An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Roll number: 70440A
Date of inspection: 15 January 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Gaelcholáiste Cheatharlach. 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 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; a response was not received from the board.
Gaelcholáiste Cheatharlach was established in 1990 as a post-primary school under the auspices of Co. Carlow VEC. It provides second-level education through the medium of Irish for students in the area. The school has recently moved into new and well-appointed premises, with pleasant classrooms and a spacious library area. There is an upward trend in intake, which may lead to three class groups rather than two in the incoming first-year cohort. The school offers a Transition Year (TY) programme and more than half of the students opt to take it.
Timetable provision for English is very good, both in the number and distribution of lessons for each year. All junior cycle classes have an English lesson every day. There are four lessons for the TY group, including lessons on Monday and Friday so that the gap between lessons is minimised. English is timetabled every day for fifth and sixth year and is timetabled concurrently for the two class groups in each year. English lessons also run concurrently in third year, and this has facilitated the creation of a third class group at the beginning of the second term, comprising students who will take English at ordinary level in the state examinations.
Classes in first and second year are of mixed ability, and therefore should not be referred to as either higher or ordinary level, but rather as pursuing a common level course. The terms “honours” and “pass” have been defunct for many years and should not be used. The TY group is also of mixed ability. In fifth and sixth year, students are set for English in accordance with the level they hope to take in Leaving Certificate English. Junior Certificate results and teachers’ recommendations are taken into account when advising students on levels. Where students have completed TY, their work during the year should also be considered when discussing Leaving Certificate levels.
The English teaching team in Gaelcholáiste Cheatharlach comprises three teachers, all of whom have the subject to degree level. The small size of the teaching team ensures that all teachers have an opportunity to teach a range of classes and levels, and the general practice of deploying teachers in both the junior and senior cycles is noted and commended, and should be adhered to as far as possible. This pattern of deployment fosters a view of English as a continuum of skills from first year to sixth year, as recommended in the relevant syllabus documents and guidelines. The school’s practice of rotating teachers so that they take both higher and ordinary groups is also commended because it increases the pool of expertise and experience available to the English department. While timetabling constraints must be recognised, the situation of having one teacher of English take both class groups in a year should be avoided, wherever possible. The involvement of two teachers is preferable as it provides a wider range of approaches and good opportunities for collaborative planning and the sharing of good practice.
School management, teachers and students were very appreciative of the facilities available in the new premises. These include a fine library with a growing collection of books, a number of computers and a seating area serving as a classroom and a venue for visiting speakers and for meetings. Two of the teachers of English are timetabled to take lessons in the library, and it was reported that the space was available as required to all teachers of English. The considerable size of the room makes it ideal for a range of learning activities including group work and drama, and planning for the fullest possible use of this resource should be a focus of the collaborative work of the English teaching team. The reading and research opportunities afforded by the library should also be considered in the context of subject department planning.
Televisions with VCR and DVD players were available in all the classrooms used for English, and it was reported that the school facilitates requests for resources within its budgetary planning. A collection of films on video and DVD is stored in one classroom and is available to all teachers, and a list of all audiovisual resources is posted there. This is commendable practice. Audiotapes, including dramatised readings of Shakespeare’s plays, are among the resources available, and planning for the optimal use of these resources is highly recommended.
A qualified learning support teacher offers literacy support in English. Students requiring literacy support are identified through primary school reports, standardised tests and referral by teachers. Support is offered through withdrawal, usually from a European language or a non-examination subject. Support continues into the senior cycle where necessary, and this is commendable.
The school offers aspiring teachers and student teachers teaching hours, and they are supported by experienced colleagues and by management. Teachers have attended recent in-service relating to various curricular programmes, although not specifically relating to English. In the course of a discussion on the teaching of film, the inspector suggested that the teaching team contact the Second Level Support Service (www.slss.ie), which arranges courses in film in conjunction with the Irish Film Institute (www.irishfilm.ie). Contact with the SLSS is also recommended in relation to differentiated teaching and learning in the mixed-ability classroom.
Co-curricular activities related to English include drama productions, participation in debates and public speaking competitions, visiting writers, and participation in writing competitions. Trips to the theatre and cinema are organised regularly. The school management and staff are commended on their support for these activities.
