An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Rathangan, County Kildare
Roll number: 70730J
Date of inspection: 9, 10 April 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Ardscoil Rath Iomgháin, Rathangan Co Kildare. 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 was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
Arscoil Rath Iomgháin is a community college that provides English in the Junior Certificate programme (JC), Transition Year programme (TY), Leaving Certificate programme (LC) and Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP). Students in the LC and LCVP follow the same English syllabus.
Time allocation is good but there are areas for development. Five lessons are provided in each year of the junior cycle. Three lessons are provided in TY. LC students are fortunate in being provided with six lessons in each year of the programme and this represents good provision. It also reflects the importance that the school attaches to provision for senior cycle students. Lessons are quite short in comparison to the standard forty-minute period. The senior cycle allocation should be viewed in this light. [d1] Distribution[g2] of lessons over the week is good for most classes. For just a few, there are two separate lessons on one day and none on another. Two of these groups are examination classes. This distribution should be reviewed and efforts made in future timetabling to ensure contact with English on each day of the week for all classes.
Students are taught in a mixed-ability setting in first year. Placement in higher-level and ordinary-level classes is determined by results achieved in in-house examinations, “mock” examinations and other assessments. It is important that the range of criteria used to determine access to higher level is broad in the junior cycle: in addition to common assessment, teacher evaluation and performance in other subjects should be among the criteria. In the senior cycle, access should not be limited to performance in the JC English examination but again, a broad set of criteria should be used. It is reported that the school encourages as many students as possible to take higher-level English. There is a trend in some class groups for a disproportionate number of boys to take ordinary level. The school should keep this matter under review: if a pattern of under-achievement emerges in the case of boys, targeted interventions may be necessary. Some classes are timetabled concurrently and this facilitates movement from one level to another. Advantage could be taken of concurrency to engage in inter-class and team-teaching activities. Students generally retain the same teacher from one year to another and this maintains continuity.
The subject team is committed and effective and has been augmented in recent years by a number of new teachers. This has added balance to the team profile. The teaching of higher-level senior cycle English rotates around a small number of teachers and timetabling commitments are a factor. However, deployment should be monitored on an ongoing basis to ensure that, in the long term, there is a constant pool of expertise available for the teaching of higher level in the senior cycle. Some teachers have attended continuous professional development (CPD) courses. In view of the fact that many of the teachers are relatively new to the school, few have had an opportunity to avail of the Department sponsored in-service courses that supported the introduction of the new LC English syllabus first examined in 2001. Members of the English department have highlighted CPD as an important issue in relation to teaching the subject. It is therefore recommended that the teaching team formulate a policy on CPD and that the teachers of English assess their individual needs in this area. When priorities have been agreed, action plans should be developed to ensure implementation. The sharing of in-house expertise and contact with the local Education Centres and Second Level Support Services (SLSS) should be considered. Whole-school staff days could also be used for CPD in general pedagogical areas. ICT training has been provided in the school. It is reported that, some time ago, some members of the English teaching team availed of in-service training in Laois Education Centre.
Learning support is well co-ordinated and delivered and there is a high level of professionalism displayed in this area. There is good liaison with feeder primary schools for the purpose of gathering information. Resources, including ICT, are good. Additional resources have been accessed under the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) programme.
Resources are good for the subject and teachers have access to a full range of audio-visual equipment. All resources should be catalogued in the department plan. Ideally, an electronic folder containing planning documentation and resources could be created to which all teachers of English have access and to which individual teachers could contribute. The English department should carry out a needs analysis to ensure that a full range of up-to-date resources is available to support teaching and learning. In addition to DVDs and CD ROMs, audio recordings of poems, plays and novels should be acquired if these are not already freely available to the department. There is a copious range of visual stimuli available from a number of sources including the internet. There is a particular need to develop ICT resources for the subject. Where a need for specific resources is highlighted, application should be made to management as a budget is available.
Information and communications technology (ICT) facilities are very good and training has been provided to staff. The teachers of English should take full advantage of these facilities. The school has targeted the library for development in the current academic year and this is a very positive development. The library should form an important strand in the English department’s reading policy.
Students participate in extra-curricular and co-curricular activities related to the subject by attending both the theatre and cinema. Students have also participated in public speaking and visitors have been invited to the school.
