An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Hacketstown, County Carlow
Roll number: 70410O
Dates of inspection: 20 and 21 November 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Eoin, Hacketstown. 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 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.
Coláiste Eoin is a co-educational school maintained by Co. Carlow VEC. The school has a predominantly rural catchment area in East Carlow and West Wicklow. A whole-school evaluation was carried out in the school in 2005, and an inspection of English in the junior cycle took place in 2001.
The English teaching team in Coláiste Eoin comprises four teachers. One of these is job-sharing, and this gives rise to a timetable shared between two teachers, whereby they each take two or three lessons with their junior cycle classes. Neither of these teachers takes English in the senior cycle. The other two teachers are deployed in both junior and senior cycle, teaching all levels and programmes. This supports an approach to the teaching and learning of English as a cumulative development of knowledge and skills from first to sixth year. Rotating the teaching of higher and ordinary level groups is also good practice, and these patterns of deployment are commended.
Timetable arrangements for English are generally satisfactory with regard to the number and distribution of lessons. Provision is very good in the senior cycle, with four lessons per week in the transition year (TY), six in fifth year and five in sixth year. TY is not compulsory but almost all students participate, and this is commendable. In the junior cycle, there are five lessons per week in both second and third year. In second year, a lesson is timetabled every day, whereas in third year English is not timetabled on Monday. While the double lesson on Thursday is potentially very useful for many class activities, it is recommended that English always be timetabled on Mondays and Fridays so as to minimise the gap between lessons. There are just four lessons per week in first year and, although these are well distributed throughout the week, consideration should be given to offering a fifth lesson, so that a solid foundation for the development of language skills can be set down at this significant stage. English is timetabled concurrently in each year, thus facilitating whole-year activities.
The school has recently changed from a system of mixed-ability single sex class formation in first year to the creation of co-educational ability sets in the core subjects. This ability setting has been largely based on cloze reading tests administered prior to entry. It is good practice to arrange for timely information about incoming students so that adequate planning for the relevant supports can take place. It was noted that the test used to determine reading age and therefore class placement is not one of those on the approved list attached to the most recent relevant Department circular, 99/07. There was also evidence that some students are of appreciably higher ability than the general level of the classes in which they have been placed. Any assessment of reading age should be treated with a degree of caution, since many variables may affect student performance on the day. It is therefore advisable that further consideration be given to the basis of formation of first-year classes, and that circular 99/07 be consulted with regard to suitable assessments. The possible re-introduction of carefully managed mixed ability, based on a wide range of criteria to ensure a good educational and social mix, should also be discussed. Setting for English continues throughout the junior cycle and classes are designated as higher and ordinary, terms best kept until third year when the issue of levels for the Junior Certificate is pertinent. The terms “honours” and “pass” which were sometimes used by teachers in discussion with the inspector have been defunct for many years and should be dropped. TY classes are of mixed ability and the setting of classes in senior cycle is based on choice of level in Leaving Certificate English.
Literacy support is delivered by a small learning support team to students identified as having literacy difficulties. The school has a qualified learning support teacher and another teacher is currently completing a diploma in special educational needs (SEN). Students are withdrawn for literacy support from French or Irish where an exemption has been granted, generally in small groups. Team teaching has reportedly been successfully introduced to offer in-class support to students in certain subjects. This is commendable, and such an approach should be strongly considered by the English and literacy support teachers. Advice on team teaching may be sourced from the Special Education Support Service (www.sess.ie). Additional information and communications technology (ICT) hardware and software have been ordered and the learning support team were very aware of the benefits of ICT for SEN students. This is a commendable development.
Teachers of English teach in base classrooms. These are well equipped with audiovisual facilities and contain displays of students’ work, posters and other illustrative material relating to texts being studied, photographs of shows and school events, and syllabus information. The opportunity for students to “publish” their work by means of classroom display is particularly valuable as a way of encouraging them to proofread and present work carefully, and this practice is commended. The school also has a large and attractive library, with a good range of fiction and reference works, and library duties form part of a post of responsibility. Funds for re-stocking the library are raised through fundraising activities, and there has been no significant purchase of books recently. It is suggested that development of non-fiction stock including biographies and books on sport and topical issues would encourage greater use of the library.
It was reported that teachers of English have attended a number of in-service courses in recent times, including the Second Level Support Service (SLSS) “Teacher as writer” programme. Whole-staff in-service takes place on a regular basis, and a session on assessment for learning was imminent at the time of the inspection. The attention given to continuing professional development is commended.
Co-curricular activities in the school include debating and public speaking, writing competitions and projects including a TY magazine, and visits from writers, including as part of the writers in residence scheme. Theatre visits also take place. School management and the teachers of English are commended for facilitating these enriching activities.
