An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Laurel Hill Coláiste FCJ,
Cnoc na Labhras,
Roll number: 64270P
Date of inspection: 24-25 September 2007
eport on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in english
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Laurel Hill Coláiste FCJ, Limerick, conducted as part of a whole school evaluation. 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.
There is good whole-school and subject provision for English in Laurel Hill Coláiste FCJ.
Timetable provision for English is in line with syllabus guidelines and the distribution of English classes throughout the week is good. Students are placed in mixed-ability classes in first year and remain in those classes until the end of their junior cycle studies. This practice is highly commended for encouraging all students to achieve to their full potential. In fifth year, smaller mixed-ability class groups are again formed. Concurrent timetabling is available for fifth-year English classes.
The English teachers of Laurel Hill Coláiste FCJ are a professional, hard-working group who are deeply committed to their students. All currently teach English to both junior and senior cycle class groups, thus broadening and deepening the expertise and experience across the department. Three teachers are currently involved in the delivery of mainstream English in the school. Of the three, two individuals are teaching a full load of twenty-two hours of mainstream English and one is currently job sharing. Given the size of the student enrolment, it is unusual that the teaching team is so small. It is recommended that school management review this current staff deployment arrangement in conjunction with the English department, to identify possible changes that would further support the teaching and learning of English.
Resource provision for the teaching of English is good. School management is commended for its general policy of having teachers based in their own rooms, thus facilitating resource storage and the creation of print-rich environments. All English teachers have whiteboards, notice boards, shelving and/or cupboards, CD players, and overhead projectors (OHPs) in their classrooms. They also have access to a TV and DVD/video player on every corridor, to two digital cameras, to two PCs in the teachers’ workroom, and to film-making equipment. The school makes funds available for the purchase of resources on request. Compiling an inventory of all aids and equipment located in English teachers’ classrooms (noting the location of the various items) and including it in the subject department plan will help the department derive maximum benefit from its current resources.
While English teachers can reserve the school’s computer room for use with a class, only one of the three English teachers’ classrooms has an internet connection installed at present. Hence, the incidental use of information and communication technologies (ICT) in the teaching and learning of English is not yet available to most class groups. Given the ICT expertise that already exists in the English department and the variety of resources available on the internet to support the subject, it is advised that timeframes and targets be established in the whole-school strategic ICT plan for the installation of internet access in classrooms.
At present, the school library in Laurel Hill Coláiste FCJ is primarily a supervised-study space. Library management is part of a post of responsibility in the school and a lending service operates for first years, where fifth years record borrowings in an official register. Useful texts in a number of curricular areas were noted on the shelves of the library. However, numerous obsolete books also formed part of the collection, either on shelves or in boxes of books at the back of the room. Hence, to best support students’ personal reading and research needs, the current library stock would benefit from being updated. It is suggested that representatives of the different subject departments be asked to vet books related to their subjects currently housed in the library and then to compile lists of the texts that should be removed and should be added. To help select materials to support the teaching and learning of English specifically, the English teachers are encouraged to refer to the 2001 Children’s Books Ireland/ Department of Education and Science joint publication Book Choice for Post-Primary Schools, the School Library Association of Ireland, Children’s Books Ireland, and the UK School Library Association. (See http://www.libraryassociation.ie, http://www.childrensbooks.ie, and http://www.sla.org.uk/advice
The English department is conscious of the importance of promoting personal reading. In the absence of a fully-functioning school library, individual English teachers have promoted personal reading through reading circles, book boxes, organising writer talks in the school, and requiring students to read a novel independently and to write a review on it. Such practices are highly commended. To further motivate students’ personal reading, teachers could dedicate occasional junior classes to personal reading and could post a list of recommended books for particular age groups (accompanied by short descriptions) on classroom walls and/or have them included with booklists for parental reference. Also, it is suggested that year-group scrapbooks could be created from the book reviews produced by students, so that peer recommendations are also harnessed. Those scrapbooks could then be displayed in the library for easy reference. Lastly, it is strongly encouraged that an area of the library be turned into a whole-school showcase for English activities, incorporating items such as photographs of visiting writers, accounts of their visits, and reviews of their works; commercial posters advertising books and films; students’ art work depicting scenes/characters from studied texts and imagined book-covers; clippings from newspapers, magazines and so on. As Circular M16/99 (“Guidelines for reading at Second Level Schools”) intimates, emotional, social, and academic benefits will accrue from such a whole-school promotion of reading: “Habitual reading arouses curiosity about, interest in and confident command of language. The reader takes delight in language and is versatile and comfortable in speaking and writing. These are the factors that develop the more able Leaving Certificate examination candidate.”
