An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Deanstown Avenue, Finglas West, Dublin 11
Roll number: 60571J
Date of inspection: 20 March 2007
Date of issue of report: 6 December 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Patrician College, 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 subject teachers.
Six teachers are involved in the delivery of English teaching in Patrician College, Finglas. Three of the six teachers teach more English than any other subject and the commendable practice of teaching both junior and senior cycle groups is well established among the team, as is the practice of teaching all levels and programmes offered in the school. A seventh teacher takes a number of students in a withdrawal group from a mainstream English class. The students concerned have been allocated resource hours and it would be preferable if these could be delivered without withdrawing students from the main class group.
A few instances of split timetables where the same class group has some lessons with one teacher and some with another have occurred this year for various reasons. While it is acknowledged that some unforeseen changes had to be made to the original timetable this year, it is recommended that split timetables be avoided unless they have been deliberately planned to facilitate team teaching. In the review of timetabling arrangements which is recommended in the main body of the whole school evaluation report, attention should be paid to the number of English lessons for each class group. In general, the principle to be observed is that class groups of similar ability should have the same number of English lessons. The practice of giving a generous number of English lessons to students whose literacy difficulties have been identified is a good one.
In first year, students are placed in class groups on the basis of pre-entry testing, reports from primary schools and other assessments including psychological assessments. Classes are formed with a view to ensuring that students who would benefit from close monitoring and more individual attention are in small groups. Class sizes are generally small, with the more able students in larger groups. In third year and in the senior cycle, classes are frequently of mixed levels and this requires a careful choice of texts and planning of material. English is timetabled concurrently for the two sixth year classes. There is only one fifth year class this year but normally English in fifth year is also timetabled concurrently. Concurrence is used to facilitate team teaching, whole-year activities and student movement between classes.
Patrician College operates a book rental scheme and has built up a number of class sets of novels, plays and textbooks. The school has no library but there are some small class libraries, and the classroom used by one of the resource teachers has a very attractive collection of books chosen to appeal to students with a limited reading range. A number of classrooms had tape recorders or CD players and televisions with video or DVD players. In some cases, these belonged to teachers. As was pointed out during the course of the inspection, the various English syllabuses taught in the school require students to develop visual literacy skills, and visual texts are an integral part of the course work to be covered. The use of audiotapes is highly recommended for the study of drama in particular, and greater fluency in reading can be assisted through ‘readalong’, where students listen to an audiotape and read at the same time. It is therefore important that teachers of English have ready access to audiovisual equipment and that this be seen as a priority when considering resources for the subject.
In fostering literacy skills and encouraging the reading habit among the students, the school has engaged in a number of commendable initiatives. These have included paired and shared reading involving parents, and activities such as the JCSP “be a word millionaire” challenge. The school’s HSCL co-ordinator has visited students’ homes with reading packs to encourage families to read with students.
Students are offered a range of co- and extra-curricular activities relating to English including drama, visits to the school by writers and other speakers, and outings to the theatre and cinema. The school management and the teaching staff are commended for the commitment they show to the students’ broader education through their provision and facilitation of these opportunities.
School development planning was initiated in the school some years ago but had fallen into abeyance until very recently. Subject department planning is therefore in a very early stage of development, although there is clearly a good spirit of co-operation and support amongst the English teaching team and they pointed out during the course of the inspection that the size of the school makes informal meetings possible and useful. However, the teachers themselves were aware of the benefits of a more structured approach to planning and were very open to advice and suggestions based on good practice elsewhere. It is therefore a first recommendation that the teaching team read the recent composite report on teaching and learning English in post primary schools Looking at English, in particular the section on planning and preparation and the descriptions of good practice given there. In addition, the recommendations contained in an earlier report on the teaching and learning of English should be revisited as they contain very useful advice on the drawing up of year plans for the subject.
