An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
CBS James Street
James’s Street, Dublin 8
Roll number: 60410I
Date of inspection: 26 November 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
Subject inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in CBS, James Street, Dublin, conducted as part of a whole school evaluation. 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, deputy principal and subject teachers.
The timetable makes very good provision for English. All junior cycle classes have an English lesson every day, and this represents optimal provision with regard to the number and distribution of lessons. In the senior cycle, five lessons of English are timetabled over four or five days, and this is satisfactory. Students in the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme have four lessons per week, in line with the allocation recommended in the LCA guidelines. English is timetabled concurrently in fifth and sixth year, and also for two or three class groups in each of the junior cycle years. The school management is commended on the timetabling arrangements for English.
Incoming students are assessed using the Drumcondra Verbal Reasoning Test (DVRT) and Cloze Reading Test and are placed in ability groups. Information from the feeder primary schools also assists in placing students in appropriate classes. One or two class groups in each junior cycle year follow the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP). The remaining groups are timetabled concurrently, and this arrangement facilitates student movement between classes in order to place students in the class that will best meet their needs. The English teaching team expressed the view that the system works well, citing instances of upward movement in particular. Concurrence in the senior cycle is used in the same way, creating a designated ordinary level class and either a mixed higher and ordinary level class or a designated higher level class. In the case of larger year groups, such as the current fifth year, consideration could be given to the formation of three class groups, one of which would pursue the higher level course. This arrangement would be in line with best practice and would assist talented students to achieve their potential.
The English teaching team currently comprises nine teachers, a very large number relative to the school’s enrolment. Four teachers take only one class group for English, and a further three teachers take just two. This pattern of deployment limits teachers’ involvement with the subject across the full range of years, levels and programmes, and is therefore not good practice. It is acknowledged that recent retirements and reassignments have created considerable changes in personnel and deployment, and that a mix of new and experienced teachers is generally desirable. However, it is strongly recommended that the size of the team be reduced in order to ensure a more consolidated delivery of the subject and to facilitate a greater level of collaborative planning. Most importantly, all members of a smaller team would have a better opportunity to develop a sense of the subject as a continuum of knowledge and skills development from first year to sixth year, in line with best practice. Of recent times, teachers have taught a range of levels in rotation and this pattern should be followed as far as possible.
English is well resourced in the school, and the school management and the teaching team are commended for their efforts in this regard. The school runs a book rental scheme and the English teaching team reported that it works very well, and is sufficiently flexible to accommodate changes in prescribed texts for Leaving Certificate English. The school has recently joined the JCSP Demonstration Library Project, through which it has been provided with a librarian, funding for books and other materials, and access to a wide range of reading initiatives. During the evaluation, the library was seen to be a hive of activity, and an extremely welcoming environment for class groups doing research or having a reading period, for students working one to one with the librarian, and for individual students reading for pleasure. ‘Read-along’ MP3 recordings to accompany a number of popular books have made the reading experience accessible and attractive to many students, and ‘drop everything and read’ sessions have created occasions where the whole school has engaged in reading at the same time. All involved in these and other initiatives deserve warm praise.
Teachers have their own base rooms, and many of these contained attractive displays of books, picture and word posters, texts of poems, charts and notices relating to grammar and punctuation, and some examples of students’ work. The need to develop a more print-rich environment was identified in a previous subject inspection, and the teaching team is commended on the progress made. Displays of students’ work are especially to be encouraged, as they represent a form of publication and can motivate students to prepare and present their written work more carefully. There are dedicated rooms for literacy support and for teaching English as an additional language (EAL), providing very stimulating and affirming learning environments. Good information and communication technology (ICT) resources are available, and their greater use in the teaching and learning of English is to be encouraged, especially with regard to the development of writing skills.
The school offers teaching experience to student teachers, who are mentored by experienced colleagues. A helpful programme of work in the form of learning targets has been prepared to assist a student teacher presently sharing the teaching of a first-year group.
Co-curricular activities offered in the school extend and vary the students’ experience of English and are highly commended. They include a school magazine, a writer-in-residence scheme, and visits to the theatre, cinema and places connected with writers. Good use is made of the school’s central location in this regard.
Planning and Preparation
At the request of senior management, one of the teaching team acts as convenor for English, a role that involves maintaining the English planning folder, convening meetings and keeping records of decisions made. So far, the role of convenor has not explicitly encompassed the promotion of good practice and the size of the current team creates practical difficulties for collaborative planning. However, the team clearly shares a concern for the students in its care and welcomed suggestions to promote collaboration and consistency of practice. It is therefore recommended that the team agree a description of the co-ordinator’s role and a term of office, two years perhaps, to ensure that all members have an opportunity of experiencing and developing the role. Reference to the relevant section of the inspectorate’s composite report, Looking at English, should be helpful in furthering this work.