Planning and Preparation
A co-ordinator for English is nominated by the subject teachers and the position is rotated at agreed intervals. A term of office of two years is recommended, as this gives enough time for the incumbent to develop a sense of the role while ensuring that all members of the teaching team gain this experience. As part of the subject department planning process, the teachers of English should agree on a description of the co-ordinator’s role and this should be included in the planning documents. As well as organisational functions such as chairing and recording the minutes of meetings, the role should encompass areas such as progressing the plan for English, encouraging the sharing of good practice and promoting collaborative work with regard to teaching materials and in-house assessments. Management facilitates formal planning meetings each term, and teachers also reported that they discuss subject issues regularly on an informal basis. Teachers involved in the shared teaching of classes also meet regularly and there was evidence of good collaborative planning to deliver an integrated programme to these classes.
A subject plan based on the relevant syllabus documents has been drawn up for junior cycle and Leaving Certificate English. All plans contain broad statements of aims and objectives. In the process of reviewing these documents, it is recommended that the English department refer more specifically to planned learning outcomes and set out clear time frames for these. For example, the current plan identifies “the form and structure of sentences and paragraphs” as a language skill in first year. A more specific statement such as “At the end of the first term students will be able to write three clearly linked paragraphs” provides greater direction for teaching and learning, and points towards an effective way of assessing whether the skill has been learned. This principle could be usefully applied to the English year plans for all years. The English department is commended on drawing up a plan which focuses on skills and is not dominated by lists of the texts to be covered. However, it would be helpful to relate particular skills to the texts chosen in order to underpin the good practice of integrating the teaching and learning of language skills with the reading of novels and plays. This good practice was followed in some individual planning documents.
The content planned for each year’s work was generally suitable. Care should be taken to ensure that new material is studied in each year of the junior cycle. At present, some third-year classes are engaged in revision work only. There was evidence that texts were chosen on the basis of their appeal to students, and this is in keeping with the spirit of the various syllabuses.
A booklet setting out the TY programme summarises the English/Communications plan for the year. It reflects a broad encounter with various aspects of media, creative writing, the development of critical literacy and of oral communication skills, and these are consistent with the aims of the programme.
In relation to all planning for the subject, it is suggested that the teaching team focus on effective and appropriate teaching and learning methods, in order to promote the sharing of good practice and of helpful resources. In particular, further development of the active learning methods which are discussed in the next section would be a very useful planning exercise.
Very detailed planning for literacy support is taking place in the school. Communication between the literacy support team and the English department is good, and they meet formally at the beginning of the year to share information. Templates to assist in planning programmes of support for individual students have been developed with reference to the Department guidelines and a trial of the templates is planned for 2008.
Teaching and Learning
Six lessons were observed during the course of the inspection, covering all years, levels and programmes. Good classroom management was evident in all cases, and students were generally co-operative and attentive. Pacing varied depending on the level of the class and the nature of the activity. It was well-judged in most cases; specific points in relation to the pace of questions are made below. Lessons were well planned with prior preparation of material. Teachers were at ease with the material selected, and referred readily to background information on the texts where necessary. In some instances the focus of the lesson was stated explicitly or written down at the beginning of the lesson. This is good practice as it focuses students’ attention and it should be extended to all lessons.
Resources used included textbooks, supplementary photocopied material and the board. However, the use of the classroom space as a resource and of simple costumes and props for the performance of a scene from a play was especially noteworthy, and a successful instance of the use of resources to promote active and engaged learning. The board was used well to map out the lesson, to note salient points and to record homework. The extent to which the board offers visual reinforcement should not be forgotten. It is suggested that a spelling margin be ruled on the board where new words can be written and left for the duration of the lesson, thus aiding students to absorb them. The use of audiotapes is also recommended, and good-quality contemporary audiotapes of Shakespearean drama are particularly useful.
Questioning and direct teaching of the whole class were the principal methods used. A good range of questioning techniques was observed: some to check on students’ recall and basic understanding of a text; some requiring a more thoughtful response; and others used to prompt students to link new material with prior learning. The first of these was seen to be most effective where questions were directed at named students, and care should be taken to avoid too much chorus answering. Some very good examples of the more searching type of question were observed, for example where a junior cycle group was asked to speculate on what might happen next in a story and why, and where a senior cycle group was prompted to see connections between an earlier event and a plot development. Occasionally, insufficient time was given for students to arrive at the required depth of response. It is important to signal to students that whereas factual questions should be swiftly answered, the formulation of more complex responses takes time, and a thinking pause of several seconds should be allowed for. In an instance of good follow-up questioning, the teacher made it clear that students’ initial responses were not sufficiently precise and challenged them to articulate their views more clearly. This is good practice in classes of all levels of ability, as the follow-up questions can be pitched appropriately.