A very impressive array of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities supports the teaching and learning of English in Laurel Hill Coláiste FCJ. In particular, the school strives to provide students with insights into the mechanics of drama to support their reading of plays and to give them a lifelong interest in performance. The English teachers do this by teaching junior cycle units on practical script-writing, performance and dramatic analysis and by taking class groups to theatrical productions. Participation in the annual school show is the highlight of this learning. Class magazines are produced by first-year students and a school magazine (incorporating submissions from all year groups) is produced by a fifth-year student committee and liaison teachers. Students’ awareness of English-related co-curricular activities in their locality is developed by the display of advertisements for upcoming plays in some English teachers’ classrooms and this is highly commended. Students are prepared to enter literary table quizzes, debating and public speaking competitions and are encouraged to enter writing competitions. In recent years, a lunchtime film club has been established and equipped and a film produced by the club was shown at a local film festival in 2006. In the past, the English department prepared students to enter the “Write a Book” competition and the M.S. Readathon. To celebrate this impressive range of supports, it is suggested that English-related achievements be displayed along with other student achievements on the school walls and/or in the school achievement cabinet. Also, it is suggested that the establishment of in-school writing awards for different year groups would further motivate and support student achievement in that area. Above all, the management and teachers of Laurel Hill Coláiste FCJ are highly commended for their commitment to providing such stimulating co-curricular and extra-curricular activities for their students.
The English teachers are enthusiastically committed to continuing professional development and are encouraged and supported by school management. Sources of professional development that have been accessed by individual members of the department include acting as State Examination Commission (SEC) examiners for English; attending courses on creative writing, writer-in-residence projects, and film-making; and developing expertise in pod cast creation and in using software programmes for magazine production. Hence, peer professional support is readily available among the school’s teachers of English. Looking toward the future, the department is encouraged to continue consulting the Teaching English Support Service (TESS) magazines and website and the various guideline documents referred to in this report.
In September 2007, a School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) input on subject department planning was organised by school management for all teachers. However, for many years, the teachers of English have already been meeting formally three times a year to engage in collaborative planning. The fact that they have also engaged in ongoing informal collaboration in their own free time is indicative of their professional commitment to continuous improvement and is highly commended.
The role of subject department co-ordinator is rotated, thus developing leadership skills in all department members. This is highly commended. By the time of the evaluation, the English teachers had documented the department’s practices under the headings of the relevant SDPI template and had prepared aims and course outlines for each year group. Other documents in the department’s plan included an identification of each English teacher’s areas of expertise and professional development activities undertaken, evidence of past and planned co-curricular activities, and reference material downloaded from the internet. The fact that these documents had been prepared electronically is commended, since it means that changes/additions can easily be made and that copies can be provided to all department members. To help develop the English department’s planning even further, two recommendations are given.
First, it is recommended that time be specifically allocated for a “show and tell” input at the beginning of each subject department meeting, where individual members would be asked to present an effective resource or strategy they use in their practice and/or to share insights relevant to the teaching of English they gained from a professional development course, from practices they observed in the English departments of other schools, and/or from further study that individuals are currently undertaking.
Secondly, it is recommended that, over the coming years, the department develop its curriculum content plans into termly schemes of work. At the outset, the department should identify what it considers the most appropriate learning outcomes (knowledge, skills, and attitudes) for students in each year group and identify activities and texts that will help achieve those outcomes. Schemes of work should also include planning for differentiation for exceptionally able students and/or for students with literacy difficulties, planning to incrementally hone aspects of students’ literacy skills, and planning for students studying at different levels in the one class. (See Exceptionally Able Students: Draft Guidelines for Teachers (http://www.ncca.ie/uploadedfiles/
publications/Except%20Able_Glines.pdf) and the Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs: Post-Primary Guidelines (http://www.education.ie/servlet/blobservlet/des_insp_inclusion
_students_sp_ed_needs_pp_guidelines_foreword.htm). Once the first-year scheme units and their sequencing are agreed, the same process should then be employed, over the coming years, to prepare schemes of work for the other year groups. Individual teachers’ existing plans will be an important foundation for, and aid to, this work. Such re-visioning of the department’s existing curriculum content plans will result in a more incremental, consistently-reinforced English learning experience.