A planning folder for English was made available during the inspection. It contained a number of syllabus documents and circulars, a copy of the previous inspection report and a plan for the subject broadly following the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) template. The plan sets out aims and objectives, gives details of course content and materials for each year, lists a number of teaching methodologies, and refers to homework and assessment. The identification of particular reading and writing skills relevant to the various syllabuses is a commendable aspect of the existing plan, and points the way for further development. To extend the planning work done so far, it is recommended that the team focus on identifying specific learning outcomes for each year in the form of statements of competence. This approach is very similar to the first-year learning target document mentioned above, and is also used extensively for JCSP classes. “The student can write three accurate, sequenced paragraphs” is an example of such a statement: the more specific the statements are, the more helpful to teachers and students. The team can then identify and develop materials and methods to achieve these outcomes, and can also devise assessments to test whether students have achieved them. Thus, a focus on learning outcomes links planning, teaching and learning, and assessment, and ensures that planning is purposeful and dynamic.
The programme plans indicated that, in the main, appropriate choices of texts have been made. Junior cycle students read a range of novels, a good selection of poetry and at least one complete play. Leaving Certificate text choices are in line with syllabus requirements and the prescribed lists. On foot of a recommendation in the previous inspection report, those taking LCA now study a novel, and this is commended. It is recommended that the whole team discuss possible text choices for all programmes, including LCA, and that in making selections they strike an appropriate balance between the challenging and the accessible.
The subject plan makes reference to the resources available, including the library and the ICT facilities. These are very rich resources indeed, and more integrated and collaborative planning should ensure that they are fully exploited to deliver their full value to the students. ICT also has a significant role to play in supporting collaborative planning, and the development of an electronic folder for the English department would be very helpful. For example, it would provide an ideal means of creating and storing resources and teaching materials such as writing frames, to which further reference is made in the next section of the report.
Most teachers made their individual plans available, and these were detailed and showed evidence in many cases of good reflective practice. In many instances, imaginative resources had been prepared for the lessons observed, and teachers are commended in this regard.
Teaching and Learning
Seven lessons were observed in the course of the evaluation, covering all years, levels and programmes, and involving almost all members of the English teaching team. The prevailing classroom atmosphere was positive and supportive, and teachers demonstrated very good classroom management skills and exercised a firm yet friendly control, always using students’ names and showing that they knew them well. Students were co-operative at all times and, although sometimes a little hesitant to respond, displayed interest and a positive attitude to their school and their teachers.
All lessons observed proceeded purposefully and in many instances teachers employed the very good practice of stating the lesson topic and objective at the outset. Lessons were generally well structured and, where a number of topics or activities had been planned, the transition from one to the next was well managed. Good pacing ensured that a satisfactory amount of material was covered and that a forward momentum was maintained. In one or two instances, the amount of material planned for the lesson was over-ambitious, and care should be taken to ensure that time for the necessary student activity is built into the lesson plan. A number of lessons began with a review of prior learning, sometimes involving an oral check of homework. Students demonstrated good recall of material and of specific terminology, and teachers introduced new material once these links had been established. This good practice is commended.
Classroom resources were used effectively and a variety of teaching materials had been prepared. The board and the data projector were used to provide information, visual stimulus and reinforcement. Points made during class discussion were recorded on the board, as were new words and difficult spellings, giving students an opportunity to note them down and absorb them. Spidergrams done on the board provided a helpful model for gathering ideas on a topic, and students copied these down for future reference. The data projector was used effectively in a junior and a senior cycle lesson, in one case to teach key terms in drama and in the other to show images as a prelude to a creative writing exercise. In the junior cycle lesson, students were presented with the terms on the screen and asked to write their own definitions. The ‘official’ definitions were then revealed. This approach engaged the students and led to lively and productive discussion, although some of the definitions were rather too complex. In the senior cycle lesson, parts of a photograph were shown and students had to describe the person portrayed using only the details seen. When the complete picture was revealed, the students were pleased at the accuracy of their guesswork and grasped the importance of placing significant details in a written description. Recent newspapers were used in a media lesson, and the use of authentic texts is commended. In a film studies lesson, a useful worksheet was handed out and read beforehand to ensure that viewing was focused and productive.
A range of teaching methods was used in the lessons observed, with a particular emphasis on task-centred learning to engage and focus students. Individual, pair and group tasks were all observed, and all were effectively managed. In a JCSP lesson, students completed a straightforward information retrieval exercise, and this led on to a more in-depth discussion in which students were encouraged to express and support their views. In this type of discussion, leading questions can be very helpful in drawing students’ attention to less obvious points, giving them the satisfaction of discovering for themselves rather than being told. In another junior cycle lesson, students were working on a character description, and skilful questioning led them from physical description to issues of attitude and behaviour. They made useful notes and were fully engaged in preparing for the writing task.
