An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of French
Saint Raphaela’s Secondary School
Stillorgan, County Dublin
Roll number: 60361V
Date of inspection: 1 February 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in French
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Raphaela’s Secondary 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 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, deputy 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.
St Raphaela’s Secondary School is a girls’ school with 402 students. The study of a modern European language is mandatory to Leaving Certificate except for students who have had a psychological assessment indicating language difficulties and who have an exemption from Irish. School management is commended for the importance it attributes to the study of modern languages by making it mandatory throughout the school. The school offers a choice between French and Spanish and students cannot currently study both. It is suggested that the school explore ways in which it might be able to offer students the possibility of studying two modern European languages.
There is good whole school provision and support for French in the allocation of time and timetabling. Lessons are timetabled in single periods throughout the week thereby providing ongoing contact with the target language. Classes are mixed ability and teachers are allocated to year groups on a rotating basis. This is good practice as it affords all teachers the opportunity to teach to all levels.
There are four teachers of French in the school, three of whom are currently teaching the subject. Most have benefited from the Department of Education and Science’s national inservice programme of recent years and some have attended inservice courses for teachers of French in Dublin City University (DCU) and in France. The school pays the group membership of the French Teachers’ Association (FTA) and commits itself to providing substitution cover should attendance at any courses necessitate absence from class. Commitment to ongoing professional development is commended as it enables teachers to upskill themselves both linguistically and pedagogically and to benefit from the sharing of good practice with peers. For those who have not as yet benefited, it is recommended that they apply for the summer scholarships to France offered each year by the Department and the French Cultural Services, in addition to the range of projects coordinated by Léargas.
Most of the teachers of French have their own base classroom and those who do not are facilitated to work in a French base classroom. This is good practice. There was a visually stimulating display of French maps, posters, verb charts, classroom language and samples of students’ work. This is commended as it enables students to assimilate over time both the language and culture of France. Teachers also referred to the work on the walls during lessons, thereby making the displays even more relevant. In order to maximise the benefits of the print-rich environment teachers should consider focusing on one element of classroom language each week and, in this way, build up students’ competence in interacting in the target language. Consideration should also be given to displaying key expressions for the week or the topic.
Teachers have their own designated CD/cassette recorders and there is easy access to other audio-visual equipment. Resources are bought on a needs basis by the teachers, who are in turn reimbursed by the school. The teachers have built up a considerable bank of materials for use in the classroom including DVDs, books, games, flashcards, vocabulary cards and puppets. Some of these materials have been developed by members of the department indicating creativity and a commitment to best responding to the needs of the students. They are all kept in folders in a filing cabinet which is accessible to all the teachers of French. This is warmly commended. It is suggested that over time teachers catalogue these materials or worksheets thematically or in terms of grammar activities, for ease of referral and in the event of teacher absence.
There is a computer room in the school which has language software and can be used by the teachers of French. One of the French classrooms has a data projector and a laptop computer and the school is in the process of equipping other classrooms accordingly. All rooms are wired for internet access. Information and communication technology (ICT) has been embraced by the teachers of French as a tool for teaching and learning and students are often given exercises from different sites on the internet as homework assignments. The teachers of French are currently working together to share ideas on optimising the use of ICT in the classroom. This is commended.
The school does not currently have links with a French school. Attempts to set up an exchange programme with a French school have been thwarted by the fact that the French schools wanted to exchange with a mixed school. However, some students from the school are travelling to France this year to participate in a ‘homestay’ project where they will stay with French families and attend classes in the morning. For those who are unable to travel to France it is suggested that links be developed with a French school for the purpose of emailing or exchanging materials for use in the classroom. The school also organises a language and adventure trip to Donegal where students have French classes in the morning and activities in the afternoon. This venture has proved very successful and separate trips are organised for different year groups. Other co-curricular activities include a French breakfast, a cheese tasting session or a ‘galette des rois’ where students enjoy a cake traditionally associated with the feast of the Epiphany in France. They have also in the past organised a European Languages day where students have been shown videos of France, its life and culture and where they have participated in games and activities promoting French. School management and the teachers of French are commended for their support of and involvement in co-curricular activities where students are afforded the opportunity of engaging in enjoyable language learning activities. Such co-curricular activities also help to maintain a high profile for French in the school.