It is reported that the school has engaged well in whole-school planning. The department meets on a formal basis three or four times a year and there is a good level of informal contact. Agendas are agreed and minutes kept. Department meetings provide an opportunity to share good professional practice and this is of particular importance in view of the number of teachers who are relatively new to the school and who have not had in-service training. It is reported that there is good informal sharing of teaching strategies. However, a formal setting would ensure more consistency and provide support for those who need it. Consideration should therefore be given to including the sharing of good practice at formal meetings and this would complement the very good practice that currently exists at individual teacher level.
A beginning has been made in the area of formal planning for English. A planning folder was presented to the inspector and it is evident that a great deal of collaborative effort has been invested in assembling a range of documents. Some of the many documents presented are: a brief outline handwritten plan for the subject using the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) template; records of meetings; the school homework policy and a draft subject homework policy; yearly schemes from individual teachers.
The quality of individual schemes of work that appeared in the department folder varied considerably. Very good practice was observed in some cases and detailed schemes documented skills and made reference to reading. Some schemes were skeletal and gave very little information. Department meetings should be used to share good practice in order to achieve consistency. A number of blank templates and some documentation reflecting the planning process going back to 2004 are also in the folder. There is a very strong emphasis on examination preparation and this preparation is thorough and conscientious. This is commendable. However, it is important that the syllabuses in both the JC and LC inform the planning and delivery of English in the school both at individual and departmental level. This is of particular importance in the junior cycle where there is no prescription of texts. An over-emphasis on the examination runs the risk of reducing the syllabus: during the course of the evaluation, it was noted that the number of texts being studied in the junior cycle was limited. Evidence also indicates that there is no consistent practice with regard to the number of poems studied in the junior cycle and, in some cases, students are not encountering a sufficiently wide and challenging range. Examination papers are being used as a text resource as early as second year in some cases. Planning for Transition Year indicates an approach in keeping with the spirit of the TY programme.
Reading is encouraged in principle but there is no department policy and there is no plan for reading. Members of the teaching team promote reading at their own discretion and in their own way. There is evidence of good practice at an individual teacher level. In a junior cycle class, for example, it is reported that the group has an independent reading day and students bring in their books. This is commended. However, there is no consistent practice. It is recommended that a reading policy be developed as a key element of the English plan and implemented in every year group. Individual teacher’s schemes of work should document strategies for the promotion of reading in the specific class group.
It is recommended that the plan for English be fully developed. Individual schemes should reflect the department plan and should implement agreed department policy in all areas such as choice and number of texts, reading policy, homework, methodologies, use of resources and assessment.
It is recommended that the plan integrates the use of ICT into the teaching and learning of English. In addition to the encouragement of independent reading, the plan for English should ensure that the syllabus is delivered. At least one class novel of appropriately challenging content should be read in each year of the junior cycle. The class text should be used to teach advanced reading skills and to integrate the teaching of reading and writing. Students at all levels should encounter drama, short stories, non-fiction and a good range of poems in each year of the cycle and these should be chosen to challenge and engage students irrespective of level. It is a syllabus requirement that students read widely in a variety of genres. All of the skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking) specified in the junior cycle syllabus should feature in the English plan. The plan for English should list the desired learning outcomes across all skills for each year of the junior cycle under these four headings. Individual schemes of work should show an awareness of differentiation. It might be helpful for teachers to view the consultative draft rebalanced Junior Certificate English syllabus that currently appears on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) website at www.ncca.ie. The department might also find it useful to consult Looking at English, a composite report on the teaching and learning of English available on the Department of Education and Science website at www.education.ie.
Individual lesson planning was conscientious in all cases. In the best lessons a range of activities was planned and a variety of resources was prepared to achieve learning objectives. A wider variety of resources should be considered in all cases and more emphasis should be placed both on visual and auditory stimuli to cater for different learning styles. Audio recordings including song, speeches and radio in addition to the usual recordings of novels and poems should be considered to help develop listening skills.
It is reported that there is very good liaison between learning-support personnel and the teachers of English. It would be helpful if those involved in providing learning support had access to the department plan and be given copies of individual teacher’s schemes to ensure consistency. Students who find learning challenging need reinforcement and differentiation in the learning process needs to be factored into planning.