In relation to the teaching of writing skills, a number of teachers commented on the difficulty students have with structuring and developing their written work. Giving students a writing frame for any substantial assignment is one recommended approach. Such a writing frame might provide them with the opening sentence of each paragraph and give them key words or other prompts to help them place their ideas in a clear sequence and develop the points they make. Providing students with creative models which they may imitate as closely as necessary is also a very helpful means of developing a sense of sentence and paragraph structure. The more consistently these approaches are used in all subjects requiring written production, the greater the reinforcement will be.
Practice in reading was afforded in a number of the lessons observed. This was most successful where students were asked to read short informative pieces and were assisted swiftly if they encountered difficulties, thus ensuring that they did not lose the sense of the material. In a junior cycle poetry lesson, students were asked to undertake the initial reading aloud of a quite complex poem. It is much preferable that the students hear a well-prepared reading by the teacher or a good-quality recording in their first encounter with a poem as this greatly assists both comprehension and affective response. A grasp of the ‘story’ of the poem is required before students begin to look at language or form.
In all lessons observed, a good balance was maintained between teacher and student talk, and teachers affirmed students’ contributions while also challenging them appropriately to be more precise or to support their views. Teachers should however be mindful not to answer their own questions, and should give students time and encouragement to respond as fully as possible, since well-developed oral expression assists written expression. In many lessons, there was a commendable emphasis on extending students’ vocabulary both in spoken and written language.
There was an expectation that students would work co-operatively, and their interactions with the teacher and the inspector showed good recall, a readiness to ask questions and a good level of interest in the subject. There was evidence that a number of students are exceptionally able and accomplished writers. However, it was reported that other students have considerable difficulty with independent study and in particular with extended writing tasks. A whole-school approach to the development of writing skills should assist these students, and should in particular help them with written examinations and so raise their attainment. The school’s encouragement to students to choose the highest appropriate level in the certificate examinations is commended. Uptake of the various levels offered as reported to be very dependent on the particular annual cohort. It was noted that numbers opting for the higher level in the 2008 examination was greater than in previous years.
In all lessons observed, there was excellent monitoring of students’ participation in class work and their level of understanding of the material. Regular questioning checked retention and comprehension, and teachers moved around the classroom when students were working, giving assistance as required and ensuring students remained on task. Students did written work in class in copies, and many also had folders for handouts, worksheets and work done on A4 paper. Junior cycle students should have two copies for English. The good practice of having students write dates and headings for each assignment was observed in a number of classes, and should be followed in all cases. Students should be encouraged to see their copies as a resource and a record of their work.
Inspection of students’ copies showed that in general a good volume of work has been completed. Substantial writing assignments had been set for a number of class groups, and this is commended. Although some homework consisted of comprehension exercises with little sense of context, other assignments were imaginative and elicited good responses. Work was monitored regularly and dated or initialled. Comments and suggestions for improvement were written in a number of cases. This is very good practice and should be followed in the case of all substantial written work, both to acknowledge student effort and to assist progress. However, great care should be taken to ensure that all comments are accurate and free from error.
Students sit formal examinations twice yearly, and examination classes sit mock examinations. Students in a senior examination class were aware of the criteria of assessment applied in the certificate examinations, and were able to engage in assessment of each other’s work, justifying the grade awarded. This is very good practice when conducted in a supportive and friendly manner as it was here. Parent-teacher meetings are held for each year group and were observed during the evaluation to be well attended.
Summary of main findings and recommendations
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· The timetable makes very good provision for English.
· Many English classrooms contained attractive displays of books, picture and word posters, and were print-rich and stimulating.
· Co-curricular activities offered in the school extend and vary the students’ experience of English and are highly commended.
· The identification of particular reading and writing skills relevant to the various syllabuses is a commendable aspect of the existing plan.
· The prevailing classroom atmosphere was positive and supportive, teachers demonstrated very good classroom management skills and students were co-operative at all times.
· A range of teaching methods was used in the lessons observed, with a particular emphasis on task-centred learning to engage and focus students.
· In all lessons observed, there was excellent monitoring of students’ participation in class work and their level of understanding of the material.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· It is strongly recommended that the size of the English teaching team be reduced in order to ensure a more consolidated delivery of the subject and to facilitate a greater
level of collaborative planning.
· The teaching team should discuss a description of the co-ordinator’s role encompassing the promotion and sharing of good practice.
· To extend the planning work done so far, it is recommended that the team focus on identifying specific learning outcomes for each year in the form of statements of competence.
· A whole-school approach to the development of writing skills should be adopted.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of English and with the principal and deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published November 2009