An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Coláiste Pobail Ráth Cairn
Roll number: 71991T
Date of inspection: 20 March 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
Subject inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Pobail Ráth Cáirn. 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; the board chose to accept the report without response.
Subject provision and whole school support
Coláiste Pobail Ráth Cáirn is a co-educational post-primary school under the management of County Meath Vocational Education Committee (VEC). It is situated in the Meath Gaeltacht and all subjects, with the exception of English, are taught through the medium of Irish. The school was established in 1986 and its current enrolment is 98 students, 57 males and 41 females. The Junior Certificate and the established Leaving Certificate programmes are taught in the school. An optional Transition Year (TY) is also available in senior cycle but currently there are no students taking this programme.
A single, mixed-ability, class group is formed for English in each year. The timetabled allocation for English is in accordance with the relevant syllabus requirements. However, the allocation of four periods a week to the subject in all three years of junior cycle is less than optimum provision. Given that students’ contact with the language is limited in this Irish-medium school, it is recommended that consideration should be given to increasing it. As timetabling constraints allow, the allocation of an additional lesson period in one of the three years would support the encouragement of students to achieve to their potential in the subject. The time allocated to English in senior cycle is appropriate.
The arrangements for learning support for students experiencing difficulty with the subject are good. The deployment of an additional teacher for one period a week in each of the three years of the junior cycle facilitates team teaching or, where it is considered more appropriate, the withdrawal of a small group of students for support in English.
Resource provision to support the teaching and learning of English is very good. The English classroom is very well equipped. Information and communications technology (ICT) facilities include a networked computer, a data projector, and a digital camera. The school ensures that very good audio-visual resources, including a CD player, a tape recorder, television and DVD player, are available to the teacher in this classroom. A school library provides students with access to a small range of good quality reading material and very good links have been established with the county library service. Students are encouraged to borrow books for their own personal enjoyment and the English department promotes reading among all students in the school.
Planning and preparation
The English department in Coláiste Pobail Ráth Cairn comprised one teacher at the time of this evaluation. A second teacher retired during the course of the year. Considerable progress had been made, prior to that retirement, on the development of a subject plan for English. This draws on the planning template provided by the School Development Planning Initiative support service and includes lists of English resources, school policies, relevant documentation from the Department of Education and Science and schemes of work for English in each year.
The well-developed schemes of work presented during this evaluation, reflect a high level of professionalism in the English department. A very integrated approach to teaching language and literature is adopted in the junior cycle. Units of study, built on a variety of themes, form the basic structure of the planned work in first and second years. This approach has facilitated the identification of clear syllabus-based, skills-based learning goals and very good planning for the integration of ICT in the delivery of English. The range of learning activities in the plan for junior cycle is particularly noted, including the facility given to students to write their own plays, create a short film and develop a comic strip. A wiki-point has been developed which allows students to post notes and discuss their English work on line. The initiative and professional dedication of the English department is highly commended.
In order to progress the excellent work already completed by the department, the inclusion of a broader range of fiction texts in the junior cycle programme, including the study of the short story, is recommended.
Until recently, two teachers were allocated to senior cycle English, facilitating the teaching of the higher level and ordinary level courses in separate classes. Schemes of work planned for those classes reflect this arrangement. They are also dominated by a description of content. In contrast, those schemes developed for junior cycle classes provide information on the learning to be achieved for each section of the course, the methodologies to be employed in the classroom and an indicative list of key assignments to be used to assess students’ progress. A review of the plans for Leaving Certificate classes should ensure that this very good planning model is adopted at this level. This is recommended. Section 4 of the Leaving Certificate syllabus, which is available on www.ncca.ie, will provide guidance on the appropriate learning outcomes across the four language domains. Currently, both higher and ordinary level courses in senior cycle are taught together. The review recommended above should take account of the challenge which this poses.
Teaching and learning
One junior cycle and two senior cycle lessons were observed during the evaluation. A very good standard of teaching and learning was evident. Objectives were clear in all lessons. Particularly good practice was observed where the learning objective was explicitly stated at the beginning of the lesson, and, in one instance, was set out clearly on the whiteboard. A range of resources had been prepared to support learning, including photocopied handouts, an ICT presentation, sample letters and textbooks. Very good use was made of the whiteboard in all lessons observed, both to record students’ contributions to class and to summarise key learning points.
The dominant teaching methodology in the lessons observed involved a series of questions posed by the teacher and strong encouragement and affirmation of students’ responses. This served to establish a robust and interactive learning atmosphere, characterised by very positive exchanges between students and teacher. Students appeared to be very comfortable both asking questions and advancing opinions. Care should be exercised, however, to ensure that questions are directed to all students in the class and that more vocal students do not dominate classroom discussion. A strategy which was employed very effectively in one lesson combated this tendency quite successfully. Students were asked to work in pairs to contrast two letters of complaint. Each pair then reported back during a plenary session, during which the teacher noted their ideas on the board. This ensured that everyone in this small class group had been heard and also facilitated the development of a very helpful writing frame. As the lesson closed, it was evident that the students were able to use the models provided to develop the frame and write their own letters.