St Raphaela’s Secondary School has been involved in the School Development Planning Initiative for a number of years and has embraced subject development planning as part of the process. The numbers currently involved in the teaching of French are such that teachers prefer to work as a team rather than appointing a subject coordinator. While a collaborative approach to subject planning is highly commended, it is suggested that the appointment of a subject coordinator, which is rotated among all the teachers of French, can facilitate communication between senior management and the French department, in addition to providing teachers with opportunities for building up expertise within a subject department. Formal subject planning meetings take place about twice a term and there is ongoing informal exchange among all members of the department. There is an agenda for formal meetings and minutes are kept of the proceedings. This is commended.
A review of the subject plans submitted on the day of the inspection indicates that a lot of work has been carried out and that the French department is at an advanced stage in the subject planning process. The plan sets out the aims and objectives for the teaching and learning of French, outlines the school’s context and lists resources for the teaching and learning of French and relevant websites. Included also in the planning file is a copy of the syllabus for French and copies of the chief examiner’s reports. This is commended as it is important for teachers to work to the syllabus rather than the text book. In addition, the plan sets out proposed schemes of work for each year group in terms of skills acquisition. This is commended. The members of the French department, building on the very good work completed to date, should now bring the process a stage further by formulating the desired learning outcomes for each year group in terms of ‘can do’ statements and the proposed linguistic strategies and methodologies to support these outcomes. Such an approach which focuses on the transferability of skills allows for greater variety in the topics studied, thereby responding to the range of needs and interests of each year group in a given year. This approach will also facilitate the process of self-evaluation.
A Transition Year (TY) plan for the current year was also submitted. While there were some elements of new teaching and learning contained in the plan, there was a strong focus on Leaving Certificate material. This needs to be reviewed in order to ensure adherence with the guidelines for Transition Year contained in the Department of Education and Science’s document entitled Transition Year Programmes – Guidelines for Schools. New ways of promoting oral and written skills development should be sought, for example within the context of learner autonomy or the development by TY students of activities for junior cycle students. Students should also be facilitated to increase their awareness of French life and culture. In this way they will be enabled to develop skills which will help them at senior cycle, but which, at the same time, will move the focus away from the Leaving Certificate examination.
There was evidence of careful planning and preparation for the lessons observed with the submission of individual lesson plans and the advance readiness of technical equipment and supplementary materials.
Inspection activities included the observation of four lessons, two at junior cycle, one TY lesson and one at senior cycle. There was also the opportunity to interact with the students and to review their copies.
There was extensive use of the target language by the teacher in some of the lessons observed. A variety of strategies, including writing up on the board, giving personal examples, and referring to posters on the walls, was deployed to explain in French when students didn’t understand. There were also some very good examples in these lessons of students responding to and interacting with the teacher in the target language. This is highly commended. The use of the target language however, was more limited in the other lessons observed and there was a strong dependence on English as the language of explanation and general interaction. Where this occurred, it is recommended that the teacher build up confidence in using the target language through the issuing of simple classroom instructions in French. Students should also be given the linguistic strategies to ask simple questions, express difficulties or request information in the target language. This will help expand the use of French and gradually reduce the dependency on translation as a methodology in the classroom.
Attention to pronunciation was noted in some lessons. This is good practice as correct pronunciation is an essential component of successful language learning. Teachers should attend to correct pronunciation in all lessons, through the use of short regular pronunciation drills and correction of students’ errors.
Lessons were generally well structured and the content appropriate to the needs and interests of the students. Best practice was observed where the teacher shared the purpose of the lesson with the students. This practice should be extended to all lessons. It is also recommended that the purpose of the lesson be formulated in terms of the desired learning outcome for the lesson, thereby involving students as active participants in the learning process. Some lessons were well paced throughout. However, there were other lessons where the balance of time spent on the correction of homework and the review of previous learning was disproportionate to the time allocated to new learning. While it is important to recap on previous work, greater attention to time management is needed to ensure an appropriate progression to new learning.
