An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Douglas Community School
Roll number: 91396R
Date of inspection: 17 May 2006
Date of issue of report: 26 October 2006
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Douglas Community School. 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 the 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.
Douglas Community School is an all-boys school. First- and second-year classes have four English lessons per week. This is adequate provision. Transition Year classes also have four English lessons per week and this is good provision. Fifth-year classes have five English lessons per week and this is good provision. The spread of English lessons across the week is appropriate, with students achieving the maximum number of class-contact points with the subject in all cases. Classes retain their English teacher for the duration of junior cycle and between fifth and sixth year. This is positive, allowing for the development of consistent pedagogical approaches with all class groups.
Classes in first year are of mixed ability. Classes in second year are organised using a system of banding, although in the recent past the school has moved closer to a system where the majority of classes are of mixed ability in second year. Currently there is a top band, a larger middle band of classes and a learning-support class. Transition Year classes are of mixed ability and this is consistent with the aims and aspirations of the Transition Year programme. Classes in fifth year are set. Students are allocated to class groups in fifth year based on their performance in the Junior Certificate examination and on their own wishes with regard to the level they want to attempt in the Leaving Certificate examination. Students’ placement is also informed by their performance during their Transition Year programme. English classes in first year, second year and Transition Year are not run concurrently. English classes in fifth year are run concurrently and this is worthwhile, allowing for the possibility of student movement between classes and levels where necessary. The teaching of different levels and cycles is allocated on a rotational basis. This is sound practice, allowing for the development of a wide skills base across the English department.
There is a school library. This is opened for students at lunchtime on selected days. First-year classes visit the library once a week and recitals are also occasionally held there. The school is currently in the process of redeveloping the library. The shelving has been renewed this year and a significant budget has been allocated towards the purchase of new books. Information and communication technology (ICT) facilities have also been provided. Parental support has been central to this endeavour. All of this is highly commendable. Further ideas which might prove useful in enhancing the library facilities include: the provision of occasional DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time for junior cycle students; the display of students’ book reviews in the library area; the promotion of reading competitions; teacher modelling of library use and the purchase of an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction texts. The latter texts may prove of particular benefit as a means of enticing reluctant readers to engage with the library. A useful resource for ideas in this area is the recent publication Room for Reading: The Junior Certificate Schools Programme Demonstration Library Project.
There is excellent access to audio-visual facilities for English teachers. Teachers are provided with baserooms and all English baserooms have a television, DVD, video and CD player. This is very worthwhile, particularly given the importance of film in the Leaving Certificate syllabus. Teachers’ baserooms have presses for the storage of resources. A senior teacher helps in co-ordinating resources available to English teachers in the library and throughout the school.
There are two computer rooms as well as computers in the staffroom for use by teachers. ICT facilities are also available in the learning-support room. The computer rooms have a data projector each and, in addition to these, there are a further two data projectors available for use outside of these areas. It is anticipated that a large number of computers will be provided for mainstream classrooms in the near future. Teachers mainly use ICT for research on the internet. There was also evidence of ICT use by students in the completion of some English genre exercises and projects. This is most creditable and teachers are encouraged to continue with and expand their adoption of ICT as an aid to teaching and learning in the subject where practicable. The occasional use of webquests by students in connection with project work might increase opportunities to integrate the language and literature elements of the syllabus, while appropriate use of wordprocessing packages for specific genre exercises would enhance students’ appreciation of the drafting and redrafting process which is central to all good writing.
A postholder has been appointed to co-ordinate induction for Higher Diploma in Education students. These students are assigned to a subject teacher for three weeks at the beginning of the year, during which time they observe classroom practice by the teacher in question. Following this period the teacher then sits in on the student’s lessons with the class for a period and the student subsequently begins to teach the class independently. The postholder responsible for mentoring Higher Diploma in Education students meets them on a weekly basis to discuss their progress. New English teachers have regular meetings with the principal and the deputy principal and are introduced to other members of the English department. Subject induction for new teachers then proceeds on a relatively informal basis. The school has also participated in a mentoring project for new teachers in the recent past. The school’s induction procedures for Higher Diploma in Education students and for new teachers are very good.
