An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of French
Saint Michael’s College
Ailesbury Road, Dublin 4
Roll number: 60561G
Date of inspection: 18 and 19 January 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in French
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Michael’s College. 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 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 Michael’s College is a voluntary secondary school with 609 male students. Students have the option of studying French, Spanish or German. While the study of a modern European language is optional, all students choose a language and continue it to Leaving Certificate. They also have the possibility of studying more than one language. School management is commended for its provision for the study of modern European languages. Classes in junior cycle are mixed ability while there are discrete higher and ordinary level groupings in most instances at senior cycle. This is good practice.
There is good whole school provision and support for French in the allocation of time and the provision of resources. However, the language is timetabled for one double and two single periods in each year group at junior cycle. It is recommended that ways be explored whereby French can be timetabled in single periods at regular intervals throughout the week, in line with best practice which advocates ongoing contact with the target language.
There are currently six teachers of French, all of whom are graduates in the subject. Classes are allocated on a rotation basis and all are given the opportunity to teach to all levels. This is good practice. Some teachers have benefited from the inservice provided by the Department of Education and Science for teachers of French in recent years and some have attended additional inservice training for teachers of French in Ireland. The school pays the annual group membership of the French Teachers’ Association (FTA) and some members of the French department usually attend their annual national seminar. This is commended. Given the importance of ongoing professional development, it is recommended that teachers avail of all opportunities for in-service; these include the annual scholarships to France funded jointly by the Department of Education and Science and the French Cultural Services; attendance at FTA branch meetings; and subject relevant courses in the local education centres.
Many of the teachers of French have their own base classrooms. Teachers who do not have a base classroom are facilitated as much as possible to work in a subject-specific classroom. This is good practice. In some of the classrooms visited a visually stimulating language-specific environment had been created, with posters, charts of expressions and proverbs, and samples of students’ work. In some instances, where the teacher taught a second subject, discrete walls were used for the different subject displays, and this is good practice. It is recommended that, where it is not the practice, the print-rich environment should be extended to include charts of classroom language, key expressions and student projects. Consideration could also be given to charting expressions for the week or the topic, thereby giving students the opportunity to assimilate their new learning in a measured way.
There is good whole school provision of resources. CD and cassette recorders, televisions and DVD players are available in each language-based classroom. Teaching materials include dictionaries, a selection of DVDs and songs, French magazines and newspapers. A budget for French is agreed in the second term of the year prior to spending. The budget is used to pay for the teachers’ group subscription to the FTA and for materials to be used for French displays on the school’s annual open night. It is suggested that as part of the planning process teachers of French prioritise their needs and budget requests in a systematic way.
There are two computer rooms, a mobile technology suite and a number of data projectors in the school with wireless internet access. Teachers reported that they download materials from the internet for use in lessons. This is good practice. However, further use of information and communications technology (ICT) as a tool for teaching and learning has not, as yet, been embraced by the French department. Difficulties accessing the necessary equipment and a lack of training were cited as reasons for this. It is recommended that teachers incorporate ICT into their work by downloading or creating simple PowerPoint presentations which can support teaching and learning in the mainstream classroom. To this end teachers should seek the support and advice of the ICT co-ordinator or other teachers with expertise in ICT.
The school does not currently have any formal links with France and organised language trips to France are no longer custom and practice in the school. Transition Year (TY) students travelled to Paris in 2006 as a year group activity rather than a language trip. However, a significant number of students go to France on exchange trips which are privately organised by their parents. Consideration should be given to forging links with a French school for the purpose of exchanging information at classroom level and creating opportunities for authentic communication and cultural awareness. Co-curricular activities include the organisation of a French breakfast for some class groups, visits to the Irish Film Institute and attendance at quizzes organised by the FTA. The school has also participated in interschool French debates in the past and teachers reported that they are hoping to organise a debate between their students and those in a neighbouring school in the third term. The provision of co-curricular activities is commended as it provides students with enjoyable language learning experiences, promotes cultural awareness and ensures that French maintains a high profile in the school.
St Michael’s College is engaged in school development planning and has embraced subject development planning as part of the process. Each subject department has a co-ordinator. While it is not a post of responsibility, the position is usually held by a longstanding teacher in the subject department. In the interests of giving all members of the French department the opportunity to develop areas of expertise and to share the workload it is recommended that the position of subject co-ordinator for French be rotated. All teachers have been issued with copies of the syllabus and of the chief examiner’s annual reports. This is good practice.
Subject plans submitted on the day of the inspection indicated that the members of the French department have initiated subject planning. The plans which were drawn up in the academic year 2005-6 set out the aims and objectives, the context of French as a language taught in the school, the textbooks used, the curriculum content, homework and assessment protocols, and the teachers’ plans for professional development. While the work completed two years ago is commended, a review of the plan would now be most timely. The subject department should further develop it as a more generic document focusing on the desired learning outcomes for each year group rather than on the curriculum content of the textbook. These outcomes are best formulated in terms of ‘can do’ statements focusing on the concept of transferable skills. This approach will provide more scope for teachers to introduce variety into their work by choosing topics for study that will respond to the needs and interests of their student cohort at any given time. Long-term subject planning should also include proposed methodologies, planning for differentiation in mixed-ability settings and for students with special educational needs (SEN), and planning for resources and ICT. There should also be ongoing reference to the plan to ensure that practices are in line with the stated aims and objectives.