In developing a subject plan for English, the teaching team should place a particular emphasis on the identification of learning targets for each year and should be very specific in stating what these are. Subject plans that rely exclusively on stating the content to be covered are of limited value. Instead, emphasis should be placed on skills and on desired learning outcomes: for example, instead of a general term such as ‘reading comprehension’, a plan for first year could specify skills such as finding information in the text, identifying the main points, reading between the lines and being able to draw conclusions. In taking such an approach, the teaching team is also establishing the essential skills for basic comprehension and then for more advanced skills which some students will find challenging, such as inferential reading. This paves the way for differentiated teaching in order to meet the needs of various levels of learners. It also provides a link to assessment since, if the target skills have been identified and taught, a test to discover if students have mastered them can be more easily devised.
In relation to the subject department structure, it is recommended that the teaching team meet formally at least once a term, and that formal meetings be held at the beginning and end of each academic year. A practical benefit of regular meetings is that tasks to be done can be identified and shared out to prevent duplication of work and to lessen the burden on individual teachers of preparing materials. Good planning involves both forward planning and review and regular meetings encourage reflective practice and ensure that planning remains a live activity and never becomes a mere paper exercise. It is of benefit if the teaching team can agree a system of voluntary subject co-ordinator to be rotated perhaps every two years. This will allow all members of the teaching team to participate in the work of subject co-ordination and to gain valuable professional experience.
A number of individual class and year plans were made available to the inspector. Teachers are encouraged to continue individual planning but care should be taken to ensure that individual plans are in accordance with the agreed subject plan, and that they contain the same emphasis on skills and outcomes, not merely on content.
It is worthy of note that a member of the English teaching team who is doing a postgraduate degree is drafting a policy on special needs and is consulting on it with the English teaching team and the learning support co-ordinator. The policy, when complete, will provide a further dimension to the English plan, particularly in the area of literacy development and skills building.
It is recommended that the school and the English teaching team in particular access the advice and support of the SDPI (www.sdpi.ie) and the Second Level Support Service (SLSS) (www.slss.ie) in furthering the development of the subject plan for English and the English subject department.
Six lessons were observed during the course of the evaluation, covering all years and programmes with the exception of LCA. (Students following this programme were away on work experience at the time.) All lessons observed were characterised by good management of students. Best practice was observed where the plan for the lesson was clearly stated at the outset so that students knew the learning activities they would be engaged in. In this way a sense of purpose and direction was quickly established. Pacing of lessons required careful judgement to find a balance between the need to keep students engaged and the need to give them enough time to grasp new topics or material. Occasionally, activities designed to reinforce learning were longer than necessary. Drill-type exercises can be very useful but should be managed so that excessive repetition is avoided.
Suitable resources had been prepared to assist students in their learning. These included photocopies of poems to support students’ preparation for the unseen poem question, short paragraphs on acetate for comprehension work and handouts relating to the analysis of advertisements. Explanatory handouts are very useful when pitched to the students’ reading level and understanding, as they can provide a structure for classwork and can help students when they are revising the topic. Students should be encouraged to add their own notes to handouts. As mentioned in the previous section, the shared preparation of such material is a valuable and timesaving aspect of subject department planning.
In a number of lessons, teachers made very good use of the board to set out the plan for the lesson and to provide students with reinforcement of new words and spellings. Creating a spelling and vocabulary margin on one side of the board is an effective way of preventing the board from becoming too cluttered and it allows students to take in new words at their own pace.
Questioning was used effectively to elicit students’ prior knowledge and to help them to see links between familiar and new topics. In many instances, students were eager to take part in class discussion and teachers generally managed to encourage their responses while at the same time ensuring that a focus on the topic was maintained. Writing the topic on the board at the outset and using the board to record the main points made helped to keep class discussion on track. Teachers asked simple closed questions to test students’ recollection of facts, for example in relation to the events in a story. They strongly affirmed students’ answers and were concerned to boost their confidence and reward their efforts with praise. Where more open questions were posed, for example in eliciting the students’ personal responses to aspects of a poem or a play, teachers were careful to dispel any sense that their was only one acceptable answer and invited a wide range of response, affirming those students who attempted to support their views with evidence from the text. This is very good practice and strongly supports the approach outlined in the various syllabus documents.