Lesson topics included media studies, reading skills, composition and poetry. Examination preparation and revision was underway in the examination classes and this was appropriate give the time of year. The entry phase of most lessons involved housekeeping tasks and review of earlier material. Instructions were clear both at the start of lessons and at appropriate transitions from one stage of the lesson to another. These transitions were generally well managed. Lessons should be reviewed, at the end, in some cases to ensure that learning objectives have been achieved. Summing up at the end of the lesson provides an opportunity for reinforcement.
Learning resources were mostly text based and consisted of the set text, handouts such as photocopied articles and support notes. Laminated visual material was used in one lesson and this is commended. The overhead projector was deployed well and a very good diagram reinforced the learning of a concept. There was some evidence of student use of ICT in a lesson visited and this is commended. Such practice needs to be widely extended. In addition to both teacher and student use of presentation software, word processing could be used to help students develop their writing skills. It is reported that ICT resources such as the internet are exploited for research purposes. The board was used very well in all lessons. A graphic organiser in the form of a spidergram was helpful in clarifying the topic. The documenting of students’ ideas and contributions on the board is also good practice and a brainstorming session with a senior cycle class was very productive indicating a good level of engagement on the part of students. Information was well organised on the board making it easier for students to absorb content.
A very good range of teaching activities was observed in many lessons. Good practice was noted where there was a high level of student activity either through group work or through intensive contributions in questioning sessions. Group work was used well to encourage collaborative learning in a small number of cases. This good practice should be extended widely. Worksheets could be used for group work and specific roles should be assigned to all students in order to ensure that all are on task. Group work gave teachers an opportunity to circulate around the class and assess the effectiveness of teaching strategies while simultaneously offering advice and support to individual students.
Questioning strategy was good on the whole. Good practice was observed where there was a balance between global questions and questions targeted at individual students. This is commended as it is important that every student is included in classroom activity; otherwise they may disengage from learning. The balance between teacher and student activity needs to be reviewed in a number of cases since too much teacher activity can lead to passivity and disengagement on the part of students or over-dependence on the teacher. Pressure of lesson time, particularly since lessons were thirty-seven minutes or thirty-five minutes in duration, in some cases led to a tendency to “tell” or to favour closed questions or lower-order cognitive questions to which there was only one short answer leaving the teacher to supply the information or develop the answer. Notwithstanding the duration of lesson time, students should be given sufficient time to formulate answers. In reviewing questioning strategies, the development of independent thinking and the skills of critical analysis should be central.
In the best lessons observed, there was a good emphasis on the expression of a personal response and students’ contributions were encouraged and valued. This good practice should be replicated and the expression of a personal aesthetic response should be regarded as a priority. Particularly commended are lessons where students were given “thinking” time to formulate a personal evaluation and to consider two sides of an issue, and in another example, were given a defined time to write a personal response. Very good practice was observed in a lesson where students’ contributions to the discussion demonstrated a good understanding and knowledge of the material. In one case, it was also evident that students had engaged in research by way of a preparation task and some had consulted newspapers and current affairs programmes to gather evidence: this is highly commended. It is commendable that students also asked questions to seek clarification as this indicates their commitment and interest in the task. In their interactions, students generally demonstrated a good level of knowledge of their material. However, in a minority of cases, students were not entirely in control of the material and were unable to retrieve information: in such cases, regular revision is needed and more reinforcement by way of a number of activities including written work is necessary.
The language used by the teachers modelled good practice. In a junior cycle class, students learned and used very appropriate and challenging subject related vocabulary and the board was also used to reinforce understanding of terms. The extension of students’ oral and written vocabulary is commended and further opportunities of this kind should be sought. Key-word charts could be used, for example. Opportunities should be sought to encourage students to present findings and information (using a variety of resources including ICT) to class groups, as this would also develop oral communication skills while nurturing creativity and confidence. Advantage should be taken of class texts to teach the skills of writing. In general, there should be a strong emphasis on writing as a process and students should be encouraged to keep portfolios of their work. Command of the mechanical conventions of English is learned in some classes and this is commended. Syntax, grammar, spelling and punctuation should be learned in context.
