An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of French
Mercy Secondary School
Ballymahon, Co. Longford
Roll number: 63710M
Date of inspection: 15 May 2007
Date of issue of report: 8 November 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in French
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Mercy Secondary School, Ballymahon. 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 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 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.
Mercy Secondary School is a co-educational post-primary school in Ballymahon, Co.Longford. The school provides a good range of curricular programmes, namely the Junior Certificate, Transition Year Programme (TYP) Leaving Certificate (established) and Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) to cater for the educational needs of its students.
The study of a modern language, while not obligatory in junior cycle, is strongly recommended and students may choose between French and Spanish. Uptake of French as an optional subject in senior cycle is very good.
The timetabling of French is very satisfactory in junior cycle with four periods per week. All lessons are single periods, the preferred time allocation for languages. All classes are timetabled concurrently in junior cycle. Given the fact that the teachers of French have commendably decided to teach students in mixed ability rather than in streamed groups throughout junior cycle, this concurrency arrangement may be seen as an unnecessary constraint on the school timetable. The provision of two periods per week to Transition Year French is less than ideal. Taking into account the fact that many students will continue to study the language for Leaving Certificate, it is recommended that three periods per week be allocated to French in TY so that students have sufficient time to maintain and develop the language skills they have acquired in junior cycle. The present fifth-year group has a single period of French twice on the same day and it would be preferable to have five single periods on successive days. Senior cycle groups are timetabled concurrently to facilitate movement between higher-level and ordinary-level classes.
Three teachers are engaged in the delivery of French in the school. Two substitute teachers have been teaching French during the current academic year. The teaching of French has been supported and enhanced in the present academic year, (2006-07) by the allocation of a French language assistant, whose contribution to the school was warmly acknowledged by the French department. It was reported that many students had benefited from the support, initiative, and linguistic expertise of the language assistant.
The teachers of French have been allocated their own classrooms which they have turned into a language-rich learning environment. The classrooms seen were spacious and comfortable with large blackboards. Examples of students’ work, key communicative phrases, French proverbs and language charts were prominently displayed and many classroom objects had been labelled in French. The addition of some colourful posters of France would further enhance the classrooms. Each teacher has a CD player and one room contains a television and video player. The French department has built up a good store of additional resources and, while it does not have an annual budget, additional supportive materials such as DVDs, magazines and books may be purchased as the need arises.
The range of co-curricular and cross-curricular activities to support the teaching and learning of French outside the confines of the classroom is somewhat limited. A theatre group has visited the school and TY students prepare French dishes in their Home Economics class. It is suggested that occasional school-based activities such as inter-class table quizzes, the showing of an appropriate French film such as Les Choristes, (accompanying worksheet available at www.irishfilm.ie) poster competitions in the target language or a French Day, which could, perhaps, be organised by Transition Year students, would further augment the teaching of the language and promote students’ interest in speaking and using French in an enjoyable atmosphere. It would be worth exploring the possibility of establishing links with a school in the town of Lendévant in Brittany which is twinned with Ballymahon or perhaps with a school in Poitiers, hometown of the language assistant. Contact could be established with the students of the partner school through e-mails, exchange of articles, photos and short articles for the school magazine. Such activities would provide a significant source of authentic materials and enhance cultural awareness.
ICT facilities in the school are of a good standard with one fully equipped computer room available and individual computers and data projectors sited in some classrooms. Teachers of French reported that they do not presently have timetabled access to the computer room. They have, however, used the Internet to download supplementary materials for use in the classroom and have encouraged students to access relevant language sites on their home computer. Ways of gradually expanding the use of ICT in the teaching and learning of French are well worth exploring and the willingness of teachers to engage in training represents a very positive step.
Subject planning has become an integral part of the whole-school planning process and subject departments have been established. Formal department meetings take place in late August and on one occasion during each term.
A plan to guide the teaching and learning of French was collaboratively drawn up during the school year 2005-06. This plan contains records of department meetings and an inventory of additional language resources. It lists educational and communicative aims together with topics to be taught to each year group, on a term-by-term basis. Considerable work has been done to date and it is suggested that a review of the subject plan at the start of the new school year would be timely.
Areas for consideration in the next school year include the drawing up of a comprehensive programme for French in Transition Year, as the existing document is not sufficiently detailed. A description of specific learning outcomes for each year group together with effective methodologies on how to achieve such targets would be useful. Strategies for encouraging optimum student oral participation in class and suggestions for the continuing development and use of ICT in the teaching of French should be included. An agreed department policy on assessment and homework procedures as well as on the use of the target language in the classroom should be documented. A helpful template to guide collaborative subject planning is available from members of the SDPI team or may be downloaded from the website www.sdpi.ie
A high level of individual short-term planning was evident in terms of the preparation of specific lesson plans, audio equipment, visual stimuli and worksheets.
