An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Meánscoil San Nioclás
Rinn O gCuanach, County Waterford
Roll number: 76066J
Date of inspection: 29 November 2006
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 Meánscoil San Nioclás, Rinn O gCunach. 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 the subject teachers.
Meánscoil San Nioclás is a co-educational, all-Irish school. The first-year class has five English lessons per week. This is good provision. The second-year and third-year classes have four English lessons per week. This is adequate provision. The Transition Year class has two English lessons per week and these lessons are supplemented by a further three drama lessons during the week. There is an element of English drama in these latter lessons. Nevertheless, the current provision for English in Transition Year is inadequate and should be extended to allow for a minimum of three English lessons per week. The fifth-year class has four English lessons per week and the sixth-year class has five English lessons per week. The time allocated in senior cycle to the teaching and learning of the subject is, therefore, significantly below national norms and, consequently, it must be pointed out that students are being placed at a considerable disadvantage to their peers with regard to performance in the State examinations. Furthermore, the mixed-ability nature of senior-cycle classes in the school presents particular challenges in the context of the Leaving Certificate English syllabus. Beyond this, the all-Irish nature of the school ethos allows for fewer contact points between students and the target language than is the case for many of their peers. When combined, all of these circumstances point towards the need for an expansion in the provision of English lessons to senior-cycle students. Consequently, it is recommended that the time allocated for English in fifth year should be extended from four to five lessons. In almost all cases English lessons were spread evenly across the week. In the one instance where this was not the case, it is suggested that in the future an arrangement should be pursued whereby the maximum number of contact points for students with the language might be accommodated. It must be stated, however, that the constraints of any timetabling system are recognised in this regard.
English classes sometimes retain their English teacher from one year to the next. It is acknowledged that some new staff have been added to the English department over the last number of years. Nevertheless, it is recommended that English teachers should be consistently timetabled with specific class groups, ensuring that they retain the same class from one year to the next in junior cycle or in senior cycle. At a minimum, English classes should retain teachers from second year through to third year and from fifth year through to sixth year in order to allow for the development of consistent pedagogical approaches with particular class groups. Any other approach introduces unnecessary disruption in the learning processes of students while simultaneously limiting the ability of teachers to plan adequately and consistently. The school should address this issue as a priority in the planning of the English programme.
All classes are of mixed ability. Students are encouraged to work towards their potential in choosing which level they should attempt in the State examinations. In senior cycle, teachers are conscious of the need to teach the ordinary level element of the Leaving Certificate syllabus in poetry to their classes. This is good practice.
The school is currently in the process of seeking new accommodation for a library and is hoping to invest in new texts in the future. A post holder has been appointed to develop library services in the school. This is commendable. At present the school’s collection of library books is housed in the hall adjacent to the ‘Cearnóg’, a study area for fifth-year and sixth-year students. Students are encouraged to read copies of the Irish Times and the Irish Independent which have been ordered, as well as sampling from the range of books available in the shelving on the corridor. Again, this is positive. It is suggested that a library policy should be created by the English department as an aid in maximising utilisation of the current library facilities to support literacy among the student body. Further ideas which may prove useful in the development of library services include: the occasional use of DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time for English classes; the creation of English ‘book-boxes’ which might be brought to English lessons, with texts which have been selected carefully by English teachers; the purchase of an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction texts in English to encourage reluctant readers and the modelling of library use by teachers. These suggestions are made with an acknowledgement of the all-Irish ethos of the school and it should be emphasised that such material should be viewed as support for the subject, English, within the context of its status as a second language in the school. A useful publication from which to garner ideas regarding the enhancement of library services is Room for Reading: The Junior Certificate School Programme Demonstration Library Project which is available from the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) Support Services. Support might also be accessed through the School Library Association in the Republic of Ireland (SLARI) which holds two conferences for English teachers and librarians each year.
There is very good access to audio-visual equipment for English teachers. This is praiseworthy, given the central role played by film in the Leaving Certificate syllabus.