An individual Transition Year programme was also submitted. As part of collaborative subject planning for Transition Year, teachers should consider new approaches to teaching and learning to implement the principles underpinning the TY programme. One such approach is learner autonomy which will promote active and independent learning.
There was good individual preparation for the lessons observed with the advance readiness of the necessary technical equipment and supplementary materials.
Inspection activities included the observation of six lessons, two at junior cycle, one Transition Year lesson and three at senior cycle. There was also the opportunity to interact with the students.
The quality of teaching and learning was generally satisfactory with greater use of the target language being the main area for development.
The target language was used consistently by the teacher in some of the lessons observed. However, more sporadic use of French by the teacher and a strong dependence on translation as a methodology was observed in many lessons. While it is important to provide linguistic scaffolding for students in the language learning process, teachers need to think of alternative strategies to translation. For example, they should first explain in French and then check whether or not students understand rather than automatically translating into English. Greater use of visual supports is also recommended. In addition, teachers should promote more student interaction in the target language by providing them with the linguistic strategies to ask and answer questions, make requests and express difficulties in French. These linguistic strategies could be charted on the walls of the classroom, thus consolidating learning. Greater use of the target language would challenge the more able students, while those experiencing difficulty in understanding would be enabled to express their need for help in French. It would also provide practice in listening and oral comprehension and production.
Attention to pronunciation was observed in some lessons. This is commended as correct pronunciation is an essential component of successful language learning. This good practice should be extended to all lessons and consideration should also be given to the use of short pronunciation drills on a regular basis. When correcting errors, teachers should allow students the opportunity to repeat the correction in order to internalise it.
All lessons began with the correction of homework and a review of the work completed in the previous lesson. This is good practice. However, there were some instances where the time spent on this review limited to a significant extent the progression of new learning. Teachers must remain mindful at all times of the need for an appropriate balance between revision and new learning. The use of ICT through PowerPoint presentations could be considered as a time-effective way of correcting work in class.
A thematic approach integrating the different language skills was observed in some lessons. This is good practice in line with syllabus recommendations. In other lessons the range of language skills was taught, but in a more compartmentalised way. It is recommended that a more integrated approach be used where learning in one skills area can feed into and support further skills acquisition. It is also recommended that activities other than the traditional information retrieval examination formats be sourced to introduce variety when developing listening skills.
Question and answer sessions were effectively used in all lesson observed and the board was used to consolidate learning. When writing up on the board however, teachers need to check what they have written up in case, with the speed of writing, errors have been made.
Students were assigned pair work activities in some of the lessons observed. The use of pair and group work is good practice as it engages all of the students and promotes active and independent learning. However, most of the lessons observed were teacher-directed and significant emphasis was placed on working to the text book and on examination preparation. It is recommended that teachers deploy more active methodologies including individual, pair or group work activities in their lessons. Each lesson should include at least one student-based task thereby ensuring more active learning. Judicious use of the textbook supplemented by materials downloaded from the internet or current newspapers or magazines is also recommended. Examination-style exercises, which provide a useful format to assess students, should be used as part of the integrated approach to language learning rather than dictating the approach.
In some instances teachers engaged in a general correction and explanation on the board of the common errors arising in homework exercises. This is commended as an effective way of ensuring future attention to grammatical structures in written work. This good practice should also be extended to the correction of errors arising from group work activities.
An extract from a DVD was shown in one lesson with worksheets distributed in advance to prepare students for the viewing. Such activities before and after viewing are commended as they deliver optimum benefit from the use of film as an enjoyable language learning experience.
Elements of cultural awareness were incorporated into the body of some lessons. This is good practice as knowledge of French life and culture is an important aspect of learning the language. There were occasions however, where teachers mixed the use of the formal ‘vous’ and the familiar ‘tu’ formats when speaking to the students. Teachers need to remain mindful of the need for consistency in whichever format they adopt, as students themselves need to be aware of correct protocols when addressing others.
Students’ responses indicated that they had a good understanding of the lesson content and, in most cases, they applied themselves to any tasks given. Interaction with the inspector revealed them to be confident and willing to communicate. However, many of students’ answers suggested that they were in translation mode and unused to transferring the information in the text to their own situations. Teachers should avail of all opportunities to link the content of the texts used in the lesson to the students’ own lives to enable them to talk about themselves without translating. Greater use of the target language in the classroom will further support students in this regard.
A variety of assessment modes was used to monitor students’ progress. These included question and answer sessions in class, homework assignments, class tests and formal examinations.
A review of students’ copies indicated that homework is given and, in most instances, corrected with a comment or grade included. There were some examples of meticulous recording of students’ progress including attendance, punctuality, whether or not they have their books with them, and homework and tests. These are good practices which should be adopted where they are not currently in place. Many of the homework assignments given were translation exercises. In the interests of reducing students’ dependency on translation, alternative exercises should be assigned.
Class tests are usually given at the end of a chapter or topic and students sit formal examinations at Christmas and in the summer. Certificate examination students sit mock examinations in the second term. Where appropriate, students sit common examinations all of which include an aural component. This is commended. An oral test is included as part of formal examinations in fifth year and a mock oral examination is given in sixth year. It is recommended that, as a means of promoting greater use of the target language by all, an informal oral assessment should also be included at junior cycle. Formal written reports containing assessment marks for each subject are sent home to parents every six weeks in addition to Christmas and summer or mock examination reports. Contact with parents is also maintained through the student journal, frequent phone calls and the annual parent teacher meetings held for each year group.
A review of examination results indicates appropriate uptake of levels in the certificate examinations.
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 French and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published October 2008