There were good efforts in all lessons to adopt an integrated approach to the teaching of the different language skills. This approach which is in line with syllabus recommendations is commended. There were also some good examples of preparatory activities and differentiated exercises to support all students in developing their listening skills. This is highly commended. It is recommended that greater focus be placed on oral skills development in some lessons as a means of building up students’ confidence in communicating in the target language.
Question and answer sessions were effectively integrated into the body of some lessons in order to bring the learning from the exercise into the realm of the students’ own experience. This is good practice as it teaches students to transfer their learning from one situation to another. However, there were other occasions where question and answer sessions would have been more time effective and productive had students worked in pairs asking each other the questions rather than the teacher-directed approach used.
There was good use of visual supports and supplementary materials to progress learning in all of the lessons observed. ICT, through the use of some simple PowerPoint presentations, was very effectively integrated into some lessons to support teaching and learning and there was clear evidence of students’ active engagement with this approach. This is highly commended. The use of song, as observed in one lesson, to support the topic being studied, further engaged the students in what was clearly perceived as an enjoyable language learning experience.
Pair or group work activities were observed in all lessons. This use of pair or group tasks is good practice as it actively involves students in their own learning and promotes both collaboration and independence in their work. There were also some very good examples of preparatory activities using ICT to support students in the execution of these group tasks. It is recommended however, that students be encouraged to think beyond the examples they have been given to put into practice, and develop further ideas of their own.
There was very good classroom management throughout and evidence of a good rapport between teachers and students in an atmosphere conducive to learning. The dynamic in some lessons supported active student engagement for the entire duration of the lesson, while in other instances greater attention to pace and time management is needed to promote more active student engagement. Interaction with the inspector revealed some students to be confident learners of the language while others were more reticent in interacting in the target language and had difficulty in transferring their learning from one situation to another. However, the above-recommended focus on orals skills development and greater use of the target language in the classroom should result in students’ increased willingness to communicate in the target language.
Student progress is monitored in a variety of ways including question and answer sessions in class, homework assignments, class tests and formal examinations. A review of students’ copies indicated that homework is given and corrected and in some instances very detailed comments included. This is commended as it both affirms and informs students of their progress. It is recommended that this practice be extended for all students. Teachers also give regular vocabulary, verb and end-of-topic tests. This is good practice. Common tests are given where appropriate. An aural component is included in all formal examinations which take place at Christmas and in the summer. Certificate examination students sit mock examinations in the second term. A formal oral assessment is given in their end-of-year examination to students in Transition Year and in fifth year. Teachers generally swap around classes when giving these assessments. Leaving Certificate students have a formal oral examination at Christmas and during the mock examinations. The latter assessment is usually carried out by an external examiner. Informal oral assessments are given to other class groups. The practice of assessing students’ oral competence is commended.
Contact with parents is maintained through the school journal and the annual parent-teacher meetings held for each year group. School reports are issued twice in the year. A review of certificate examination results shows a number of high grades at Junior Certificate ordinary level. Vigilance in ensuring that students are choosing the most appropriate level is indicated.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· There is good whole school support and provision for French in the allocation of time, timetabling and the provision of resources.
· The members of the French department are at an advanced stage in the subject planning process.
· There was very good use of the target language in some of the lessons observed.
· Visual supports and ICT were well used as tools to support the teaching and learning of French.
· Pair and group work were effectively used to promote active student engagement.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The members of the French department should further progress their subject planning by establishing desired learning outcomes for each year group in terms of ‘can do’ statements, and include the linguistic strategies and proposed methodologies to support these outcomes.
· Where it is not currently happening, teachers should extend the use of the target language in the classroom and develop strategies to reduce the dependency on English as the language of general interaction.
· Greater attention is needed in some lessons to time management and pace in order to ensure optimum progress and development in the learning of French.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of French and the deputy principal and with the principal, at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published December 2008