The school is supportive of teachers’ continuing professional development. Staff input with regard to relevant inservice training needs has been sought and courses have been provided by the Second Level Support Service (SLSS). Contact has also been made with the Special Education Support Service (SESS) on the area of provision for students with special educational needs. A number of English teachers have shown considerable commitment to their own professional development through their participation in a variety of postgraduate and online courses. This is most praiseworthy and, again, the school is supportive of these endeavours through the provision of photocopying and binding facilities for teachers participating in postgraduate work. The school pays for teachers’ membership of relevant subject associations. This is commendable and English teachers are encouraged to avail of the opportunities which membership of their subject association can afford them. The school is to be praised for its support of teachers’ professional development.
English teachers are involved in organising a wide range of co-curricular activities. Some of these include drama, visits to plays, public speaking, debating and visiting speakers. Teachers are to be lauded for their commitment in co-ordinating these events.
At present there is no subject convenor in English. There is a formal, scheduled meeting of the English department at the start of the school year. Informal meetings are held throughout the rest of the school year. The potential for formal meetings of the English department is somewhat hampered by the large number of teachers involved in the teaching of the subject. It is recommended that a subject convenor should be appointed for English. The position of subject convenor might be assigned on a rotational basis to allow for the distribution of leadership skills throughout the department. It is further recommended that departmental meetings in English should be organised on a more regular basis. This would facilitate greater collaboration and communication between members of the English department regarding best practice in the teaching of the subject. Agendas for these meetings should be drafted and minutes of the meetings kept. It is suggested that, given the large number of teachers in the department, the possibility of organising departmental meetings around the senior or junior cycle English teaching teams might be explored.
Currently there is no subject plan for English. It is recommended that the department should work towards the development of such a plan as a means of maintaining good practice and as a focus for discussion around teaching and learning in the subject. Typical areas for exploration in such a plan might include: the development of common, termly, skills-based plans that are focused on syllabus objectives; analysis of State-examination results and uptake versus national norms; the formalisation of links between the learning support/special educational needs department and the English department; use of ICT in the teaching of English; methodologies used in the teaching of English along with the rationale for their use and an assessment policy for the English department. A useful resource in the latter area is the assessment for learning project which is described on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) website at www.ncca.ie. It should be emphasised that each of the points outlined above should be dealt with in turn, in order to approach the development of the subject in a graduated, manageable way. A useful template for a subject plan can be found on the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) website at www.sdpi.ie.
There was some evidence of variation in junior and senior cycle to suit class context and interests. This is positive and teachers are encouraged to expand this practice where possible to allow for class context and interests. This should be done while maintaining a consciousness of the need for some synchronisation between texts studied by different class groups. The inclusion of a list of texts being studied in senior and junior cycle as part of the subject plan would be of benefit in this regard, allowing for a regular review of texts which were successful with particular class groups. This would also serve to bring into focus the need for some joint planning around texts to facilitate students’ movement between levels and class groups. Generally, students were given the opportunity to study a wide range of literature in each year of their course. Where this was not the case, it is recommended that opportunities to broaden the range of genres encountered by students in some junior cycle classes should be explored.
There is a subject-specific syllabus for English in the Transition Year programme. This is positive.
The school currently has eight language-support students. A qualified TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) teacher is employed by the school. The school has organised night classes in ESL (English as a Second Language) and maintains contact with a number of immigrant community groups. The school is conscious of the need to make links with language-support students’ homes and of the need to acknowledge and preserve students’ links to their native cultures, while also pursuing an inclusive policy. The school has been pro-active in the area of language-support. A further resource which may prove useful is the website of Integrate Ireland Language and Training at www.iilt.ie. Integrate Ireland Language and Training provides materials for language-support teachers as well as seminars on a twice-yearly basis for language support teachers and principals.
