An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Athlone Community College
Athlone, County Westmeath
Roll number: 71410T
Date of inspection: 14 and 15 May 2007
Date of issue of report: 8 November 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Athlone Community College. 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.
Athlone Community College is a co-educational school maintained by County Westmeath VEC. The school has applied for a new building and this is being progressed with the Department of Education and Science’s building unit. It is the largest school in the town and the only co-educational school, and its students come from the town itself and from the surrounding area. The focus of this inspection was English in the junior cycle where the current enrolment is 462. The junior cycle has a sraith lán-Gaelach where teaching of all core subjects except English is through the medium of Irish.
Nine teachers, all of whom have the subject to degree level, are involved in the delivery of English in the junior cycle. Most teach English in the senior cycle also and have a substantial timetabled commitment to the subject, teaching three or more class groups. This is good practice as it assists teachers to develop a sense of the subject as a continuum of skills and knowledge from first to sixth year and means that a wide pool of experience is available within the subject department. Care should be taken to ensure that teachers taking first-year class groups also teach English to other years and that there is as great a continuity of teachers from one year to the next as possible. The school’s stated policy is to assign teachers to take both strong and less able classes. This is commendable as it extends teachers’ experience, offers them challenge and variety and encourages collaboration, and the teaching team and management should be vigilant in ensuring that the policy is implemented as fully as possible.
The timetable provision for English in the junior cycle is generally satisfactory both in the number and distribution of lessons. Second-year and third-year class groups have five lessons of English per week and in most instances have a lesson per day, which is the optimal distribution. First years have just four lessons per week. The possibility of increasing this to five should be investigated, particularly in the light of the findings detailed in the recent composite report issued by the Department, Looking at English. This report concluded that there was a general tendency to weight timetabling of English in the junior cycle towards exam preparation rather than the building of skills. First year should be seen as a crucial year in which the key skills and learning objectives of the English syllabus are introduced and regularly reinforced and an allocation of five lessons per week would greatly support this approach. The provision of six lessons for class groups in first and second year with greater literacy needs was noted and is commended.
Classes are formed within bands and students are placed in classes in first year on the basis of reports from the primary schools. The principal and the English department felt that this system avoided rigid streaming while ensuring that the ability range within each class was manageable. Classes within the lowest band are smaller in size, allowing greater attention to be given to individual students. Given the size of the school’s intake into first year, banding is an appropriate system. However, it is recommended that the designations higher, ordinary and foundation level be avoided until third year when they have a specific meaning in relation to preparation for the Junior Certificate examination. The advisability of rotating teachers within these bands has already been mentioned.
The good liaison with primary schools assists in providing continuing support to students with identified needs. In addition, the learning support and resource team assesses the first-year intake within their first month in the school and arrangements are made to support students thus identified. Placement in smaller classes, withdrawal of small numbers and team teaching are all used to support these students. Literacy support is very well organised in the school through the learning support and resource departments. Two designated learning support rooms are available, and the resources for literacy support include a stock of attractive and engaging books to encourage reading for pleasure, access to computers and a good collection of software.
Concurrent timetabling of English is established within the senior cycle but there is no concurrence in the junior cycle. In the longer term, the possibility of timetabling third-year classes concurrently, within the bands at least, could be investigated in order to assist students’ movement between levels and to facilitate a collaborative approach to examination preparation.
Some teachers of English are based in their own classrooms, while others teach in a number of rooms. In the former case, the rooms themselves had been developed into a rich resource for the subject, not only in the availability of audiovisual equipment and books, but also through an array of stimulating visual material such as play and film posters, photographs and students’ artwork. Various word charts, writing rules and exemplars of students’ writing were also on display, making these rooms print-rich and conducive to learning. The development of classrooms in which English is taught so that they become resources in themselves for the subject would be a good focus of subject planning, particularly in the light of the proposed building programme. Plans for the development of the existing school library are ongoing in this context, and the arrangements for the maintenance and renewal of the library stock, and for students’ access to it, were noted and are commended. The need to increase the provision of computers for teachers has also been identified, and the role that ICT could play in subject planning is referred to in the next section.
The English teaching team has an exemplary commitment to the provision of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. Students visit the theatre and cinema on a regular basis, debating teams have had great success at national level and visits to the school by writers, theatre groups and other speakers are facilitated and encouraged. The commitment of all concerned in offering this range of activities is warmly commended.