There is a computer room with access to the internet. This can be accessed by English teachers on request. There are wireless connections on some laptops and some classrooms have been networked. A data projector is also available. It is anticipated that there will be further widening of the availability of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the future. Currently there is limited use of ICT in the teaching of English. The English department is encouraged to expand its use of ICT where practicable, particularly as a tool for improving students’ literacy. Areas which might be considered include the use of webquests as a focus for students’ project work in junior-cycle classes, the adoption of word-processing packages and the creation of a bank of web-based English resources on the school’s ICT equipment.
Good, informal procedures for the induction of new teachers of English in the school have been followed in the past. This is worthwhile and the English department is encouraged to create a formal subject induction policy as part of the subject plan. This might include the observation of established practice in the school by new teachers, alongside familiarisation with the subject plan itself. This latter document could form a key element in the induction process, once it has been developed to reflect the good teaching practice which already exists in the school.
The school is supportive of teachers’ continuing professional development. This is to be commended. Teachers have shown considerable commitment to their own professional development and have attended a number of inservice training courses in the recent past. This is praiseworthy.
A wide range of co-curricular and extracurricular activities are arranged for students by the English department and this suggests considerable enthusiasm for and dedication to the subject on the part of teachers. Recent activities organised included a trip to the Russian Ballet Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet, public speaking, participation in poetry competitions and a visiting theatrical group which heightened students’ awareness of the plays of Samuel Beckett. An anticipated trip to the local courthouse to view the proceedings is further evidence of the imaginative approach adopted by English teachers in this area. Teachers efforts in the organisation of co-curricular and extracurricular activities are to be lauded.
A resources locker has recently been allocated to the English department. The locker is used to facilitate the sharing of resources and this is most worthwhile. School management has discussed the idea of allocating base rooms to groupings of particular subjects. This is a creditable idea and is deserving of encouragement. There are some limitations with regard to classroom space at the present time. Nevertheless, it is recommended that a subject base room should be allocated to English. This would allow for the development of a print-rich and text-rich environment in English, a key strategy in pursuing the study of any second language. The wider, Irish-speaking ethos of the school could also be protected through the adoption of such an approach. This room would also serve to raise the status of the subject in the school while simultaneously increasing student motivation.
There is a formal meeting of the English department at the beginning of the school year. There are also informal meetings on a regular basis. These latter arrangements are aided by the size of the school which allows for a high degree of informal communication between members of staff. This is positive and it is evident that there is good collaboration between English teachers. There is currently no subject coordinator for English. It is recommended that a subject coordinator for English should be appointed, possibly on a rotational basis, and that the number of formal departmental meetings during the school year should be increased. Such an approach will serve to further facilitate the sharing of ideas and resources. It is recommended that the English department should use these meetings to develop an English subject plan, to be kept in a subject folder, part of which should contain the agenda and minutes of each departmental meeting. These minutes should be concise and focused on decisions taken and responsibilities allocated during the course of the meeting. An area which should be pursued in the development of the subject plan is the creation of a common English plan for each year group. This would serve to inform teachers of what students had studied in the previous year and should be viewed, along with the rest of the subject plan, as a document which can be reviewed and adapted to suit the needs of a particular student cohort. Consequently, ICT should be utilised in the creation of the plan. A template for the initial stages in the development of a subject plan is available in the resources area of the School Development Planning Initiative website at www.sdpi.ie. Further ideas which might be pursued include the setting out of key methodologies used in the teaching of English, a list of resources available in the English department, the noting of texts used in the junior and senior cycle and an English department assessment policy. A useful resource to aid in the creation of the latter document is the assessment for learning area of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment website at www.ncca.ie.
Texts are varied at senior cycle. This is good practice, allowing for the need to suit text choice to particular class contexts and student interests. A book scheme operates in the school and, in the past, this has limited opportunities to vary text choice in junior cycle. Given the importance of motivating students through the utilisation of texts which are relevant to their own lives and experiences, it is suggested that greater variation of text choice in junior cycle should be supported. A further advantage of such an approach is the inevitable professional development for English teachers which arises as a result of exploring a new text with a group of students. A useful resource in researching fiction for young adults can be found at www.childrensbooksireland.com.