Gaelcholáiste Cheatharlach is involved in ongoing school development planning, and subject department planning for English was initiated in 2004. A subject department plan was made available to the inspector. It follows the template designed by the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) and contains the statements of aims and objectives given in the syllabus documents and lists of the texts to be used with each class group. In further developing these plans, it is recommended that the English department relate the general syllabus aims to their own specific teaching and learning context by setting out the particular skills and areas of knowledge they wish to focus on in each year. This planned programme can be related directly to the various texts forming the existing year plans, thus extending them from a list of texts and materials to a programme focusing on the development of skills and desired learning outcomes in the four areas of reading, writing, speaking and listening. The attention of the English department is directed to the relevant section of the Inspectorate’s composite report, Looking at English, which contains exemplars of good practice in drawing up year plans and recommendations as to how planning the English programme can best be approached.
The teaching team has agreed a system of rotating co-ordinator, and this is commended. The current rotation period is one year, and it is suggested that this be increased to a two-year term, allowing the incumbent time to identify and work on areas for development, and to strengthen collaboration and the sharing of good practice. Formal meetings are held every term, and less formal planning takes place regularly. It was reported that members of the English teaching team also work on a sub-committee basis, developing ideas and resources that are then brought to the whole team. This is very good practice.
The current plans list the texts chosen for each year. These have been selected on the basis of their suitability to the aims of the syllabus in the case of the junior cycle. It is commendable that new material is introduced in each year of the programme, and teachers reported that they discuss the various possibilities open to them, for example whether or not to study a Shakespearean drama. Well-planned use of some of the excellent recently recorded dramatised readings may make this a more accessible option. In the senior cycle, choice of texts is made on the basis of perceived student appeal and the teachers’ own preferences. In this context, it is suggested that the choice of a film text as a component of the comparative study be considered every year, as it will add to the students’ experience of narrative genres and should assist them in understanding the modes of comparison prescribed.
Very good levels of individual planning and preparation were observed, and teachers had carefully selected materials and resources for each lesson.
Six lessons were observed during the course of the inspection, covering all years, levels and programmes. Lessons were generally well planned, and good links with prior learning were established before new material was introduced. In most cases, the topic of the lesson was made clear either through direct statement or through reference to prepared material. Best practice was seen where the lesson was introduced with an emphasis on learning outcomes: for example, a reference to what students had already learned and how they were now going to develop it. This approach encourages a greater sense of engagement and participation, and should be followed in all cases. Given the thirty-five minute lesson, a good purposeful pace needs to be quickly established. This was managed successfully in most cases, and the approach outlined above should help in this regard.
Teacher exposition was the predominant methodology observed. Teachers communicated their own interest in the material, at times with an enthusiasm and directness that elicited an engaged response from students. In other instances, a more low-key approach was taken, but in all cases teachers showed a commitment to instructing their students well. Most lessons were characterised by a focus on information and explication, although teachers prompted the students to participate through questioning, and the students themselves posed some valid and insightful questions at times. While teachers affirmed students’ efforts, greater openness to the range of valid responses that may arise in class discussion is to be encouraged. To this end, a strategy such as ‘think, pair, share’ might be used, whereby students work first on their own, then in pairs where they exchange views after which they bring their ideas to the whole class. This tends to build confidence in their own perceptions and gives expression to a wider range of views than may be elicited through teacher-led discussion.
A commendable emphasis was placed on language skills: extending students’ vocabulary, developing their powers of expression and increasing their awareness of different genres and registers. Teachers modelled the use of more sophisticated vocabulary and encouraged students to use the dictionaries which were available in the classroom to find out for themselves the meanings of unfamiliar words. This is very good practice as it stimulates curiosity and gives students the wherewithal to inform themselves. In the case of specific terminology, for example the names of figures of speech, teachers should be mindful that the most important objective is that students understand and appreciate the effect produced, rather than simply knowing the terms.
In a number of the lessons observed, students were asked to read aloud in a variety of contexts. A junior cycle group read their homework assignments for the class. These were fictitious diary entries and they were humorous and inventive. The reading aloud affirmed the students’ work and gave the rest of the class good practice in listening and responding. However, asking students to be prepared to read aloud, to project their voices, and perhaps to stand while reading would add greater value to the exercise. Where the lesson involves the reading of a short story or novel, students’ reading in rotation is often unsatisfactory because of hesitancy or inaudibility. In planning such a lesson, teachers should prepare the reading and identify the point they need to reach in order for students to gain the desired insight, and should ensure that they reach it so that a satisfactory discussion can ensue. In this context, audiotapes or CDs of novels, plays and poems can be a very useful resource in ensuring that students encounter the text vividly. Where the aim of the lesson is to monitor or extend students’ ability to read aloud, short factual pieces may provide the best material.