The school has engaged with school development planning over a number of years. As part of this process, subject departments were established and work on subject plans began in the first term of the 2005-06 academic year. A senior member of the English teaching team is the overall co-ordinator for the subject, but in the last year it was agreed to establish an annual rotating co-ordinator position as well. Such an arrangement has many advantages and offers all members of the department an opportunity to promote good planning and collaborative practices. It would be helpful if the various aspects of the two roles were set out in the English plan in an agreed job description. Senior management is to be commended for facilitating three formal meetings for subject departments each year. The minutes of these meetings record phases of the planning process, and give evidence of growing collaboration in the pooling of resources, the sharing out of areas of responsibility, planning for team teaching and the development of reflective practice on a team-wide basis. Informal meetings also take place regularly.
The English department is to be commended for their commitment to the planning process and for the thoroughness of the work done. They have set out their aims for the teaching and learning of English in a series of brief statements which are fully in keeping with the aims of the various syllabuses but which are specific and contextualised. The English plan is kept in the staff room where all teachers can consult it. Also included in the planning folder is a substantial section on planning for learning support and resource teaching, lists of materials and texts available to the department, and the minutes of departmental meetings. A downloaded copy of the composite report, Looking at English, was also in the folder. When the school’s ICT facilities for staff are more fully developed, it is suggested that the setting up of an electronic folder for English be considered. This would create a flexile and accessible system for storing documents and resources such as writing templates, in-house assessments and so on. Such a folder would also easily hold various official documents from the Department, including the syllabuses, circular letters, lists of prescribed texts and material from the State Examinations Commission (SEC) such as the recent Chief Examiner’s Report on Junior Certificate English.
Among the materials in the English folder is a list with brief descriptions of suggested methodologies. This is good practice as it promotes the sharing of successful approaches and the use of a variety of teaching and learning styles and methods. As a means of ensuring that future planning continues to enrich teaching and learning practices in the school, it is recommended that this area of the planning folder be expanded, with a particular emphasis on methods and resources that will promote the students’ writing skills, as this is always identified as an area of concern by teachers. The list of texts available in the school goes beyond the often narrow pool of texts studied at junior cycle and reflects a commendable desire to use material which the students will find engaging.
Individual planning, in the form of written yearly schemes of work, is established practice within the school and schemes were made available to the inspector. These were clearly set out with a specific time frame. Good short-term planning was also in evidence, and a number of lesson plans and weekly plans were seen by the inspector. As the sense of the subject plan as a living document develops within the teaching team, the extent to which it informs individual planning should increase. In particular, the emphasis on planning for learning should be strong in both departmental and individual planning, and the same learning outcomes should be stated in both.
Eight lessons were observed during the course of the inspection, covering all years of the junior cycle and a range of levels. All lessons showed evidence of prior planning and preparation in the approaches taken and the materials used. The good practice of stating the lesson objective at the outset was generally observed. It should be noted that this is particularly effective if it is stated in terms of learning outcomes for the students, as it focuses their attention and encourages in them a greater sense of responsibility for their own learning.
In most cases a satisfactory amount of work was covered and pacing was appropriate for the level. In discussion with the inspector, some teachers commented on the need to strike a balance between covering a certain section of a play or novel and giving students an opportunity to discuss and respond to it. Where the focus of the lesson is on a turning point or key moment in a text, it is suggested that the reading be paced accordingly with the students primed to look out for significant points which can be discussed when the reading is complete. This method gives students a sharper experience of tension and climax in the text than a reading which is interspersed with comment and discussion.
Classroom resources including the board, overhead projector and DVD were used effectively. The board was used to draw sketches which illustrated aspects of the text as well as for the more usual purposes of recording points in class discussion, providing a framework for students’ writing and noting down vocabulary and spelling. For this last function, it is advisable to set aside an area of the board as a spelling margin, so that students have an opportunity throughout the lesson to absorb new words and spellings. The overhead projector was used well in the teaching of poetry, encouraging students to study the form and pattern of the poem and providing a focus for class discussion and analysis. In another lesson, students were led to a more rounded and considered understanding of a complex character through viewing a well-chosen series of scenes from the film on DVD. To complement this approach, the words and phrases suggested by students to describe the character in various scenes should be written on the board and taken down by the students as a way of framing a more detailed written response. This links oral and written work in a way that is likely to be productive.
A variety of questioning styles was used in the lessons observed and many were very effective. Where questioning was intended to check students’ understanding or recall, it was generally directed at named students or a hands-up policy was in place, to prevent chorus answering. Students were affirmed for accurate recall but it was also noted that students were praised for making an attempt, and this is good practice. In line with this affirmation and encouragement, students felt free to ask questions themselves, looking for further clarification or trying out their own ideas on a text or topic. Leading questions guided students towards making connections for themselves, a much better strategy than simply delivering the information to them. In a number of instances, where students made suggestions that were invalid or a result of misinterpretation, their responses were used instructively to guide them towards a more accurate reading. This was done with commendable sensitivity. At a simpler but no less effective level, teachers used incomplete statements to prompt students towards a particular perception. This worked well in encouraging less able students to volunteer suggestions that were likely to be valid and which could then be affirmed. Where the object of a question is to lead students towards a more complex perception or interpretation, it is vital that sufficient time be given to allow them to formulate a thoughtful response, and teachers must resist the impulse to complete the thinking process for them. In all lessons there was a good balance of teacher and student talk, and a commendable emphasis on encouraging students to articulate their views.
