An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
CBS Secondary School
James Street, Kilkenny
Roll number: 61550G
Date of inspection: 29 September 2006
Date of issue of report: 26 April 2007
This Subject Inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in CBS Secondary School, James Street, Kilkenny. 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 was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
All junior cycle class groups have four English lessons each week. Transition Year class groups have three English lessons each week. This is satisfactory provision. Fifth-year and sixth-year class groups have five English lessons each week which is good provision at this level. Classes in CBS vary in length from forty to fifty minutes depending on the time of the lesson. Within the allocated provision on the timetable, English classes are, on the whole, evenly distributed across the week. However, there are a few occasions when students are timetabled for a double period. This means that contact points for students with English are somewhat restricted. It is recommended, that where possible, English be timetabled in such a way that all class groups have daily exposure to English at senior cycle and exposure on four days a week at junior cycle.
Class groupings are banded from the start of first year. Students are placed in class groupings based on the results of the incoming first-years’ assessment examination. After this, a common first-year examination held around November is set by English teachers to confirm suitable placement. This is commendable practice. Generally, there are two class groups in each band and there are four class groups in each junior cycle year. Being in the second band does not preclude students from doing higher-level English which is good practice. In fact, the final decision as to which students will sit higher or ordinary level is not made until the last term in third year. It is recommended that English teachers and school management consider placement of students in mixed-ability classes in first year as there is evidence that such placement leads to improved progress in literacy and numeracy and can give students more confidence as learners.
There are four Transition Year (TY) class groups in the school. Students in this year are placed in mixed-ability class groupings. Students are set in fifth year. Classes are concurrently timetabled in TY, fifth and sixth year which allows for student movement from one class group to another, if there is a need to change levels. It also allows for the arrangement of common year group activities.
There is good whole-school support for English in the school. For example, this year an extra English teacher was timetabled in sixth year to allow splitting of class groups if students are deemed to need extra attention. The same provision was made last year for fifth-year class groups. The school funds English teachers’ membership of their subject association. Teachers are released as necessary for inservice, and the school has subsidised some teachers’ courses, especially in the area of learning support. For example a number of teachers in the school attended a five-Saturday course on special educational needs (SEN).
Teachers are reported to retain the same class group from first year into third year and from fifth year into sixth year where possible which is good practice. School management allocates teachers to year groups and the teachers then agree which classes to teach. It was reported that teachers rotate the teaching of levels in the subject so that all have the opportunity to teach higher level and ordinary level at different times. This is commended.
Students in the school have the opportunity to participate in an impressive range of co-curricular activities pertaining to English. There is a debating club open to all year groups in the school and a film club open to students from second year. Students came second in the All-Ireland Mental Health Association public speaking competition in 2006 and Transition Year students have a designated class for debating and public speaking. Students are brought on theatre visits and visiting speakers are invited into the school. Students are encouraged to get involved in writing competitions such as the annual short-story competitions for junior and senior cycle students and poetry competitions. TY students produce the school newsletter.
The school has a library, ‘The McFadden Library’, which is an excellent resource for the school. This library is well stocked, containing approximately 12500 books, is well run and is used on a regular basis by many students. There is a section in the library for reluctant readers and the library also stocks daily papers, films, books on CD and relevant magazines. The librarian is paid for by the school and the library is open during lunch hour and after school. In addition, a range of activities take place in the library, including world book day and competitions.
Each September, first-year students are given two introductory classes on the use of the library and are enrolled as members. A prize is given annually to the best reader in the school and a ‘Readers Club’ is run throughout the year with prizes awarded for best reader in a range of categories. Classes are taken to the library and strong links have been created with the County Library. Sixth-year students are encouraged to donate a book to the school library when graduating from the school which is an innovative scheme. The strategies used to promote the library and to develop the reading habit among students in the school are highly commended. There are also computer facilities in the library. There is a budget for English and a budget for the library.
Access to Information and Computer Technology (ICT) is available in the computer room and the school is wired for broadband.
Students in receipt of literacy support are identified through incoming first-year assessment, from primary school reports, psychological reports and by teachers. Literacy support is offered from first year to Transition Year. Good communication between the school and parents of students receiving extra support was apparent. The guidance counsellor and resource/learning-support teachers are commended for their work in the area of special educational needs.
English subject planning is well under way and English teachers have produced good plans for the teaching of English from junior to senior cycle. Subject departments are facilitated in meeting formally approximately three times a year. The ultimate aim of the English plan, to foster appreciation and enjoyment of English, is laudable as it means that students are given a broad and enjoyable experience of English in the school and teaching goes beyond preparing students for examinations. In most lessons observed, this aim was realised. The English plan is written in terms of aims, objectives and course structure. It is recommended that the plan include learning outcomes that each year group should achieve, in order that an incremental approach to teaching and learning is realised across year groups and so that students in different class groups within a year would learn the same key skills.
