompting. Pair work, and other strategies which allow students to work independently of the teacher, is very good practice. It creates opportunities for students to learn from each other and for the teacher to offer discreet encouragement to less able students who may find some tasks challenging.
Teachers were particularly skilled in their use of questions for a variety of purposes. Questions checked comprehension and understanding of topics under discussion in the first instance. In these cases, they were directed to specific students, as is best practice. Questions which required students to analyse, predict or evaluate were also asked and these pushed students to explore and infer meaning themselves and to develop an informed personal opinion. When these questions were asked, teachers allowed students time for reflection and used them to extend students’ thinking.
Students were making good progress through their courses and their questions and contributions indicated a good understanding of their texts. Their written work reflected the range of ability in the school. The students on higher level courses were able to discuss and respond to their studied texts and to write well-supported extended pieces. Less able students lacked a clear sense of purpose in their writing and their arguments were poorly developed or sustained. Across the ability range, the written work in copies indicated that there are weaknesses in spelling and syntax. To address this, it is recommended that a module on formal elements of language should be included in the department plan for junior cycle. Best practice indicates that this should provide models of specific genres of writing to illustrate aspects of grammar and sentence structure and to guide students in creating the appropriate structure in their own writing.
In all the classrooms visited, a respectful atmosphere had been established in which students felt safe to pose their own questions. This was achieved by the friendly, conversational style of discussions and by the well-ordered learning environment created in the English room.
In general, there is a range of assessment modes used to assess student competence and progress. These include in-class questioning and the setting of regular homework exercises in order to check achievement of understanding and provide students with opportunities to practice newly acquired skills. In some instances, the teachers had set exercises which reflected the integration of language and literature in syllabus documents. Students wrote from the point-of-view of a character in a text studied, for example, so that links were established between texts studied and personal writing. This is very good practice as it develops students’ critical understanding and expressive skills and is an important teaching technique.
It is recommended that teachers develop their current practice in relation to feedback to students following correction of homework. Feedback is limited to light corrections in some cases and tick marking in others. It is suggested that moving beyond a grade or brief evaluative comment to affirm students’ efforts or offer clear suggestions for improvement, as is done in some instances, will help to develop students’ understanding and skills and motivate them to develop good learning habits for the future. The NCCA Assessment for Learning website may be helpful in this regard, www.ncca.afl.ie. In addition, it is recommended that more use should be made of criteria-based marking, which focuses on specific aspects of students’ work. This involves working with students to identify the specific skills targeted in homework exercises and sharing the success criteria with them. This helps them to understand what they are trying to achieve in homework and to know when they have achieved it.
Formal examinations are held for all students at Christmas and all non-examination year groups also have summer examinations. Common assessments will be in place for non-examination classes from this year and this is commended as excellent practice, as it allows for comparison of students’ progress across a year group and, as a result, careful planning to meet the needs of the students.
Parents are kept informed of students’ progress through the student journal and through written reports, which are sent home three times a year for all non-State examination year groups and twice a year for third and sixth years. Parents may also discuss their children’s progress at annual parent-teacher meetings.
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.