Students in need of literacy support are identified through a number of measures. The learning support teacher liaises with local primary schools regarding the learning needs of incoming first-year students. An assessment test is also held prior to entry and further tests are administered in September for students who have presented as having some difficulties. Retesting and continuous assessment are used throughout the year for those students who have been identified as being in need of literacy support.
Small class groups and in-class support are the main models used for literacy support. Withdrawal from mainstream classes is only occasionally utilised. Where this does occur, students are generally withdrawn from Irish classes contingent on the student being in receipt of an exemption from Irish. Otherwise, students are withdrawn from a rotating cycle of subjects in order to minimise the impact of such withdrawal on their learning in any one subject. In-class support is used in English and in any other subject where there is a strong emphasis on literacy. The widespread adoption of a flexible model of support, of which classroom support is a part, is highly commendable.
The school’s print- and text-rich learning-support room has very good ICT provision. A large bank of resources for literacy support has been developed, including high interest/low reading ability texts, literacy-support software and photocopiable resources. A paired reading programme is also organised between Transition Year students and junior students. This is most praiseworthy as such a strategy will not only augment the literacy skills of the younger students, it will simultaneously add to the senior students’ sense of civic responsibility and affinity with the school.
The school has a learning-support/special educational needs policy and has begun the process of developing individual education plans (IEPs) for students in receipt of resource hours. The school is encouraged to continue to advance its practice with regard to the creation and implementation of IEPs while incorporating these changes in the body of the learning-support/special educational needs policy.
Informal links are maintained between the English department and the learning-support department. These links are strengthened through a significant crossover of personnel between the two departments. A number of English teachers have taken courses in the area of special educational needs and this is most laudable. Learning support is also discussed at general staff meetings. Planning in the area of literacy support is very good.
Objectives were clear in almost all classes. Where this was not the case, students might have benefited from more explicit statements regarding the point towards which the lesson was moving. Written evidence of planning was presented in most classes. Teachers were affirming towards students and humour was often used as a highly effective classroom management tool. Teachers frequently linked lessons to students’ own experiences, thus awakening a greater interest in the topic being explored. Where teachers displayed energy and enthusiasm in presenting material, students responded in kind. There was a good relationship between students and teachers.
A wide range of resources was used in English classes. These included the whiteboard, television, DVD, magazines and advertisements, photocopies, the programme for a play and a countdown clock. The appropriation of a guidebook to New Hampshire in connection with the study of a poem by Robert Frost was imaginative and, overall, teachers displayed an awareness of the need for visual and concrete resources to harness the imaginations of students who might be less motivated by purely verbal presentations. It is suggested that the use of a dictionary and a thesaurus be incorporated into classes as normal practice amongst students. This would aid in vocabulary acquisition as well as familiarising students with the skills needed for the utilisation of such texts.
Questioning was used as a teaching and evaluative tool in all classes. Questions were distributed well across class groups. In some lessons a clear emphasis was placed on the asking of higher order questions. This was especially evident in a junior cycle lesson on advertising where the teacher required students to pick out features of advertisements while asking why they had been pieced together in the manner in which they had been presented. This was good practice.
Brainstorms were a frequent feature of English lessons and were combined in all cases with clear and dynamic whiteboard work. This was a sound approach, allowing for students to contribute in a structured and meaningful manner to lessons. In one instance, a brainstorm regarding a character in a senior cycle play, while effective, might have been added to still more through the linking of key characteristics to the relevant comparative mode.
Pair work was well managed in one English lesson and was combined with a clear emphasis on the expansion of students’ awareness of vocabulary. The use of this methodology was welcomed by students who displayed great enthusiasm when engaging with the exercise. In general, however, there was very limited use of pair work, group work and active methodologies in the teaching of English. Consequently, it is recommended that the English department should seek to expand its use of these strategies. Such approaches will aid with pacing and differentiation in classes with the consequent oral activities being of particular relevance to students with language support needs. It is suggested that a discussion regarding the use of pair and group work in English might form a very useful part of a future departmental meeting.