Attention was paid to the development of language awareness, ranging from straightforward vocabulary building to a study of the power of figurative language in poetry. In the latter case, the stress must be placed on the effect of imagery and metaphor; mere definitions of the terms, even with examples, rarely provide students with sufficient insight into the poem. However, where students grasp the point of a particular comparison or a pattern of images and can trace its development, they are much better positioned to write a meaningful and engaged response. Some very good work leading to this deeper engagement with the poem was observed during the course of the inspection, and the focus in these cases was on the impact of the figurative language, not on terminology.
A concern raised by teachers particularly in relation to less able students was the difficulty in encouraging them to write at greater length both in the creative and critical genres. While many students were clearly capable of producing very substantial and well-organised written work, it was reported that others were often at a loss although their oral responses were good. In addressing this issue in their ongoing planning of materials and resources, the teaching team should identify models and exemplars of writing which students can follow and creatively imitate in order to develop their own sense of a particular kind of writing. They should also work on developing writing frames which will give students the structure of a piece of writing and provide them with opening sentences or phrases to include in their own work. Finally, in seeking oral responses from students, teachers should highlight the need to make clear and complete statements and to support the points made. Students should also be encouraged to listen to and learn from each other. In this way, oral work and discussion can lead to more substantial and thoughtful writing.
All lessons observed provided evidence of learning and, in the best instances, a high level of student engagement with the topics and material covered. It was noteworthy in a number of the lessons observed that the teachers’ expectations of the students were high, and it is particularly commendable that a sense of appropriately high expectation was evident both in very able class groups and in those where students had a lower level of ability.
Good classroom management was evident in all lessons observed, and the interaction between students and teachers was friendly and respectful. Students were supported and affirmed in their learning, and were observed to be co-operative and willing to engage.
The level of ongoing monitoring of students’ classwork is satisfactory. Teachers were observed to know the students well and were watchful of their participation in class, their readiness to answer questions and the level of understanding demonstrated in their responses. In most cases, teachers stood and moved around the classroom and, where students were working individually on a reading or writing exercise, the teacher circulated to check on progress and give assistance as required. The effectiveness of questioning to monitor understanding and recall has been dealt with above.
An examination of a selection of students’ copies revealed a satisfactory amount of written work for the most part. Excellent practice was observed in the case of some of the weaker class groups, where a copy drill had been firmly established and students dated their work, ruled writing margins and laid out their work neatly as a matter of course. All students would benefit from following such a drill, and it would be most helpful if it could be established for all subjects and class groups as part of the first-year induction process.
Homework is set regularly and is monitored in various ways. Oral checking, at the beginning of the lesson, of work such as straightforward vocabulary learning was managed effectively. In the best cases this was accompanied by a visual check of the work done while the teacher was circulating. More substantial work is taken up regularly for marking and comment. Very good practice was seen where written comments made suggestions for improvement and affirmed the students’ efforts. The issue of persistent errors was discussed with teachers and the need for students to develop good proof-reading practices was emphasised by the inspector. In planning for assessment, the English department should agree a policy which would require students to state that they have read over and corrected their work before handing it up.
A variety of homework assignments had been set and in many cases they were imaginative and elicited good responses from the students. The writing of summaries is a helpful exercise in reinforcing the key points of a narrative, but students should be encouraged to move towards commenting on character or issues dealt with in the narrative once they have briefly outlined the plot. In setting homework arising out of classwork, teachers were generally careful to ensure that students knew what they were required to do, and that the work was noted in the students’ journals. Again, it is most helpful if the noting of homework in the journal is established practice in all subjects.
The usual arrangements are in place for in-house assessments at Christmas and the end of the year. The practice of common assessments in English for classes of the same level has not been established in the school, and it is suggested that a move towards common tests be a focus of collaborative planning for the English department. This will further promote collaborative practice, give a greater impetus towards identifying learning outcomes rather than content in relation to planning the year’s work, and will also rationalise the workload of the individual teachers.
Assessment for learning is a strategy which incorporates a number of the recommendations made above and which it would be helpful for the English department to explore further. The NCCA web site contains some useful information on this approach (www.ncca.ie) .
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 English and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.