An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Our Lady’s Grove
Goatstown, Dublin 14
Roll number: 60891E
Date of inspection: 29 and 30 November 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Our Lady’s Grove, Co Dublin. 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 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.
Our Lady’s Grove Secondary School is a school for girls in the trusteeship of the Religious of Jesus and Mary and is situated in the established suburb of Goatstown. Students attending the school come from the immediate locality and from neighbouring suburbs where there are no all-girls schools. The school does not charge tuition fees. A planning application has been made for an extension, which is to include a dedicated library. There is an optional transition year programme (TY) and the majority of students avail of it.
Five teachers, all with English to degree level, form the English teaching team in Our Lady’s Grove. All take at least two class groups for English, and most teach in both the junior and the senior cycle. It is commendable that all teachers taking junior cycle English also teach the subject at senior cycle. However, at present some teachers take English in senior cycle only, although it was reported that this arises from timetable constraints rather than any policy decision. The practice of deploying teachers in both cycles should be followed wherever possible, as it promotes a view of English as a continuous building of skills and knowledge from first year to sixth year, and therefore promotes good planning for the subject. Allocating teachers to a variety of years, levels and programmes is also desirable as it increases the range of experience and expertise within the teaching team. The school has a qualified resource teacher, and a member of the teaching staff is currently pursuing a master’s degree in special education. A number of teachers have qualifications and experience in teaching English to speakers of other languages, and the school has an allocation of twenty-two hours for language support.
The number and distribution of English lessons on the timetable is generally satisfactory. Provision in senior cycle is good, with one lesson per day in fifth and sixth year, and three lessons of core English per week in TY, with additional timetabled lessons in media studies, including film, and in public speaking. English is timetabled concurrently in fifth and sixth year. Consideration could be given to timetabling TY English concurrently for the two TY class groups, as this would facilitate whole-year activities as well as collaborative planning for the delivery of the programme. Four English lessons per week are provided in each junior cycle year. This is adequate though not generous. The possibility of offering an English lesson per day should be investigated. It is recommended that priority in this regard be given to first year, as an additional lesson would assist in laying down a good foundation in the requisite skills for both the Junior and Leaving Certificate English syllabuses. Where the allocation is four lessons per week, every effort should be made to ensure that English is timetabled on Monday and Friday so as to minimise the gap between lessons.
English is taught in a mixed-ability setting in the junior cycle and TY, and classes in fifth and sixth year are designated higher and ordinary, according to the course being followed for the state examinations. The formation of a ‘top’ higher-level set is a recent innovation and should be carefully monitored to see if it has the intended effect of raising the attainment of more able students, without having a negative impact on others. Students are facilitated in changing level if it is considered advisable, and there is a clear policy on this, whereby the formal agreement of parents and teachers is required. This is good practice.
Junior cycle class groups are assigned to student-based classrooms for English and many other subjects. This creates an opportunity to make each room a display place for the work of each class, and a stimulating and print-rich environment for the study of English. However, while the rooms were pleasant and generally spacious, many were rather bare, and the teaching team in consultation with the school management should address this as an area for development in the context of subject planning. Students’ work including exemplars of excellence, attractive and relevant posters and photographs, word charts, reading suggestions and other useful material could all be displayed and incorporated into lessons as appropriate. In general in the senior cycle, neither class groups nor teachers are based in a specific room for English. This has drawbacks in relation to the storing of materials and the development of the room as resource, and it is recommended that these arrangements be reviewed in the context of whole-school support for the subject. The possibility of developing an English room might be considered in the context of the proposed extension. Section 2.4 of the Inspectorate report, Looking at English, should be consulted in this regard.
In other respects English is well resourced, with access to audio-visual equipment, CD players and a room with an interactive whiteboard (IWB). Teachers have received training in the use of the IWB and further development of its use is to be encouraged and should form part of subject planning. The proactive approach to information and communications technology (ICT) is commendable. The English teaching team showed a considerable awareness of the benefits of audio resources, for example making use of a CD of Paul Durcan reading his own poetry and also of a dramatised reading of a Shakespearean drama. However, the latter was rather dated. Excellent recent recordings of Shakespeare’s plays are available and are a worthwhile resource to build up, as they give students a great insight into the plays’ theatrical qualities as well as their poetry.
The school supports the training of teachers and offers teaching experience to student teachers who work with the assistance of the established teacher to whom the classes are assigned. Some members of the English department were themselves student teachers in the school and spoke positively of the experience. The current English department consists of both experienced teachers and those who are relatively new to the profession. All members of the department showed great openness to advice and suggestions in the course of the evaluation. Their interest in continuous professional development (CPD) is commendable and, together with school management, they should identify their CPD needs and interests and access the support available through education centres, the Second Level Support Service and the subject association.
Literacy support is offered to small groups of students on a withdrawal basis, using timetable gaps where possible. The possibility of offering in-class support to students with literacy difficulties was discussed with the learning support department, who reported that students with numeracy difficulties have been supported in this way in the school. The exploration of models of literacy support other than the withdrawal of students is encouraged.
