An Roinn Oideachais agus EolaŪochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of French
Saint Brendanís Community School
Birr, County Offaly
Roll number: 91491L
Date of inspection: 18 September 2006
Date of issue of report: 14 December 2006
Subject inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Brendanís Community School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in French 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 studentsí work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachersí 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 in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report, and the response of the board will be found in the appendix of this report.
French and German are the two modern languages taught in St. Brendanís Community School. French features in all the programmes available in the school: Junior Certificate, Transition Year, Leaving Certificate Established, (LCE) Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) and Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) where French is taught ab initio. The school operates a subject sampler programme in first year where all optional subjects are taught to all students (2 periods per week) for an eight-week period, in order to help them make a more informed choice after mid-term break. The school prides itself on the fact that all first year students are offered a full and free choice. In relation to modern languages, mainstream students may opt to study French or German or both or no modern language. At the parent-tutor meeting for first years, held in late October, information is provided by the class tutor and the Guidance counsellor so as to ensure that students and parents are fully informed of the college entry and career restrictions related to not studying a modern language to Leaving Certificate level. Given the importance of the study of modern languages for future career choice, school management might review its policy which at present results in approximately one third of its students having little or no exposure to this important area of the curriculum.
Class groups are of mixed ability throughout the school and the provision of teaching time for French in both junior and senior cycle is satisfactory. Transition Year has three periods per week, first year has four periods per week (from November onwards) while all other year groups have five periods per week. Single class periods are of forty minutes duration. However, due to the fact that French is timetabled against practical subjects throughout junior and senior cycle, all year groups have two double periods per week. This timetabling arrangement is not favourable to the teaching and learning of a new language, where frequency of lesson periods is preferable to length. If at all possible, the allocation of two double periods, in junior cycle in particular, should be avoided. In the context of double period timetabling, it is essential that the class periods be spread evenly across the school week.
While it is acknowledged that the language provision and timetabling issues raised above cannot be addressed in this academic year, they should be taken into consideration when the provision of modern languages for future years is being planned.
The members of the French department are fully qualified, experienced teachers. They have availed of and continue to avail of professional development opportunities and peer support provided through membership of the French Teachersí Association (FTA). Individual teachers have also availed of continuous professional development in France and through involvement in the work of the State Examinations Commission (SEC). The teachersí commitment to ongoing professional development is recognised and commended.
Teachers of French have their own classrooms which are fully-functioning language laboratories. These rooms are bright and spacious with good quality boards. The audio equipment is in good working order as it is serviced twice a year. As is usual in language laboratories, students sit at long benches rather than at individual tables. It is recommended that the seating arrangements be changed on occasion to facilitate greater student-student interaction. A colourful, stimulating environment has been created through the display of posters, student work and maps. The prominent display of key communicative words and phrases in French would further add to the French ambience and would assist student interaction with their teacher. The teachers are commended for their enthusiasm and commitment in providing an enriching language-learning environment for their students.
French is well supported through a number of co and extra-curricular language activities. The school has entered teams in table quizzes organised by the Birr/south-midlands branch of the FTA. Some senior students have also participated in the national French debating competition and they attended a showing of the film Les Choristes during the last school year. A school trip to Paris took place two years ago. The French department is particularly pleased to welcome a French language assistant to the school for the academic year 2006/07, aware that the presence of a native speaker of French in the school will support and enhance the teaching of the language. The school is also hosting two trainee teachers from Switzerland for a six-week period.
While the French department does not have a dedicated annual budget, extra resources are readily available, on request to management. The teachers have already acquired a good range of materials including videos, DVDs and easy readers. When time and resources permit, it may be useful to take an inventory of existing resources and perhaps to acquire some updated materials.
St. Brendanís Community School is engaging with school development planning.† Subject planning is now established as an intrinsic part of overall school planning. The teachers of French meet formally three or four times per year. Minutes are recorded and a copy is given to the principal. This is good practice. From October onwards, informal meetings will also take place monthly.†
The French department has collaborated to agree and document a plan to guide the teaching of French to all year groups in the school. Such professional co-operation is commendable. The plan records general aims and objectives, class organisation, timetabling arrangements and homework procedures for French. The topics which will be taught to various year groups are also listed. It is recommended that teachers have a copy of the agreed plan in their possession and that they continually use it as a working document to guide and inform their work throughout the academic year. The subject plan should be evaluated and revised, if necessary, at the end of each term.