An English textbook has been adopted for use by first-year students this year. This development is most worthwhile. However, the second-year and third-year classes do not currently utilise a textbook. It is recommended that the school should adopt the practice of using a core textbook for all year groups in junior cycle. The experience of owning a textbook is one which will add to students’ experiences of the subject in school, while enhancing their capacity to maintain a grasp of the various poems, short stories and other literary genres that they have encountered during the year. Furthermore, the propensity for students to lose photocopied pages of English resources from one year to the next in junior cycle would be avoided. Finally, while English teachers are certainly encouraged to continue to supplement any textbook with additional material, the need for constant photocopying of resources by teachers would be considerably reduced through the employment of an English textbook.
There is a well-planned subject-specific programme for English within the school’s Transition Year Programme. As has already been stated, this is supplemented by drama lessons three times per week which incorporate an English element. This latter aspect of the Transition Year programme is most worthwhile and affords clear opportunities to incorporate excerpts from Irish playwrights and authors as part of the English element of the drama course. These opportunities should be explored.
All teachers presented evidence of long-term planning. Teachers were diligent in their preparation for lessons. Particularly notable was the strategy adopted by one teacher whereby students were invited at the beginning of the year to discuss their relationship with English as a subject. This served to give a clear view of their thoughts on the subject, as developed through the influence of several different teachers over the previous number of years. A further positive element in another teacher’s planning was the teaching of a full novel in first year, which is good practice. It is suggested that the momentum of this worthwhile approach might be increased through the adoption of a more concentrated strategy in studying the text. Thus, rather than focusing on the novel once a week, students might garner more engagement with the text through reading it on a daily basis. In both this case and in another teacher’s planning, it is suggested that, rather than focusing on one topic at a time in the English programme, thought might be given to an integrated approach to the language and literature elements of the syllabus. Thus, the study of a novel or a play might be seen as a ‘springboard’ to areas such as media studies or letter writing. This strategy would allow for the pacing of the exploration of a novel or play to be adjusted through regular links with the language element of the syllabus, for which the novel may, in turn, be used as a resource. Students will thus garner an appreciation of the interrelationship between the different elements of the course. A further advantage which might accrue is that plays and novels will be encountered on a more holistic basis than might be the case where students read them for only one lesson a week, rather than engaging with them in a more consolidated timeframe. It was noteworthy that the study of two plays was planned for the junior cycle in the case of one teacher and this is to be commended.
There are good links between the English department and the learning-support department. A member of the English department is also involved in the delivery of learning support. Individual teachers inform the learning-support coordinator regarding students that they feel might benefit from extra support. English teachers and the learning-support department communicate regarding the work undertaken by students in each others’ classes. These links are praiseworthy and the English department is encouraged to continue to expand and develop its practice in supporting students with special educational needs.
Teachers were uniformly enthusiastic about the teaching of their subject. They are to be commended for this. A good standard of teaching was observed during the inspection. Individual lesson plans were presented in all cases. There were clear objectives in lessons and lessons were well structured.
A range of resources was used including the blackboard, photocopies, textbooks and students own wall displays. In one lesson the blackboard was used effectively in the setting out of keywords and points raised during the analysis of a number of advertisements. Teachers are encouraged to continue to explore possibilities for the use of visual and other resources as a support for the teaching and learning process. Dictionaries were evident in some classes and their use as part of normal classroom practice is to be encouraged.
Classes began variously with the reading of the roll, the organisation of a class exercise and the sitting of a brief test on poetic terms. In the case of the latter exercise, the possibility of linking the questions asked to the identification of techniques in particular lines of poetry might have proved beneficial. The impact of this approach could have been further extended through the setting of an exercise whereby students would have to create their own examples of the techniques that they had identified. Subsequent to this test, students were expected to point out techniques in a poem which they were encountering for the first time. The strong focus on language in this lesson was commendable.