Subject planning for English in the context of school development planning is ongoing and a plan for English is now well advanced. The English planning folder contains the mission statement and also statements from all the stakeholders in the school, including the board of management, parents and students. This is a commendable practice, providing a very good reference point for the plan as it is developed. A homework policy that makes clear statements about the purpose of homework and the standards of presentation required is included. The inclusion of the special educational needs (SEN) policy in the English folder is good practice.
A short description of the administrative aspects of the co-ordinator role, which is carried out on a voluntary and rotating basis, is included. As the practice of collaborative planning develops, this description could become more detailed and could focus more on the role of the co-ordinator in facilitating the sharing of good practice and promoting co-operation in preparing teaching materials and in-house assessments. Formal meetings are held as part of staff meetings, and the teaching team reported that informal meetings take place regularly. Minutes of meetings and especially of decisions taken should be included in the planning folder. It is suggested that the meeting held at the end of the year should focus on reviewing progress in relation to the development targets identified in each year plan (see below).
The English planning folder holds year plans for each year. These set out the content to be covered each term, with the textbooks and other resources to be used. They make reference to provision for SEN students in terms of differentiation and specific needs. Individual plans for SEN students have also been developed. This is commendable. The year plans also give an outline of methods of assessment to be used. The inclusion of development targets that focus on the acquisition of skills and knowledge is very good practice and underpins the developmental approach to English which is recommended as best practice. In reviewing and further refining these plans from year to year, the English department should aim to be as specific as possible about the desired learning outcomes. In relation to the development of writing skills, it is very helpful to state explicitly the level of competence that students will be expected to attain in the form of statements such as “will be able to write three coherent, linked paragraphs”. Such statements create very useful links between the planning of the programme, the teaching and learning methods likely to yield the desired outcome, and the methods of assessment that will show whether students have achieved these outcomes. The current planning folder holds separate plans for each fifth and sixth year group, whereas joint planning that takes variations in text choice into account would be preferable. It is therefore recommended that the English department work collaboratively on all year plans wherever possible.
The question of text choice, especially in the senior cycle, was discussed with the English department in the course of the evaluation. The general practice in Leaving Certificate English has been to choose the same texts for each class group in order to facilitate students who change level. This practice may however result in class groups working on texts that are not best suited to their particular needs, for example an ordinary level group working on a less than accessible text. While bearing in mind the need to accommodate students who change levels, the English department should ensure that the guiding criterion in choosing texts for a group from the prescribed list is appropriateness to the specific group’s learning needs. Texts chosen for a group following the ordinary level course should be challenging but accessible.
The planned TY programme includes core English, media and film studies and a public speaking module. The stated aims and objectives are in keeping with the Department’s guidelines and the texts chosen are stimulating and linked to issues and areas likely to appeal to students. Teachers evaluate students’ work in all aspects of the programme, including oral assignments, and students are surveyed so that their feedback informs the next year’s programme. This is good practice.
Evidence of individual teacher planning was observed in the careful preparation of materials and resources, and in the written plans for lessons, which were made available to the inspector.
Six lessons were observed during the course of the evaluation covering all years with the exception of the TY group, who were away from school on work experience. The quality of teaching and learning was generally good, and all lessons were well managed, allowing a good volume of material to be covered. Most lessons were well paced and, in the best instances, a good forward momentum that engaged and challenged the students was established. The structure of the lessons and the sequence of activities had been planned to achieve the learning objectives, which were clearly stated at the outset of most lessons. In a few cases, pacing was slow. An explicit statement of purpose in the form of desired learning outcomes is recommended at the outset of all lessons to establish a sense of forward movement.
Effective preparation of resources and learning activities was evident, including response frames to assist individual and group work in poetry and drama. For example, students in one junior cycle lesson were given a photocopy of a poem laid out so as to focus their attention on key words and images, while in another lesson a response frame allowed students to engage with a poem through creative intervention. Material handed out to students in senior cycle classes was designed to get them thinking rather than to tell them what to think, and this approach is strongly commended and advocated. The standard whiteboard was used effectively for visual reinforcement and as a means of gathering and linking ideas. The IWB was also used in one lesson but to display information prepared earlier rather than in an interactive way. Its greater use to illustrate process rather than product is recommended.
No single methodology was observed to dominate in the English classroom and the approaches taken ranged from direct instruction to discovery learning. Appropriate emphasis was placed on engagement and participation, and there was a good balance between teacher talk and student talk. Where direct instruction took place, teachers spoke knowledgeably and concisely, and their exposition led to class discussion or student-centred activity, thus avoiding student passivity. Occasionally where students were less responsive and perhaps less confident, the good strategy of relating the material to their own experience was used, and this enabled students to make perceptive comments which were then affirmed.