It is suggested that the French team build on the good planning work done to date by recording some proven methodologies suited to mixed-ability teaching. It would also be useful to document some strategies for the integration of Information & Communications Technology (ICT) into French lessons. As the school now has a multi-media room in addition to two computer rooms and three language laboratories, it would be an opportune time to plan for the gradual introduction of ICT into the language class.
Good individual advance preparation ensured that lessons were clearly structured and appropriately timed.
Four lessons were observed, two in junior cycle and two in senior cycle. All lessons were competently delivered, and a sense of purpose was quickly established in each case. Lessons were theme-based and the topics chosen were in line with syllabus requirements, relating well to the studentsí own realm of experience. In a junior cycle class, for example, the 12 hour and 24 hour clock systems were taught and good, clear explanations and examples were given. The school timetable, which all students had in their school journal, provided them with a good opportunity to discuss class periods and time and to put the vocabulary and structures they had learned to practical use. This school timetable was further used to do a quick revision of school subjects in French. This linking of new vocabulary and structures to the everyday experience of the students was very effective. The inclusion of some cultural awareness aspects, such as reference to a typical timetable in a French school, for example, would further enhance the learning experience of the students.
In another junior cycle class, under the heading of Ma Chambre, texts and worksheets were used to teach and revise vocabulary. Pair work was used effectively here as students inquired about each otherís bedroom furniture and chosen colour schemes. Key phrases were written on the board, students then practised these phrases orally in unison before engaging in pair work. This exercise was very helpful in allaying student inhibitions about speaking French and it was noted that students made a genuine attempt to ask and answer questions in the target language. A poster, naming the colours in French, was prominently displayed on the board to assist students to describe in detail various rooms and furniture. The use of such simple but effective visual stimuli is commended.†
In a senior cycle class, students discussed the school rules, a topic they had already touched on in a homework exercise. Student suggestions were sought, using in the first instance, the phrase il faut. The rules pertaining to St. Brendanís were written on the board and students were alerted to the fact that the phrase il faut is frequently followed by the infinitive of the verb. Students were then asked to give examples of the phrase il est interdit de, again in the context of the school rules. This seamless integration of grammatical rules into class discussion is highly commended. The application of these useful phrases might be extended to areas outside of school life and students could be asked to give further examples of their use. It would also be possible to link this particular topic to the French film, Les Choristes, and its accompanying educational worksheets.
In another example of good practice observed, senior students had written and were asked to read out a self-portrait. This exercise was designed to practise adjectives they had learned previously to describe physical appearance and personality traits. Students were then asked to provide a variation of this exercise by giving a portrait of themselves as their parents might describe them. This led to a lively and interesting discussion and student participation was very good.
As previously mentioned, all students of French are taught in well-equipped language laboratories. Such an arrangement facilitates the inclusion of an aural component, based on the topic being taught in class. In the majority of lessons observed, listening comprehension was omitted. It is essential that listening exercises be used to consolidate vocabulary and structures. The aural component of the Junior Certificate examination, for example, accounts for more than 40% of the total marks. It is recommended, therefore, that students listen to appropriate, syllabus-based material on a daily basis and that short, focused listening exercises be integrated into all lessons, both at junior and at senior level.
A salient feature of the teaching methodology used in all lessons was the extensive use of the target language. Teachers displayed a high level of oral competency, speaking clear, accurate French to their students. They made good use of gestures and facial expressions rather than translation to assist student understanding. Synonyms were used productively to explain words. A number of strategies were employed effectively to promote good student pronunciation.† Group repetition, used wisely rather than excessively, appeared to work particularly well. This strategy was, in turn, supported by the individual questioning of students. Through these various methodologies, student pronunciation and confidence will improve, particularly if students are corrected and guided in a sensitive manner in relation to their efforts to speak French. As the use of the target language is central to good language-teaching practice, it was heartening to observe the extent to which French was employed in the classroom by the teachers in St. Brendanís Community School.
Classroom management was of a high standard. Teachers moved purposefully around the classroom, monitoring student work. A good work ethic was evident in all lessons observed. Students were pleasant, co-operative and well motivated. Their efforts and contributions were accepted and praised by their teachers. The creation of such a positive and supportive learning environment enables students to engage with the subject and therefore enhances their experience of learning French.