There was evidence of good collaboration and collegiality across the English department as seen from the minutes of subject meetings. There is no English co-ordinator as such and it was reported that the chairing of meetings is rotated. It is recommended that consideration be given to agreeing a subject convenor or co-ordinator among English teachers on an annual basis and that this position be clearly defined. Responsibilities could include dissemination of relevant information and chairing of meetings.
There is a commendable Transition Year programme available for English which outlines the aims and objectives of the programme, as well as structure, learning outcomes, methodologies, assessment methods and evaluation of the programme. Although all TY teachers strive to achieve the same aims and objectives, they have autonomy to decide the content of the TY course as long as they deal with four shared topics: literacy and composition, story telling and genre, film studies, and poetry. There was evidence that TY teachers were using a range of interesting subject matter in their programme.
Teachers make joint decisions on texts while allowing for flexibility, as appropriate. At present, some first-year class groups are taught a novel while others are not. It is recommended that all first-year students study a novel as this will further develop their reading. In addition, some class groups study two novels; one in second year and one in third year. Again, this is very good practice as it broadens students’ experience of English and brings variety into third year in particular. The top class groups study Shakespeare at junior cycle as is appropriate. Some students in the second band may also do higher level and some exposure to Shakespeare, be it an extract or a film might be useful, especially if they will continue to do higher level in fifth year.
The comparative texts used with students in fifth and sixth year are interesting and varied. English teachers agree what to teach at the start of first year to allow for movement of students, if necessary. The same practice is recommended at the start of fifth year. All year groups are encouraged to have and to use a dictionary which is good practice. Most teachers were also well organised on an individual basis and had prepared schemes of work and some excellent resources.
There was evidence of good liaison between literacy-support teachers and English teachers which is commended. Students in receipt of support are withdrawn from Irish, modern European languages and CSPE or SPHE in small groups or individually for help in literacy and numeracy. Generally students are withdrawn for blocks of six to eight weeks for literacy support which is good practice as it means that students are not excluded from taking certain subjects. Students’ improvements are ascertained by tests from the learning-support teacher and term examinations. Students with language support needs are withdrawn from Irish in small groups. It is recommended that the school makes contact with Integrate Ireland Language and Training (IILT), possibly through its website www.iilt.ie as there are a range of resources and methodologies available to teachers to inform the teaching of students with language support needs.
Some lessons were opened with explanations of common writing errors which became apparent when correcting homework, or with students reading out homework. Good practice was seen in this regard when students were invited to comment constructively on each other’s work. Links were created with previous lessons by students being asked to recall what they had learned. Links were also made between texts studied and contemporary life, film or song which is good practice as it puts students’ learning in context. There was generally a good break-up of tasks in lessons observed. This was particularly important as some lessons were fifty minutes in length. Good lesson structure led to interesting lessons that involved students and resulted in good learning. Instructions given to students were always clear and teachers took care to help individual students as appropriate. In a minority of cases the lesson consisted of the students reading and then answering questions on their text. In these cases there should have been more variety introduced into the lessons.
A range of very good teaching strategies was observed including pair work, use of ICT, use of games involving students and the integration of language and literature. Pair work was observed on a couple of occasions. On one occasion it was used effectively for a portion of the lesson for a focused task. On another occasion, the students were not always working together during the pair work. Pair work, when used properly, is a good strategy for involving students in their lessons and is to be encouraged. There were occasions when the lessons were very teacher led, and although students were participating through questions and answers, they could have been given more opportunities to take responsibility for their learning by being set individual tasks or set tasks in pairs or groups rather than the teacher working away for the entire lesson period. However, many teachers are commended for placing a strong emphasis on developing independent learning strategies. ICT was used to highlight examples of students’ written work and effective writing techniques.
In most classes there were definite learning outcomes for students. There was an occasion where it was not clear what the purpose of the lesson was and where it was difficult to ascertain what students had actually learned. This occurred when students were asked to write a sample answer from a handout into their copies without being told what the purpose of this exercise was. Best practice was observed when the purpose of the lesson was shared with the students and when the teacher, at the end of the lesson, checked to see if this purpose was achieved.