A wide range of questioning strategies was used. The most straightforward involved checking on students’ retention and recall of vocabulary or factual information relating to a text and this was done at a suitably brisk pace. Questions of a higher order, requiring students to express and support an opinion or to read inferentially, were generally well managed, and many students displayed very good skills in this area. Best practice was observed where a range of students’ responses was accepted and affirmed and where the teacher made it clear that no one response was the ‘correct’ one. Good use of follow-on questions ensured that students understood the need to support their views, and the importance of knowing the text and being able to refer to it in support of an argument was clearly established. Teachers are encouraged to discuss explicitly with students the difference between factual questions and those requiring a more measured response, and to ensure that adequate thinking time is given to the latter questions so that students get used to a period of silence before responses are sought. Teachers should also be attentive to the order in which questions are asked, so that they move from the simple to the more complex. Careful use of relevant terminology is also very important: for example, words like ‘theme’ and ‘tone’ are abstract and often complex, and a question such as “What’s happening in this poem (or story)?” may yield better responses and open the door to the introduction of more abstract terms.
Task-based discovery learning in the form of pair and group work was observed in a number of lessons, and both teachers and students are commended on the easy way this was managed with minimal disruption. In a senior cycle drama lesson, pairs of students were asked to suggest the speakers of certain lines that were given to them without context. This led very effectively into whole-class discussion both before and after the identity of the speakers was revealed. Students understood the purpose of the exercise, thrashed out their speculations in pairs and were then confident in expressing conclusions in a whole-class discussion. Teachers should always ensure that students have clear instructions before group work begins, and should view it as a means of engaging students actively with the material in a way that might not happen in a whole-class setting. The time for group activity and the expected outcome should also be established at the outset.
In some lessons, students participated in the reading aloud of the text, and standards of reading, while varied, were generally good. It is important to identify the purpose of the reading aloud exercise before choosing this approach. If the focus is primarily on encountering the story, the readers must be very competent so that the story is transmitted effectively to the class. The teacher is often therefore the best first reader of the story, to ensure it has a strong impact on the students. Where reading aloud as a skill is the focus of the exercise, this can be more effectively managed in the context of a re-reading, where students are familiar with the material and can concentrate on reading rather than processing.
The classroom atmosphere and the learning environment were in all cases supporting and affirming. Students generally participated well, and were observed to be well motivated. Students’ performance in English in the state examinations reflects this level of diligence, with a high uptake of higher level English in both the Junior and Leaving Certificate and good attainment at all levels.
The monitoring of students’ participation in the lessons through questions addressed to individual students was observed in all classes, and teachers ensured that they were able to check on students’ participation and progress by moving through the class when students were engaged in group work.
In some junior cycle classes, the lesson began with an oral review of homework when it involved drill-type work such as vocabulary. In a senior cycle lesson, students were invited to read a short piece of creative writing done as a homework assignment. Their attention to each other’s work was noted, and this approach also gave the teacher an opportunity to affirm the students and commend their progress. As part of the same exercise, students read each other’s work in pairs and suggested a mark for it, based on criteria discussed and noted on the board beforehand. This is very good practice and was observed to engage students and to reinforce for them the criteria for good descriptive writing.
The homework policy contained in the English planning folder is largely addressed to parents, and a version with a strong focus on the role and responsibility of teachers and students would be useful. A review of students’ copies carried out during the inspection suggests that students need to follow the regulations on heading and dating their work more assiduously. There was a good volume of work in students’ copies. In some cases, good developmental feedback was given to students for substantial written assignments, and it is highly recommended that this practice be adopted wherever students have done substantial assignments. The principles of Assessment for Learning (the NCCA web site has a useful link at www.ncca.ie ) should be incorporated into formative assessment practices. In some cases, students were assigned summary writing for homework. While this can be a useful method of reinforcement, summary work should not dominate homework, and should always be accompanied by some element of personal response.
A number of the assignments set both in class and for homework had a strong examination focus, even where the class in question was not in an examination year. While the development of good examination skills is an essential aspect of effective teaching and learning, great care should be taken to ensure that the examination focus does not dominate, and that teaching and learning processes are soundly based on the aims and objectives of the relevant syllabuses.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· The classroom atmosphere and the learning environment are supportive and affirming, and the lessons observed were well managed.
· There is good provision and planning for literacy and language support.
· The inclusion in the English planning folder of development targets that focus on the acquisition of skills and knowledge in each year is very good practice.
· The quality of teaching and learning was generally good, and effective preparation and planning of learning activities was evident.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The practice of deploying teachers in both junior and senior cycle should be followed wherever possible.
· The provision of an English lesson every day in first year should be prioritised.
· The English department should work collaboratively on all year plans and should ensure that the guiding criterion in choosing texts for a group is appropriateness to their learning needs.
· The creation of a stimulating and print-rich environment for the teaching and learning of English should be an area for development within subject department planning.
· Developmental feedback should be given to students on all substantial assignments completed.
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.
Published June 2008