Direct teaching where teachers described and explained the material was effective where the material itself held the students’ attention and where it was combined with good questioning to elicit responses from students. However, it is important to vary the use of this method according to the ability of students to partake actively in this kind of directed discussion. Occasionally students were observed to be passive and disinclined to participate or respond. Where students are likely to be unresponsive to direct teaching, more active and task-based methods are recommended. For example, students could be asked to work in pairs and to investigate a particular text for themselves with the help of a task-sheet. This would also reinforce for them the fact that a variety of valid responses to the same text is possible.
Active learning methods were observed in the context of drama where students read parts from their seats or acted out scenes. In discussion with the inspector, these students demonstrated a very good grasp of the material, providing evidence of the success of this approach. An active approach was also incorporated into some teacher-led lessons where students were encouraged through leading questions or provocative statements to grapple with new ideas and to express their own views. This method promotes a good balance between teachers’ and students’ input to class discussion and is commended. However, valid points made by students were not given appropriate affirmation in a few instances, perhaps because they diverged from the line of thinking being pursued by the teacher. Care should be taken to keep an open mind on all responses proffered by students, especially where students may be lacking in confidence. In the best instances, teachers’ enthusiasm was communicated effectively to the students and created a lively and stimulating atmosphere.
Careful monitoring of students’ levels of participation and understanding was generally noted in the lessons observed, and questioning was used well in this regard. Where students were working on an exercise, teachers circulated to give assistance where appropriate and to check on progress. In a number of lessons, students were asked to read out the previous night’s work at the beginning, an effective method for monitoring the completion of short assignments and where the work forms the basis for the next lesson. Good practice was seen in the way that homework was given; it was clearly related to the lesson topic and was usually written on the board in good time for students to record it in their journals.
The school has a policy on study and homework, with clear goals related to encouraging students to manage their work and to raise their attainment. This is commended. A review of students’ copies showed that a good volume of work had been completed in most cases. However, it is suggested that the issue of presentation of work be addressed on a whole-school basis, so that students from first year on learn that consistent standards are applied within and between subjects. Best practice was seen where the assignments set were imaginative and challenging, and where students received encouraging written comment on substantial pieces of work. The inspector discussed the “assessment for learning” approach with the teachers and the principal, and in-service in this area has been planned for the whole staff. This is commendable. The importance of students’ understanding the criteria which will be applied when assessing their work was discussed during the evaluation, as it is of great assistance to students in successfully completing any task.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Timetable arrangements for English are generally satisfactory with regard to the number and distribution of lessons, and English is well resourced.
· The planning and delivery of literacy support is carefully managed.
· Good classroom management was evident in all cases.
· A good range of questioning techniques was observed.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The assessment of incoming students and the basis for class formation should be reviewed.
· Skills development and specific learning outcomes should be the focus of the year plan for English.
· The English teaching team should expand their use of active learning methods.
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 September 2008
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1 Observations on the content of the inspection report
The Board of Management of Colaiste Eoin wish to submit the following response to the Subject Inspection of English carried out on the 20th and 21st of November 2007.
· We would like to make reference to a statement made on page two of the report ie. “it was noted that the test used to determine reading age and therefore class placement is not one of those on the approved list attached to the most recent relevant Department circular, 99/07”. The Board of Management wish to point out to the Department of Education and Science that the school authorities were not in receipt of Circular Letter 99/07 prior to the English inspection which was carried out on the 21-22 of November 2007. In fact the Circular was only made known to the relevant personnel of the school during the process of the inspection. The Board of Management is now in possession of a copy of the Circular and will of course be implementing Circular 0099/2007 forthwith.
· The Board wish to commend the school on its accommodating disposition to the educational needs of students in the school. In fact, due to the school’s well developed policy of concurrent class time-tabling, students may transfer from an ordinary level class to join a higher-level class or vice versa, a practice which has been and will continue to be facilitated by the school from time to time.
· The Board would agree with the school’s practice that it is appropriate in the case of individual students to bear in mind factors including personal motivation, student determination, application to study, general aptitudes, familial factors, various social distractions that contribute significantly to a student’s overall school performance. It is also noted by the Board that while an individual student may present well orally in the classroom, he /she may concurrently present with underlying learning challenges.
· The Board was very highly impressed by the contents of the report and would like to congratulate the English teachers, their students and the management in the school. The Board would like to thank the Inspectorate of the Department of Education and Science for the compilation of the Inspection report in English and in particular the recognition of the many strengths and commendations outlined in the report together with the areas of development identified which the school are presently in the process of implementing.