Homework tasks give students an opportunity to practise writing skills. Appropriately challenging written tasks are set for some classes, and particularly for those taking higher level in the senior cycle. There was evidence that students learned how to plan an essay in some samples seen and this is commended. In a small number of classes, evidence from journals and copybooks suggests that students do not receive sufficient writing practice in a variety of forms and genres and this should be reviewed as students need practice and reinforcement. The department should agree the number of substantial pieces of writing to be set in the junior and senior cycles to ensure that learning outcomes in the area of writing are successfully achieved and to ensure consistency across the department. In the teaching of writing, a range of syntactical structures should be learned and approaches could be discussed at departmental level.
Homework extension tasks were appropriate. Very good practice was noted in a junior cycle class, where students were required to find an advertisement that met certain criteria with a view to reporting back during the next lesson. This task was achievable across the ability spectrum and was interesting for students. Senior cycle students had previously been set preparation tasks that were challenging and encouraged independent research and critical evaluation.
The development of oral communication skills featured in lesson planning for one class group visited. In the lesson observed, the first of the series, students were set the task of preparing an article based on a recent outing and the objective was to make a presentation based on this theme to parents at a future date. Such practice is highly commended.
It is very commendable that classrooms were exploited as a learning resource in some cases and displays of books and posters provided a stimulating learning environment for the subject. High expectations were set in the lessons visited. Students came to class well prepared in the majority of lessons and were focused and purposeful in their learning. There was a very good rapport between teachers and students in every lesson visited and classrooms were managed efficiently and effectively.
The English department should develop a policy on assessment. Summative assessment takes place through in-house examinations, state examinations and class tests. Common assessment is not practised. It is recommended that common papers are set for common levels in in-house examinations. This ensures consistency of syllabus delivery. The task of setting papers could be revolved around the teachers of the relevant year groups. Common marking schemes should be agreed and moderation should take place to harmonise practice. State examination results are kept in the planning folder and it is reported that teachers are encouraged to consult these. The department would find it helpful to carry out an annual analysis of English results in all state examinations in order to identify trends and to inform syllabus delivery and teaching practice.
The school is in the process of developing a homework policy and this is positive. The roles of teachers as well as students will need to be specified. In tandem with the development of the school homework policy, the English department is also developing a homework policy and this is commended.
Assessment for learning takes place through written and other homework assignments, classroom observation and questioning. In samples seen in some classes, both at senior and junior level, the quality of written feedback given to students was good and helpful comments directed students’ learning and affirmed effort. It is very commendable that the standard of presentation of written assignments was very good in some samples seen indicating that high standards are expected. Students who are about to sit the state examinations would benefit from assessment that reflected the discrete criteria applied in the actual examination. Homework assessment should be dated to allow students and teachers to track progress.
Records of assessment and attendance are kept in some but not all classes. Very good practice was observed in some cases. It is recommended that all teachers keep accurate records of attendance and assessment so that accurate information can be shared with students and their parents and with other concerned professionals as need requires.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· There is a good level of whole-school support for English and resources are good.
· An effective teaching team delivers the subject and high expectations are set.
· A good start has been made in planning.
· Learning support is well co-ordinated and delivered.
· Lessons were well prepared and a good range of resources and methodologies was used in many cases.
· Students were challenged and engaged in many classes visited.
· There was a very good rapport between students and teachers and all lessons were well managed.
· Assessment feedback was very good in some cases.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The plan for English should be fully developed, should document learning outcomes across a full range of skills and should include policies on reading, differentiation and assessment. Individual plans should mirror the plan for the subject. The junior cycle plan should ensure that a sufficiently wide range of texts is covered by all groups irrespective of level. Planning and delivery of English should be informed by the syllabuses.
· The department should develop and implement a continuous professional development policy.
· A balance should be maintained between student and teacher activity in lessons, questioning strategy should be reviewed in some cases and all students should be encouraged to become independent, autonomous learners.
· Common assessment should be implemented for relevant levels and all teachers should keep accurate records of assessment and attendance.
· More written work needs to be assigned in some classes.
· ICT should be fully integrated into the teaching and learning of English.
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 October 2008