A range of techniques is used to monitor student progress. These include questioning in class, monitoring of homework, class tests and formal school examinations.†
Following a review by the examinations committee in the school, a new system of student assessment is being introduced in the current academic year. Formal examinations at Christmas have been discontinued in favour of monthly class tests for all students. The results of these regular tests will be sent home to parents via the student and results will be discussed at the parent-teacher or parent-tutor meeting for each year group. In addition, parents will receive a written report on their son/daughterís progress at Christmas. Third and sixth year students will continue to sit mock Junior and Leaving Certificate examinations in March while all other year groups will sit formal examinations in the summer. In relation to French, the practice of assessing the oral and aural competence of students in all year groups, in addition to reading and writing skills, is highly commended.
The school has developed a comprehensive homework policy and the homework procedures for French are documented in the department plan. As the inspection was carried out at the start of the school year, when teachers were only in the process of getting to know their students, it was not possible to assess the extent to which the homework policy was being put into practice. It is recommended that all students be afforded ample opportunities to practise writing in the target language. Short, appropriate exercises would suffice in order to reinforce classroom learning.† Positive oral and written feedback from teachers, with emphasis on formative assessment, would be of practical benefit to students. Information on the Assessment for Learning (AfL) project may be obtained from the NCCA website www.ncca.ie. †As students are taught in mixed ability groups, it is advisable to adopt a system of differentiated homework, particularly in relation to higher and ordinary level students in senior cycle. Homework should be assigned at a level of difficulty appropriate to the students and ideally at a level that will challenge them fully.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
The provision of two modern languages is commendable as is the sampler programme in first year.
Designated, well-maintained language laboratories are available to teachers of French.
A plan to guide the teaching and learning of French has been agreed and documented.
The time allocated to departmental meetings is very satisfactory.
The allocation of a language assistant to the school will support the teaching and learning of French.
The teachers of French are experienced, competent and conscientious. The rapport between students and teachers is very good.
French was used extensively to communicate with students in all classrooms.
A variety of effective teaching methodologies was used to good effect.
The oral and aural competence of students is assessed in all year groups.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
The practice of allowing mainstream students to choose not to study any modern language should be monitored and kept under review.
The allocation of two double periods per week to French militates against optimal language learning.
The plan for French should be extended to document strategies for mixed- ability teaching and for the promotion of ICT in language learning.
Short listening exercises should be included in all lessons to reinforce learning and to give students exposure to a wide variety of accents and voices.
Regular homework, in the target language, should be assigned to consolidate classroom learning.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of French and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1†† Observations on the content of the inspection report
"Our aim is to create a caring community of learning in which each individual is valued as a unique human being"
School policy around subject options is based upon adolescent developmental needs, including the need for increased responsibility and decision making.† To this end a subject sampler system is in place for 1st years to provide an introductory programme lasting ten weeks in each subject on the curriculum.
French and German are two of the ten subjects from which students make a free choice of three, which they will study to Junior Certificate level.† Based upon their choices, subject blocks are formed.† This happens after Junior Certificate also.† In other words students' decisions are made on the basis of informed choice which involves students and their parents, and the timetable is designed in response to student choice.
About two thirds of the 1st year cohorts typically choose a modern language.
Included in the one third not choosing a modern language are a substantial number of students, who have learning support needs of varying levels of seriousness.† The school also has a Special Education Unit divided into two learning groups about a third of whom are 1st years.† It is noteworthy that a student from the Special Class chose to experience French in a mainstream class for two years.
Because the timetable is based on optimising the free choice of students and is not curtailed by other than student choice and the capacity of the school to service the demand, modern languages are in the same blocks as other choice subjects, such as Construction Studies and Home Economics.† It is necessary to strike a balance of needs here in terms of the practical necessity of double periods for such subjects.
The only way to create a subject block with five single French/German classes would be to set up a block covering both French and German and other subjects which could be carried in single classes.† This would automatically curtail student choice.
While the modern languages teacher would prefer daily contact, the 2nd half of a double class is typically used to vary the forms of teaching and learning by including listening exercises.† The teachers have maximised the opportunities presented by double classes to devote attention to all the language skills within the class periods.
As with all subjects outside of English, Irish and Maths, class groupings are mixed ability for modern languages and teaching practice reflects this.† Regular homework is the target language is routinely assigned to consolidate classroom learning.