A very good balance between reading, discussion and writing was achieved in all lessons. A lesson on persuasive writing, for example, opened with whole-class work during which students brainstormed the features of persuasive writing, drawing on what they had previously learned about advertising. The teacher then presented two samples of persuasive writing, the first a piece written by one of the students which was read aloud and the second was a taped recording of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. A brief whole-class discussion of the two examples then followed before students were asked to work together in pairs to compose their own paragraphs. It is suggested that the use of a handout which outlines the task to be completed and provides a number of prompts to initiate students’ thinking would have been a very helpful support to some students in this mixed-ability class. Nevertheless, students approached the written task eagerly and appeared to have few difficulties.
The pacing of lessons was generally very good, with sufficient differentiation of the tasks set and questions posed to support less able students. Movement from one phase of the lesson to the next was determined by the contributions of students to whole-class discussion and, in some instances, was quite swift. It is suggested that care should be exercised to ensure that all students are ready to make the shift from a discussion of exemplars, for example, to independent work. Teacher recapitulation of the main concepts before moving to the next phase is suggested as a way of achieving this.
The teacher has high but realistic expectations of what students can achieve in the subject and these expectations are reflected in the tasks assigned to students in class and at home. Students’ copies indicated that very good pre-writing work is encouraged, for example, mind-mapping a topic and creating essay outlines. There was strong evidence of first and second draft writing also. Links between texts studied and personal or functional writing provided students with helpful scaffolds for their writing and it was evident that, across the ability range, students were able to adapt writing models to fit their purpose.
In all the lessons observed, students were purposeful and positively motivated. The vocabulary used by students, in conversation with the teacher and with the inspector, drew on the language of criticism and indicated their facility in using technical language appropriately. There was a good standard of presentation and organisation evident in the majority of copies examined. The work completed was of an appropriate standard. In many, answers to questions indicated good understanding of the tasks set and of appropriate register. Longer pieces of writing were generally well-structured. In junior cycle, students write well. Exercises in the form of summaries, functional writing and answers to questions have been balanced by a lot of practice in narrative writing. The skilful integration of the literature and language aspects of their course was evident in much of their work. The written work of students in senior cycle, which was examined during this evaluation, was less polished generally. Better able students wrote strong personal responses to studied texts and their writing was supported by good planning work. However, some students struggled to manage their knowledge of both texts and technical terminology well. Whilst they could identify the writing devices used in their studied texts, they were not always able to use that knowledge appropriately to advance an opinion or to support an argument. The continued use of the variety of supports for writing, differentiated to meet students’ specific needs, together with more frequent opportunities to complete exercises in evaluation, critical commentary and critical analysis, would address this. This should be borne in mind during the review recommended in the previous section of this report.
There is a whole-school homework policy in place and homework in English is regularly set. The English department is commended for the consistent implementation of formative assessment techniques which provide students with clear, task-specific, information on their performance in the subject. Homework is corrected using constructive comments only and there was evidence that peer assessment, within class, is encouraged. Formative assessment was used well in lessons where interactions such as question and answer sessions were used to measure understanding and guided teaching and learning strategies. It is suggested that the use of the marking schemes published by the State Examinations Commission would be a particular help to students in certificate examination classes. This would familiarise them with the requirements of the examinations. The schemes can also be a useful diagnostic tool, supporting the identification of areas where improvement is needed.
In-house examinations are held at Christmas, Easter and the end of the summer term for students in first, second and fifth year. In place of the summer tests, certificate examination students sit ‘mock’ examinations early in the second term. Very good records of students’ achievements in the subject are maintained by the English department. Reports issue to parents twice annually. Annual parent-teacher meetings are held for each year group and parents may meet the relevant teacher by appointment to discuss their children’s progress. The school journal is also used to communicate with parents.
Summary of main findings and recommendations
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Support for English in the school is very good. Very good ICT and audio-visual facilities are available in the English classroom. There is a school library.
· Planning for English is very good, particularly for junior cycle classes. A very integrated approach to teaching language and literature is adopted and the range of learning activities in the plan for junior cycle is noted.
· A robust interactive learning atmosphere was evident in all lessons. A very good balance was achieved between reading, discussion and writing.
· Students were purposeful and positively motivated. They engaged well in lessons and were confident contributors to class discussions.
· Homework is regularly set and clear, task-specific, information on their performance in the subject is provided to students.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· As timetabling constraints allow, consideration should be given to increasing the timetabled allocation for English in junior cycle.
· The English department should review the plan for senior cycle classes. The very good model used for planning the English course for junior cycle classes should be extended into senior cycle planning and due account should be taken of the challenge posed by teaching both higher and ordinary level courses together.
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 November 2009