There was a good emphasis on language in English lessons. In one lesson, a clear focus on the imagery used in a poem was maintained and students were expected to unpack the impact of these devices following a reading of the poem. This was worthwhile. Teachers are encouraged to continue to maintain this focus on language in English lessons and, where appropriate, to integrate the study of language with the study of novels, plays and poetry still further. Thus, students’ encounters with a novel in junior cycle might be interspersed with work on newspaper reports, diary entries and other genre exercises which use the text in question as a ‘springboard’ for their imaginative engagement with these activities. This could have the additional effect of enhancing students’ experiences when reading through novels of significant length during the school year.
There was evidence of a print-rich environment in some English classrooms. This was particularly impressive in one instance where there was a heavy emphasis on the display of genre exercises completed by students. ICT was used in a number of these displays and this was most worthwhile. In general, the English department is encouraged to further expand the use of print-rich environments in English classrooms. Other ideas which could be of service might include the more widespread display of keywords, character diagrams and media posters. Such approaches would serve to enhance student literacy while also appealing to students’ visual intelligence. Seating arrangements in English classrooms were appropriate and rooms were neat and well maintained.
Generally, students were engaged in lessons. In classes where students were less engaged, the adoption of, or an earlier shift to, pair work or group work might have been of benefit. Students offered opinions on texts and answered questions well. In one class in particular a good understanding of language was displayed by students. In a number of classes students took notes diligently and there was some evidence of spontaneous note-taking. The use of a ‘keyword’ strategy in one junior cycle lesson was particularly successful, with students displaying a good understanding of how the approach was to operate, alongside an eagerness to contribute positively to the work being done. In another class, a student’s interest in the topic being explored was evidenced through his conducting independent research on the subject on the worldwide web.
The school has a homework policy. This is commendable. Appropriate levels of homework were assigned in almost all classes. In one instance, students might have benefited from greater expectations with regard to the levels of written work they were required to complete. Where difficulties with regard to students’ completion of written homework have presented themselves, it is suggested that a number of strategies might be utilised to counter this problem. The adoption of an assessment for learning approach might alleviate some difficulties with regard to student motivation. Equally, the careful storage of students’ copies might be of benefit, allowing for students to appreciate the build up of a body of written work over a period of time. The use of comment-based, formative assessment was evident in all classes and teachers are encouraged to continue with and expand this practice. The reading aloud of homework in one class was good practice, leading, as it did, to immediate feedback for students regarding what they had written.
In general, there was little evidence of the integration of the language and literature elements of the syllabus in students’ homework. It is recommended that the integration of these two elements should be increased in the assigning of homework and that a broad range of genres should be explored when utilising this strategy. Such an approach will not only increase students’ engagement with the literary texts they are studying, it will also enhance their awareness of the language skills which the syllabus demands.
A mixture of formal house examinations and class-based tests are organised throughout the year. Assessments are carried out in early October, late November and early December, mid-spring and at the end of the year. In the case of class-based tests, a week is set aside and the assessments are then organised by teachers for their own groups. It is suggested that the English department should begin to develop a process whereby common assessments could be set for classes in the same year group during formal house examinations, where appropriate. Such an approach would allow for the comparison of students’ performances across a year group while simultaneously alleviating needless duplication of effort on the part of teachers. The recent moves towards mixed-ability classes at junior cycle, along with the creation of common plans, should greatly facilitate this development.
Annual parent-teacher meetings are held for each year group. Parents receive reports regarding students’ progress four times per year. There is an active parents’ association and parents may arrange meetings with school personnel should the need arise. These arrangements are commendable.
The following are the main strengths and areas for development 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.