Teachers often asked questions to involve students in lessons. This was most successful when teachers asked questions of individual students as opposed to looking for hands up. When students were reading for a period of the lesson, the teachers sometimes stopped periodically to ask questions to ensure that the students were on task. It is also important that the continuity of the reading experience is not disturbed too often by frequent teacher interruptions. Teachers were good at giving individual attention to students discreetly, when needed. Effective teacher questioning often led to good discussion from the class group and a laudable aim noted in one plan was to ensure that students felt comfortable enough to offer their point of view. Good practice was seen when students’ reactions to a poem were elicited as opposed to the teacher explaining the poem’s meanings. In this way students were able to come up with perceptive insights into the poem. This was achieved through effective questioning and by pointing out key features of the poem. Such examples of good use of higher-order questions challenged students and gave them very good opportunities for discussion. Good practice was also seen when an audio version of a poem was played to students and students were invited to respond.
A feature of lessons was the very good use made of the board for recording key points, for planning work, for instructions and homework. Mind mapping was also well used.
The English teachers place a strong emphasis on students’ acquisition of basis skills and on improving their writing. This is highly commended. In particular there is a strong emphasis placed on writing in the first half term in first year. To this end a grammar book was introduced onto the first-year book list. Where the teaching of grammar was observed, it was successful as the teachers ensured that the teaching of grammar was integrated with writing tasks rather than being taught in isolation. For example, when teaching adjectives, there was an appropriate emphasis on how they give life to writing.
There was an excellent emphasis on eliciting students’ informed personal responses, on drafting and redrafting work and on editing and correcting work. This is key to success in English and is therefore highly commended. Students were also taught to think about what to write and were set up for their writing task through exemplars of good writing both from published work and from their own work. There was a strong emphasis on vocabulary acquisition also observed and it was noted that some class groups were given opportunities to develop their vocabulary through crosswords. There was one very good example observed in a class of lower ability where a writing frame was given to students to direct them in their written work. This made the task more accessible for students and gave them a clear understanding of how to structure their work. In many effective lessons, students were reminded of the value of thinking and planning what they would write and students were prepared well for the writing process.
Additional resources were frequently used to supplement textbooks, which is to be commended as they added variety for students. Good use of interventions was made in many lessons. For example, students were asked to write a diary entry or a letter from the point of view of a character in a text they were studying. This is commended as it covers more than one aspect of the syllabus simultaneously, it teaches point of view and it makes writing more enjoyable for students. It is suggested that teachers also consider using a thematic approach when teaching certain aspects of the Junior Certificate syllabus. For example, after introducing an article about war, certain poems and short stories on the same theme could be introduced, as well as giving students writing tasks on the theme.
Teachers have their own base classrooms. Key quotations from drama texts, key words and students’ project work were displayed in some classrooms. It is recommended that this good practice be developed by all English teachers as students benefit from being surrounded by a print-rich environment and from having their work and key word or quotation posters constantly on display.
Students, on the whole, were well behaved. There was evidence of a very good relationship between teachers and students in most lessons. It was clear that teachers had a good knowledge of their students and were very affirming of their efforts. Lessons were often very enjoyable for students while at the same time learning was taking place. In these lessons teachers were enthusiastic about their subject matter and had a great knowledge and interest in their students and were totally engaged in their teaching which led to engaged students. In these lessons students were actively involved in their lessons and in their learning. There was an occasion when a small group of students was not participating in their lesson and were distracting to other students. Strategies should be developed to ensure that all students are focused on their lesson. Such strategies might include separation of talkative students.
There was good evidence that students are encouraged, where at all possible, to strive for the highest achievable level in their state examinations and the resulting percentage of students who sit higher level is commended.
Examination classes sit mock examinations. Other classes sit house examinations twice a year. Parent-teacher meetings are held for each year group annually. Common examinations are set for first-year class groups in November to ensure correct placement of students. This is very good practice and it is recommended that, where possible, common examinations should be introduced for similar bands across all year groups as appropriate to ensure transparency and consistency.
Some teachers insist that students use hardback copies for their English work. This is good practice as students tend to take better care of such copies. In addition, some students use folders to store their work and these were well maintained and full of useful resources.
Examination of students’ copies and folders showed that many teachers give very good written feedback to class groups, especially in senior cycle, on areas where they need to improve. There is a need for all teachers to adopt this policy so that students will know exactly where to improve and in order to encourage students to reflect critically upon their learning as outlined in the commendable homework policy of the school. In addition, it is recommended that the discrete criteria of assessment be explained to senior cycle students and used when marking their work.
Students were well profiled in the school by their English teachers. Records of students’ results in class-based and end-of-term tests as well as of homework were detailed and showed clear progression in teaching and learning.
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 English and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
 Moving Up: The Experiences of First-Year Students in Post-Primary Education: NCCA (2004)