Handouts of various kinds had been prepared for many lessons. In some cases, these provided the literary material for the lesson: extracts from novels, for example, to introduce students to different narrative styles in a senior cycle lesson. Others were notes on poetry or drama and had been sourced or prepared by the teacher. Such notes can be useful supplementary resources and can provide students with background information and exemplars of critical responses, both laudable objectives. However, teachers should bear in mind that one of the key objectives of the English syllabuses is the development of an informed personal response from students to the texts they have read. The students’ main focus, therefore, should be on the texts themselves, not on supplementary material. Wherever it is appropriate, students should be asked to express a personal view and to support it with direct reference to the text.
In their interactions with teachers and with the inspector, students exhibited a good grasp of material and of concepts, and an ability to go beyond basic comprehension towards inference and empathy. For example, when asked about preferred poems or favourite characters in a play, their responses were varied and well grounded and showed a pleasing capacity to engage with the texts. A good strategy used in some junior cycle lessons involved asking students to make connections between situations they were reading about and situations they knew in real life. This introduced an element of humour and liveliness into class discussion, although it is important, when using this strategy, to bring the students’ attention back to the text to ensure that the comparisons they make are valid.
In the lessons observed, teachers affirmed students’ efforts and, at the same time, challenged them through probing follow-up questions. Classroom management was good in all cases, and students were generally attentive and willing to work. Teachers’ high expectations of students were clearly stated, particularly in the case of examination classes. A majority of students successfully take English at higher level in the state examinations. However, care should be taken with the terms used to designate higher and ordinary level classes, and the need to develop the self-esteem and competence of less able students should be borne in mind both in planning and in practice.
Students’ grasp of the text in hand and their recollection of previously studied material were monitored through questioning and through teachers’ observation of students’ participation in class discussion. Questions were frequently put to named students in this context, and this is the most effective approach. In other cases, open questions were put to the whole class, in order to assess their grasp of more complex ideas. Teachers were attentive to the whole class and ensured that they were able to observe levels of participation and attention at all times.
Homework was given in a timely fashion in the lessons observed, so that students could note it in their journals and ask questions to clarify the task. The reading aloud of homework took place in some lessons, and was used as a means of affirming the work done, although it is important to maintain the balance between review and new work. In some instances, homework was given back to students with helpful oral comment designed to encourage but also to challenge. This is good practice where the class group is small enough to allow this to be done quickly or where classwork has been set for them.
A review of students’ copies showed that a substantial volume of written work has been done and has been monitored regularly. Best practice was observed where helpful written feedback had been given, praising effort and progress and making constructive suggestions for improvement. Such feedback should be given in the case of all substantial assignments. Particularly commendable was the feedback given in some instances to less able students, which was both encouraging and carefully directed towards a key area for improvement. Students’ copies and folders were generally well maintained and the marks awarded indicated that good standards of work were expected and that students would not be rewarded where effort was deemed insufficient. Senior cycle students are aware of the relevant criteria for assessment and are able to apply them. This is very good practice.
In-house examinations take place twice yearly, and common assessments with agreed marking schemes are prepared where appropriate. This is good practice, and is the logical outcome of good collaborative planning. Mock examinations are set and corrected externally and teachers review the scripts and the marks awarded in order to ensure consistency and to provide constructive advice.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Timetable provision for English is optimal and the subject is very well resourced.
· Subject department planning has been facilitated and is ongoing. Very good individual planning practices are in place.
· Teachers show a commendable commitment to instructing their students well and set high standards for them.
· Helpful assessment practices are followed and students’ progress is monitored effectively.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· Subject planning should be progressed through a greater emphasis on the development of skills and the identification of desired learning outcomes.
· A greater variety of teaching and learning methods, incorporating differentiated and active learning, should be investigated and implemented. In particular, the concept of the informed personal response should be central to teaching and learning processes.
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