Questioning of students was well managed. In one instance, the use of higher order questions, emphasising the importance of ‘why’ certain techniques were used or certain events occurred would have been worthwhile. On occasion, a more rapid move from questioning to pair work or other active methodologies would have proved useful in maintaining the pace of lessons.
Pair work and active methodologies were used in a majority of lessons. Where this occurred, teachers facilitated activities well. In one lesson, ‘freeze-frames’ and ‘thought-tracking’ were used to explore particular events in a play. Students were distributed ‘scene cards’ describing the moment in the play around which they would be required to ‘freeze’ and then their fellow students would guess which moment was being portrayed. The teacher encouraged students to explore the moment fully, along with the emotions of the characters involved, questioning how the tableau might be made more convincing. The incorporation of quotes into the ‘thought-tracking’ approach employed is offered as a potentially useful further development of this imaginative practice. Another possible extension of the strategy would be the consolidation of students’ observations through the use of blackboard work, along with the setting of genre exercises, based on these observations, as homework.
The atmosphere in lessons was good. A very good relationship between students and teachers was in evidence. Teachers were universally affirming to students. Classroom management was of a good standard. Classrooms were well maintained and, in one instance, the rearranging of classroom furniture to allow for the creation of a free space so that the lesson might proceed ‘in the round’ was commendable.
Students were engaged in lessons, particularly at those points where active methodologies were incorporated. Students displayed knowledge of the texts being studied when questioned. In one instance, a stronger emphasis on the learning of key quotations might be of benefit as such an approach would serve to enhance students’ sense of ownership with regard to studied texts.
There was evidence of the development of a print-rich environment in English in a number of classrooms and, in one instance, this was of an especially high standard. Here, student work was displayed, including poems by students, along with various other examples of students’ written work. The use of this approach by the English department is to be praised as a useful support to literacy development. Further ideas which might be explored in the future include the display of keywords, character diagrams and the further development of students’ work in different genres.
Homework was regularly assigned in classes. In one class, amounts of written homework were limited at the beginning of the year in order to encourage students’ engagement with and enjoyment of the English programme. As the programme for the class group has developed, more significant quantities of written homework have been assigned. The continuation and strengthening of this emphasis on written work is to be strongly encouraged. In another class, there was evidence of the setting of significant quantities of written work and students had been provided with set criteria which would be used to evaluate their work. This was very good practice. In a number of classes folders were kept carefully and contained examples of students’ written work.
Comment-based, formative assessment was used in all classes. In one instance this approach was particularly comprehensive. Opportunities to further expand the use of comment-based, formative assessment should be explored by the English department where practicable and within time constraints. On occasion, a stronger focus on accuracy of expression in students’ copybooks should be pursued. Strategies which might be utilised in this regard include the use of peer correction and the occasional adoption of ICT as a means of focusing students on the drafting and redrafting process which is central to all good writing.
There was some evidence of the integration of the language and literature elements of the syllabus in students’ homework. Teachers are encouraged to employ this approach as a key strategy in the teaching of the subject as this will serve to enhance the manner in which the different parts of the syllabus support each other.
There are formal house examinations at Christmas for third-year, fifth-year and sixth-year students. First-year, second-year and Transition Year students are provided with in-class assessments at Christmas. Third-year and sixth-year students participate in mock examinations in February. Summer examinations are organised for first-year, second-year, Transition Year and fifth-year students. Common examinations are anticipated for the two third-year classes participating in the mock examinations next February. This is good practice.
Parents receive reports regarding students’ progress twice per year, at Christmas and summer. This year a new arrangement for parent/teacher meetings has been adopted whereby the meeting for parents of third-year, fifth-year and sixth-year students is to be held prior to Christmas and the meeting for first-year, second-year and Transition Year parents is to be held after Christmas. The school facilitates communication between parents and teachers through letters and phone calls. Parents can also arrange to meet with a teacher should they wish to do so. These arrangements are commendable.
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.