Active learning involving real-life materials or situations was a commendable feature of many of the lessons observed. In a media studies lesson, students individually analysed actual newspaper advertisements following a class discussion in which the points to look out for were identified. It is suggested that reversing the order of these activities would be an approach worth trying in future: students would consider real advertisements, identify the key ingredients and judge for themselves how successfully they are used. Good examples of active learning were also observed where students studying a play were put in groups to develop and then act out a short scene based on the characters and situations in the play, as a way of linking their own experiences with the world of the drama. In another lesson, exploration of a poem by Paula Meehan who was brought up in the area drew out the local references and linked the poet’s experience with the world of the students. In a junior cycle class, the shared writing of a short story involving the whole class group began with the students’ responses to a real-life character and then moved into the fictional. In discussion with the inspector, teachers emphasised the necessity of engaging the students’ attention and especially of developing their affective responses to texts. They are to be commended on the success of the methods employed.
The learning environment created in the English classrooms visited was calm, supportive and encouraging. There was a warm rapport between teachers and students and as a result the interactions in class were lively but well controlled. Many of the classrooms contained colourful displays of students’ work, posters and other visual material and charts of key words. Since most teachers have their own classrooms, it is recommended that these be used to the fullest extent as a resource for the subject. In particular, the display areas provide an opportunity for the publication of students’ writing and can be used as an incentive to encourage students towards more careful work.
In most cases, teachers demonstrated a good knowledge of their students in the course of class interaction with them, paying attention to their individual learning needs and providing encouragement and correction as necessary. In general, students were challenged as well as encouraged through questioning and, while teachers affirmed students’ efforts, they also prompted them where appropriate towards more focused or thoughtful responses. Various class activities were used to assess students’ recollection of prior learning and their ability to use it in new contexts. In one lesson an exercise aimed at exam preparation required students to recollect various figures of speech and to find examples of them in a poem that was new to them. In an atmosphere of good-humoured competition, the students demonstrated considerable familiarity with an impressive range of poetic terms. It is however recommended that the specific effect of such poetic devices within the poem be given particular emphasis so that students can develop their responses to the poem in a confident and informed manner.
Teachers reported that, although many students worked diligently and with interest in class, homework was frequently an area of particular difficulty. The school has identified the need to revise and update the existing homework policy so that clear and consistent practices are in place throughout the school. In relation to English, it is essential that all comprehension homework be very clearly based on work done in class and be given in sufficient time to allow for discussion and explanation where necessary. The use of writing frames and templates can be of assistance in enabling students to write at greater length and to produce more structured work. For example, giving students the first sentences of three paragraphs makes it much more likely that they will produce three paragraphs than will the instruction to write ten lines or a page. The very good practice of giving students encouraging developmental feedback on their written work was observed in a number of instances.
In relation to in-house tests which take place at Christmas and in summer, it is recommended that common papers be set wherever possible and that agreed marking schemes be in place. Both the Junior and Leaving Certificate examinations allow students to study different texts, so common house exams need not require all classes to study the same texts.
Students taking the state examinations in June sit mock exams in spring, and it was observed during the inspection that feedback on mock papers was referred to in class discussion with students to identify areas for improvement. Sharing the criteria for assessment with students is a very important aspect of exam preparation. The English teaching team should direct sixth year students to the Assessment Advice for Students document, which was published as one of the official documents when the current syllabus was introduced. It is readily accessible through the SLSS web site (www.slss.ie/english).
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· A good spirit of co-operation and support exists within the English teaching team.
· All lessons observed were characterised by good management of students.
· Active learning involving real-life materials or situations was a commendable feature of many of the lessons observed.
· The learning environment created in the English classrooms visited was calm, supportive and encouraging.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· Timetabling of English should be reviewed as part of a general review of the timetable.
· All members of the English teaching team should have ready access to audiovisual equipment.
· Planning for English to include the establishment of a subject department and of a whole-school plan for the subject should be a development priority for the English teaching team.
· The subject plan for English should include the school policy on homework and any specific points on homework in English which the team has agreed.
· The English teaching team should study the composite report Looking at English as part of their own planning activities and to inform their appraisal of teaching and learning activities within the school
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of English at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.