The current Transition Year (TY) programme incorporates the following elements: the study of short stories, a novel, and poems; creative and functional writing work; the production of a class magazine; a unit on debating and public speaking; and a unit on script-writing, production, acting, and critical analysis of drama. The variety of methodologies employed to provide these experiences is highly commended. To maximise the potential of the modular approach already embraced by the English teachers in the delivery of this programme, it is encouraged that TY classes be concurrently timetabled. Also, given that in-school expertise and equipment are available in the school in relation to film production, it is suggested that a unit on film analysis/production be introduced into the TY programme for English. Finally, the department may find the TY Support Service’s suggestions for English programmes (http://ty.slss.ie/areas_study.html) and the article “The Teaching of English in Transition Year: Some Thoughts” (Teaching English magazine, Spring 2006, pgs. 11-12) helpful in its ongoing development of the programme.
In terms of individual teacher planning, half-termly, termly and/or yearly plans and accompanying resource materials were presented for inspection. Examples of best practice observed included planning for the weekly integration of skill development into students’ learning. Recording brief self-evaluative comments in teacher diaries or on individual year group plans about how particular lessons/units of work could be improved or extended with future class groups would further develop the department’s practice in this area.
Effective teaching was observed over the course of the evaluation. Teachers’ ease and breadth of reference in relation to the studied texts was impressive. In all classes visited lessons were structured and the content being taught was in line with syllabus requirements. Where best practice was observed, lessons were planned to serve specific learning outcomes and those learning outcomes were shared at the beginning of lessons with learners, helping them to connect new learning with previous work and also inviting them to share responsibility for the lesson.
The resources used by English teachers during the lessons evaluated included textbooks, whiteboards, an audio version of a play, and handouts. Evidence was also gathered of the use photographs to trigger composition work, response journals, concrete materials such as props and magazines, exemplars of student writing, film clips, and the school hall for dramatisation work. The use of such varied audio-visual and concrete materials is highly commended. Also, the whiteboard was used in all classes evaluated to provide written reinforcement of new vocabulary and/or new quotations, to set roles and tasks for co-operative learning activities, to record student feedback, and to set homework assignments. Building on this foundation and taking into consideration the variety of learning styles and of student abilities in the school, it is recommended that the pool of audio and ICT resources and of texts being taught to Junior Certificate students continue to be broadened over the coming years.
All teachers used questioning to good effect to stimulate and interact with students and to structure the learning activity. They asked a blend of targeted questions (directed to a named student) and questions open to response from willing individuals. Also, the good practice of setting questions to guide students’ listening to an audio performance of a play ensured that their comprehension efforts were guided by a purpose derived from the lesson’s intended learning outcomes. This is commended. All teachers were careful listeners, connecting student responses contributed at different moments in lessons. Where best practice was observed, teachers progressed from recall/recognition questions to questions requiring higher-order thinking and personal aesthetic responses. Looking toward the future, students’ capacities to set and answer their own questions (through independent learning projects, for example), is an area where there is scope for further development.
A variety of teaching methods was observed over the course of the evaluation including question and answer, teacher and student reading, students in role, group work, peer learning (where students were asked to listen to and comment on samples of other students’ work read out to them), co-operative learning, creative modelling, directed listening to a scene from a play, and connecting new material to students’ prior knowledge and experience. In addition, evidence was gathered of teachers’ use of project work, the dramatisation and performance of short stories/ short plays, differentiation (through pair/group work and through the assignment of different homework tasks to certain students), dramatic and quotation games, and the use of writing interventions, writing frames, and creative writing workshops. The English department now need to formally share and document these excellent pedagogical practices, to ensure that all students get the benefit of them.
One recommended area for progression across the department is the consistent development of students’ literacy skills from first to sixth year. While much good work is being done on different elements by individual teachers, this work now needs to be shared and delivered consistently across the entire department. Areas for discussion could include the use of spelling tests and vocabulary copies, encouraging students to keep a folder of writing models and self-selected articles from first year onward, Make a Book projects, the use of writing samples as diagnostic instruments, and the use of word processing and other software packages to reinforce the process approach to writing. Through this work, the delivery of incremental skill development for students will be further strengthened. Among the professional development resources the department may wish to browse in this regard are those described on the websites http://www.jcspliteracy.ie/school_wide.htm and http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/.
All teachers communicate high expectations to students and excellent rapport between teachers and students was evident in all the classrooms visited. Teachers consistently affirmed students’ responses, integrating them orally into lessons. Discipline was maintained in all classes and almost all students were engaged in their learning. An examination of students’ copies revealed that a variety of writing tasks had been assigned to all students. Also, the copies offered evidence of students organising their ideas before engaging in writing tasks, of the direct transfer of students’ debating/public speaking experiences into impressive pieces of writing, of students editing their work after completing assignments, and of high presentation expectations being taught. Oral questioning by teachers and by the inspector demonstrated students’ enthusiasm and expertise in relation to stagecraft, their very good levels of knowledge of studied texts and taught conventions, and their strong awareness of the need to support their views with evidence. Some students were engaging in higher-order thinking about texts, spontaneously asking their teacher perceptive questions, and offering original comparative connections to texts previously studied. In a few classes, students were actively competing to present alternative readings of texts to their teacher and to their peers. These instances of critical writing and thinking were very impressive.
In all classes observed, teachers had created motivational print-rich environments to support their teaching of English. The English-related resources displayed in rooms included programmes of productions staged in a local theatre, a flier for the local Youth Theatre group, homonym sheets printed in contrasting colours, inspirational quotations and images, a “Love Reading” poster, enlarged copies of letters by famous Irish writers, student illustrations for the programme of a play performed by them, and the LC prescribed text circulars. It is encouraged that the practice of developing classroom writing corners be extended across the department, to celebrate student achievement and to support peer learning. The department is commended for striving to provide motivational print-rich environments for its students.
A range of assessment modes is used to monitor student competence and progress in English including oral questioning, homework, in-class writing assignments, continuous assessment, and formal examinations. Additional assessment practices are also used by individual members of the department. For example, some teachers use assessments as diagnostic instruments, identifying the most common grammatical, spelling, and or organisational errors of each student and preparing lessons to help remediate those problems. Moreover, it was reported that some teachers involve students in peer assessment by asking them to evaluate exemplars of student writing, either from chief examiners’ reports, from other print sources or from past students. Furthermore, some teachers reported assigning differentiated homework tasks to students to cater for their individual needs. Such assessment practices are highly commended and it is recommended that they be incorporated into the department’s collective assessment practices. To help develop the English department’s assessment practices even further, the following recommendations are given.
First, it is encouraged that teachers assign class time early in the first term of every year for students to produce a substantial personal writing sample. Using those samples diagnostically (that is, analysing and recording the recurring errors in each student’s work) would give the teacher a good benchmark for skill development programme planning. Gathering such benchmarks of students’ written work at the start of every school year will also be helpful where teachers are taking on a class group mid-cycle. Clearly, additional information such as students’ results in prior house exams and their SEC results (if available) would further strengthen the evidence base for teacher planning.
Secondly, it is suggested that the department consider awarding some marks toward end-of-term results for tasks linked to the agreed learning outcomes for different year groups. (Those tasks could include spelling and vocabulary tests; a cumulative average for composition work; folder maintenance; reviews of books, plays, and or poetry readings read or attended independently; formal oral presentations; project work; the assembly of portfolios of students’ writings; and so on). Such student-centred assessment approaches would help all students.
Thirdly, the English department should further develop the practices of peer and self-assessment to enable students to gain a greater degree of understanding of the reasons why they earn the grades they do. The criteria for assessment that were published as Appendix 1 to the LC English syllabus should be introduced early in the senior cycle, a copy of the grid distributed to senior cycle students and or posted on classroom walls as a visual aid, and students should be encouraged to use the language of the criteria when engaging in peer and self-assessment. (See http://english.slss.ie/resources/Appendix_1_HL_and_OL.pdf and http://english.slss.ie/resources/
Assessment_Advice_Students.pdf). Teachers are encouraged to use the Purpose, Coherence, Language, and Mechanics (PCLM) criteria when marking substantial pieces of senior cycle student writing. A simplified version of the criteria could also be introduced to junior cycle students, to help them identify the strengths and areas for development in their own writing.
A number of the classes observed began with a review of homework or of work done in a previous class, thus maximising the chances that students would retain their new learning. Where best practice was observed, homework assignments were written on the whiteboard; students were given specific instructions on how homework was to be presented and on the criteria that work should meet (page length, number of points and quotations required, and so on); and sufficient time was allocated for students to note down their assignments. Finally, one of the school’s practices to support homework completion is that every week, class teachers sign and sometimes write comments on the homework journals of students in the classes they have been assigned special pastoral responsibility for. Parents are then asked to countersign the journals. This practice is highly commended.
From a review of copies gathered from the classes evaluated, it was clear that homework was being set and monitored in all classes. In some cases, students’ work was acknowledged by a tick and short comment. In other cases, the teacher comment offered formative feedback that affirmed specific strengths in the piece of writing and gave specific advice for improvement. It is recommended that the department arrive at a common policy on the correction of mechanical errors and on the provision of formative feedback on substantial pieces of writing, so that teachers’ responses to students’ writings are relatively consistent from first to sixth year. To support that discussion, materials such as the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA)’s “Assessment for Learning” web pages, the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) publication Between the Lines, and the relevant section of Inclusive Dyslexia-Friendly Practice will be useful. (See http://www.sess.ie/sess/Files/Dyslexia_crossborder.pdf).
Appropriate class records of students’ results are kept using a teacher diary system. First and second years’ progress is evaluated through continuous assessment, with reports being sent to parents at Christmas and summer. Third and fifth years are assessed using formal Christmas and summer examinations. Fourth and sixth years are assessed using formal Christmas examinations and a pre-certificate examination in the spring. The English department is commended for its work in preparing and administering common assessments to fourth, fifth, and sixth-year students. Those common assessments facilitate the comparison of attainment across a year group, thus providing an evidence base for planning to meet students’ needs. It is encouraged that this practice be extended to other year groups, as appropriate. Teachers use SEC chief examiners’ reports and marking schemes to inform their work and the department produces an analysis of all students’ SEC results in English as an aid to self-review. This is best practice. Parents/guardians are informed of students’ progress through comments on students’ homework journals, twice-yearly school reports, and annual parent-teacher meetings for each year group.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· The English teachers of Laurel Hill Coláiste FCJ are a dedicated, hard-working group who are deeply committed to their students.
· The English teachers and school management are highly commended for the very impressive array of English-related co-curricular and extra-curricular activities they routinely arrange for their students. Not only do those activities support the teaching and learning of English, but they also develop students’ lifelong interests.
· Students are placed in mixed-ability English classes in first year and remain in those classes until the end of their junior cycle studies. This practice is highly commended for encouraging all students to achieve to their full potential.
· While the English department began the formal process of subject department planning in September 2007, its members have been meeting three times a year and also informally on an ongoing basis for many years to engage in collaborative planning.
· Effective teaching was observed over the course of the evaluation. In all classes visited lessons were structured and the content being taught was in line with syllabus requirements. High expectations were communicated to students by all teachers.
· The department utilises a variety of excellent pedagogical practices and an array of audio-visual and concrete materials to support teaching and learning. Motivational print-rich environments had been created in all classrooms visited.
· Excellent rapport between teachers and students was evident in all the classrooms visited. Teachers consistently affirmed students’ responses, integrating them orally into lessons. Discipline was maintained in all classes and almost all students were engaged in their learning.
· A range of assessment modes is used to monitor student competence and progress in English. From a review of copies gathered from the classes evaluated, it was clear that a variety of writing tasks had been set for all students and that homework was being set and monitored in all classes.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The English department should further develop its common approach to assessment in line with the advice in this report.
· The English department should agree, document, and implement a common approach to developing students’ literacy skills incrementally from first to sixth year.
· Subject department planning should be further developed in line with the advice in this report.
· The library should be restored as a support to the teaching and learning of English over the coming years.
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