Inspection activities comprised the observation of four lessons, a review of students’ work and interaction with students. A thematic approach, as recommended in the NCCA guidelines, ensured that lessons were appropriately structured and that different language skills were well integrated. Given the time of year, it was understandable that teachers and students were revising material for the upcoming in-house examinations. In some classes, good use was made of visual stimuli to revise various topics. In general, the blackboards could have been used more extensively to reinforce learning.
In one junior-cycle class, work focused on Les Vacances (holidays), a theme that is relevant to the lives and interests of teenage learners. Three sub-topics of Le Temps, Les Activités, Le Logement (weather, activities and accommodation) were written on the board to guide students through a pair work exercise where they were asked to discuss and then write some descriptive phrases. Short, focused pair work sessions are particularly effective for practising question and answer routines and for promoting the confidence of students. In the class in question, the commendable teaching strategy of pair work would have been more effective if there had been a stronger emphasis on the oral interaction rather than on the written responses of students. A listening exercise on summer holidays, which brought the lesson to its conclusion, aptly demonstrated the value of integrating the different but complementary language skills. The use of flash cards to portray various sporting and holiday activities is also worthy of commendation.
Another junior cycle class worked on revising La Famille. At the start of the lesson, the teacher modelled a short conversation with a volunteer student. All students were then asked to do the same exercise with a partner and a very good level of participation was observed. A large poster of the cartoon family, “The Simpsons” was used effectively to revise vocabulary. The teacher asked individual and global questions on the appearance of the various family members, using the poster to focus students’ attention. This teaching strategy worked well and indeed the poster in question could also be used to facilitate revision of other topics such as colours, clothes and parts of the body. Productive revision was further enhanced when students were given worksheets containing photos of famous people and were asked to speculate, in French, on the relationship between the different celebrities pictured. By using visual stimuli in tune with the interests of the learners, the task of revision was made more enjoyable.
Productive grammar work was at the centre of a senior-cycle lesson in which the past, present and future tenses were revised. It was obvious that students had a good knowledge of all three tenses and in particular of how to form the passé composé using the correct auxiliary verb. A selection of verbs in the three key tenses was written on the board and this was of considerable help to students when completing the revision worksheets. While students worked diligently on the written task during the lesson, they had no real opportunity for oral communication with peers. It is recommended that, having acquired the necessary grammatical structures and vocabulary, students be given sufficient time in the course of the lesson to practise and use these structures in a communicative context, thereby developing their oral skills. Students, particularly those in senior cycle should be encouraged to conduct a short conversation and to respond to questions without needing to write down their answers in advance.
The topic of pastimes was explored in another senior-cycle class. The lesson opened with a lively brainstorming exercise on the board. Verbs needed to express likes and dislikes were smartly revised and students participated well in the exercise. A teacher-generated handout containing sample questions facilitated a pair work session and students made a commendable effort to speak French. An aural component on the same topic was seamlessly integrated and the lesson concluded with a short writing task where students were asked to describe a friend’s likes and dislikes. A timely reminder from the teacher ensured that students were alerted to the need to use the third person singular of the verb and the correct form of the possessive adjective as required. This theme-based lesson was well structured and moved at a pace which ensured that the learners remained engaged throughout.
Very good use of the target language was evident in all the lessons observed. Teachers’ proficiency in the language was very good and they are commended for their commitment to speak clear, accurate French to their students, taking cognisance of the age and ability level of the group. It was heartening to note that students were familiar with and able to use the French alphabet. Continuing emphasis on participative methodologies will give students the opportunity to speak French and their confidence and competence will grow over time.
The atmosphere in all classes visited was positive and productive. Teacher-student interactions were easy and natural, based on mutual respect at all times. All students’ efforts were acknowledged and praised, mistakes were corrected sensitively and lessons were competently delivered.
A range of assessment methods is used to measure students’ progress and achievement. These include questioning in class, regular class tests, formal examinations and homework assignments.
Students sit formal in-house examinations at Christmas and in summer. Third-year and sixth-year students sit mock examinations in the spring, a practice which is under review in the school at present. High expectations are set for students of French in Mercy Secondary School and as many as possible are encouraged to sit the higher level papers in the state examinations.
It was noted that the French department engages in the commendable practice of setting common assessments, where feasible. Written and aural assessments are given to all year groups and teachers maintain comprehensive sets of results. The testing of oral proficiency takes place on two occasions in fifth year and again in sixth year. It is recommended that an element of oral assessment be introduced into every year group, including TY, either in a formal or informal capacity, in order to develop students’ oral competence and to validate the use of the target language in the classroom.
The quantity and quality of work in students’ copybooks was very good. Productive written tasks in the target language had been regularly assigned and corrected. In many cases, teachers had provided positive feedback affirming students’ efforts and giving clear instructions on how to improve. This is good practice.
Parents are kept fully informed of their son/daughter’s progress through use of the school journal, formal reports and parent-teacher meetings.
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 and deputy 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
The concurrency arrangement at Junior Cycle is not a constraint on the timetable as subject bands are set according to student preferences. It also facilitates single periods.
Area 2 Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection
activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection.