An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of French
Portarlington, Co. Laois
Roll number: 68068R
Date of inspection: 28 February 2007
Date of issue of report: 4 October 2007
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Íosagáin. 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 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.
Coláiste Íosagáin is a large co-educational Community School of 685 students, situated in Portarlington, Co. Laois. The school offers a wide range of programmes including Junior Certificate, Transition Year Programme, (TYP) Leaving Certificate (Established), Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) and Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) to respond to the varied educational needs of its students.
Two modern languages, French and German, are available to students. The school operates a “Subject Taster Programme” for its first-year students where all optional subjects are studied during the first term (two periods per week) in order to enable students to make a more informed choice of subjects for Junior Certificate. This is good practice. While the study of French or German is non-compulsory in the school, strong emphasis is placed on the importance of modern languages and only a small minority of students do not study a language in junior cycle. Students with special educational needs are offered extra learning support in English instead of French or German. In senior cycle, rates of continuity in French are very good.
In the present academic year, a very small number of students have decided to opt for Transition Year and the school is currently reviewing the provision of this programme in the future.
Classes are of mixed ability in junior cycle while senior cycle groups of higher and ordinary level are timetabled concurrently. The school operates a nine-period day and the provision of single periods throughout junior cycle is particularly praiseworthy as regular contact time with the target language is most beneficial to students. As French is in an options line with some practical subjects in senior cycle, the subject has been allocated one double and three single periods.
All teachers of French have designated spacious classrooms. One room visited was notable for the extent and imagination of the linguistically supportive environment that has been created for students. Examples of posters and students’ work on display included a giant-sized, cardboard cut out “washing-line” complete with colourful clothes labelled in French! The entire classroom, full of visual stimuli, was a vibrant and stimulating learning area for students.
The French department has an annual budget of €200. This allowance is generally used to acquire additional resources and it is recommended that some updated visual materials, including a map of France for each classroom, should be purchased. A good map of France is an invaluable resource when teaching and referring to place names, different regions, train routes and weather forecasts, all of which are frequently included in Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate listening comprehension tests.
Resources to support the teaching of languages in the school are good. Individual teachers have good-quality CD players and access to video and DVD players. A multi-media room, equipped with the software package Tell Me More and with Internet access, is available for language teaching. The Teachers of French have one timetabled period per week there with each of their classes. It was reported, however, that because of serious problems with the school’s computers, this ICT resource cannot be used satisfactorily at present. This matter is being addressed by school management and, once the difficulties are resolved, teachers of French are urged to make full use of this excellent facility. ICT is especially effective in the promotion of independent learning and in the motivation of students of all abilities.
The provision of a number of co-curricular activities for some students has helped to extend learning beyond the classroom setting. The first-year students enjoyed a typical French breakfast before Christmas as well as a visit to the French church to learn about the Huguenot history of Portarlington. Students in the LCA programme hosted some French cheese tasting. The school does not have a school tour or exchange programme in operation. Nevertheless, much can be done within the school itself to promote students’ interest in France and in all aspects of French culture. It is recommended that consideration be given to organising some enjoyable, in-school language activities for students. Many language events such as an e-mail exchange with a partner school in France, (information available from Léargas at www.leargas.ie ) the showing of a French film such as Les Choristes, (accompanying worksheet available at www.irishfilm.ie ) a poster competition, a table quiz in French for first and second year students, a project on French cities or football teams and some food tasting can be organised at minimum or at no cost. Such activities contribute significantly to students’ knowledge and appreciation of the French way of life and they greatly enhance the learning of the language.
The school is actively involved in whole school planning and staff have worked with a facilitator from the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI). Work over the past school year has concentrated on the area of subject planning and it is hoped to complete the initial phase of this process in the current academic year.
A French department, under the guidance of a voluntary co-ordinator, has been established. Two formal departmental meetings are facilitated at the start of the school year, when teachers discuss targets and common themes to be taught to each year group. Outside of these two meetings, there is no structure in place in the school to accommodate collaborative planning in a formal capacity.
Four teachers are engaged in the delivery of French in Coláiste Íosagáin. The teachers plan their work on an individual basis and some submitted a detailed scheme of work for each year group. General aims and objectives, textbooks and supplementary resources to be used, and topics to be covered were documented. The effort, time and commitment that has been devoted to such individual planning, much of it written in French, is fully recognised and the teachers concerned are warmly congratulated on their work. There was no evidence, however, of collaborative planning for the subject. In the context of ongoing whole school planning, serious consideration ought to be given to more professional co-operation and collaboration to identify the subject’s present and perceived future needs and to consider how the teaching and learning of the language in the school might be developed.
It is suggested that future, more frequent formal planning meetings should focus on discussing and documenting an agreed plan. Such a plan should include detailed information on specific learning outcomes for each year group as well as how best to achieve these objectives. Reference should be made to effective methodologies for teaching mixed ability classes and to strategies for promoting optimum student oral participation. Ideas for the further development and use of ICT to teach French should be included. A department policy on assessment and homework procedures as well as target language use in class could be agreed. Such collaborative work is demanding and time-consuming but it can be accomplished on a phased basis. By establishing and following a common approach to planning, teachers can simplify their workload. A suitable template to guide joint subject planning is available from members of the SDPI team or may be downloaded from the website www.sdpi.ie
All lessons were based around a particular theme and topics were well chosen and relevant to the lives and interests of teenage learners. Lessons were well prepared, in the main, and where needed, appropriate handouts were distributed to students to complement or supplement textbooks. It is recommended that the lesson topic and general structure of the lesson be written on the board at the start of class. A significant number of good teaching practices were observed during the evaluation.
The theme of poverty and homelessness was the focus of work in senior-cycle teaching observed. This began with a brief review of previously learned material. The good questioning techniques employed by the teacher showed that students had a broad range of vocabulary that they employed to good effect in the discussion that followed. Work on a relatively long reading text from a past examination paper was begun in class, but in order to allow sufficient time for discussion, the teacher wisely assigned homework on the remainder of the text. The class discussion itself centred on comparing poverty issues in France, as described in the passage, with similar issues in Ireland. All contributions were collated on the board and the pace was such that students remained focused and engaged throughout the discussion. A short listening activity, again related to the theme, rounded off the well-integrated and sharply delivered lesson.
In another example of senior-cycle teaching and learning observed, the focus was on the second-level school system in France, a topic that readily lends itself to raising cultural awareness. The textbook was used to introduce this topic and students were asked to complete a written exercise. While students applied themselves to the written task, it is recommended that a quick-paced brainstorming session be conducted on the board in advance of a reading or written exercise. Such student-directed activity will help to ensure full attention and engagement from the outset and will also allow the teacher to ascertain how much knowledge students already have about a particular topic. Good integration of the skill of aural comprehension was assured through the use of a listening exercise on the same topic. In addition to questions in English, based on the listening comprehension, students were also required to complete, in French, a teacher-generated cloze test. This was a most effective method of linking and developing aural and writing skills. The skill of oral production was tested through a series of teacher-led questions on the programmes, subjects, facilities and extra-curricular activities available in Coláiste Íosagáin. Students made a good effort to reply and whenever a student experienced difficulty, the teacher assisted sensitively by giving a prompt or example in the target language. Students’ oral production would be further developed through greater emphasis on student-student interaction.
In the majority of lessons observed, there was very good use of the target language. The board, gestures, mime and synonyms were used most effectively, thus ensuring that the need for translation was kept to a minimum. Instructions and affirmations were given in French and students responded well, making a genuine effort to communicate in the target language. Teachers’ linguistic competence was very good and they are to be commended for using French as a medium of real communication in the classroom. In a small minority of classes, there was little or no use of the target language with lessons being conducted largely through English. In the interests of improving the listening and speaking skills of students, it is recommended that the use of the target language be gradually and consistently increased until it becomes the principal vehicle of communication in all classrooms. In addition, it is recommended that short pronunciation sessions be included in all lessons to enable students to practise correct articulation and intonation on an ongoing basis. Students also benefit from learning and regularly using the French alphabet.
The topic of shops and public buildings in a typical town was skilfully used to teach both vocabulary and grammar in an integrated way in a junior-cycle class. Students engaged in a variety of tasks and were well able to use prepositions such as devant, en face de etc. in a communicative context when describing the layout of streets. A shared worksheet guaranteed productive pair work as students asked each other directions to various shops and buildings. Pair work is a particularly useful strategy as it gives all students the opportunity to speak French and allows them to work at their own pace. The energetic style of teaching coupled with good teacher movement around the classroom ensured that all students were kept on task.
Students engaged in message and letter writing in another junior-cycle class showed a good grasp of the required language skills. The teacher assisted their work by writing the key words and phrases on the board. Good advice was offered and homework was checked when the teacher circulated in the classroom. To allow time for the teaching of new material and the active participation of students, care needs to be taken to ensure that a disproportionate amount of the lesson period is not taken up with the correction of homework assignments.
A very good rapport between students and teachers was evident in the classrooms visited. Lessons were well managed and students were pleasant and co-operative. Teachers demonstrated a good understanding of and concern for their students, affirming and encouraging all efforts and contributions. The promotion of such a positive learning environment enables students to engage well with the subject and it does much to enhance their experience of learning French.
Students’ progress and attainment are assessed through a wide variety of techniques. These include questioning in class, monitoring of homework, class tests and continuous assessment. The results of three separate assessments, administered during the first term, form the basis of the Christmas reports that are sent home to parents or guardians. Further contact with parents is facilitated through annual parent-teacher meetings. In-house examinations are held for all year groups other than third- and sixth-year students who sit mock examinations in the spring. All year groups sit an aural examination in French but the testing of oral competence is conducted in sixth year only. Given the importance of the oral component of language learning, it is recommended that all students sit an informal oral test. This could be carried out within class time. Teachers of French are urged, within the context of collaborative planning, to consider the feasibility of introducing common assessments.
Coláiste Íosagáin has undertaken to develop a whole-school homework policy in the very near future. Examination of students’ copybooks showed that a considerable amount of productive homework in the target language has been regularly assigned, monitored and corrected by teachers. This practice is highly commended and is of great benefit to students, particularly as teachers had included positive, supportive comments in the copybooks. Homework worksheets, used in some classes, are a useful addition to the more traditional copybook but they should accompany rather than replace it. It is recommended that homework assignments be linked directly to work done in class in order to consolidate learning. In terms of the lay out and organisation of homework, it may be helpful to students if they were to use separate sections of their copybooks for different written tasks. Similarly, students’ vocabulary notebooks could be arranged according to themes in order to make words and phrases more easily accessible for revision purposes.
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.