An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Sandford Park School
Ranelagh, Dublin 6
Roll number: 60640C
Date of inspection: 28 January 2008
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Sandford Park School, 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 three 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.
Timetable provision for English is very good both in the number and distribution of lessons. A lesson per day is provided throughout the junior cycle, and an additional ten-week drama workshop module is timetabled in first year and taught by the English department. Transition Year (TY) students have four periods of core English with related modules in drama and film studies. TY English is not as a rule timetabled concurrently, although it happens that the two TY groups have English at the same time twice a week on this year’s timetable. Consideration could be given to using these lessons occasionally for whole-year activities and, if these prove useful, the possibility of planned concurrent timetabling should be investigated. In fifth and sixth year, English is timetabled concurrently with a lesson every day. Concurrence allows students to change level, but also facilitates collaborative planning and preparation of materials, resources and assessments, and it should be used as fully as possible.
Students are placed in mixed-ability classes for junior cycle English and are not divided into higher and ordinary-level sets at any stage. TY classes are also of mixed ability. School management and the English department are to be commended for their commitment to mixed ability. Class groups are set in fifth and sixth year and follow either the higher or ordinary-level course, and this facilitates suitable text choices and approaches at each level.
The English department in Sandford Park comprises three teachers, all of whom have the subject to degree level. All teach English in both the junior and senior cycle and a system of rotation ensures that all have experience of teaching both higher and ordinary-level classes in fifth and sixth year. This is good practice, extending teachers’ expertise and the range of experience available to the department. Student teachers of English have the opportunity to take a range of class groups for one or more lessons a week and in all cases have an experienced teacher as a mentor who retains responsibility for the class. This provides a varied and supportive introduction to teaching, and is a commendable approach.
English is very well resourced. Each teacher has a base classroom and all are stimulating and print-rich, with bookshelves, posters, visual materials, themed displays based on studied texts, word charts and examples of students’ work. Classrooms are generally conventionally arranged, and the written English plan refers to the ‘at times passivity-inducing’ rows of desks. This is a valid comment, and consideration could perhaps be given to experimenting with other layouts more conducive to student-centred work.
A recent extension to the school houses a fine library, and the board of management supports the funding of a full-time librarian. The possibility of displaying in the library short book reviews by students as a way of encouraging others to read could be explored as the library is developed. The excellent practice identified in the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) Demonstration Library Project (www.jcsp.ie) should prove very useful, especially in encouraging less enthusiastic readers.
Good provision has been made for literacy support within the overall context of learning support in the school, and this is identified in the main body of the Whole School Evaluation (WSE) report. There was evidence of good co-operation and communication between the English and the learning support departments. Teachers of English were aware of students who were receiving literacy support, and of the nature of their difficulties. Time available arising from exemptions from Irish is used to provide literacy support to small groups and individual students. The school has a number of special needs assistants (SNAs) who assist students both in and outside class. The idea of providing in-class literacy support for students was discussed during the evaluation, and the possibility of having a learning support teacher and a mainstream teacher in the English classroom might be considered as a means of offering timely support and reinforcement of learning to students with literacy difficulties.
Information and communication technology (ICT) is well established in teaching and learning practices in the school. Smart boards have been installed in a number of classrooms, although not yet in any of the rooms used for English. Some members of the department have a particular interest in ICT, and this should provide a very good opportunity for the sharing of good practice when the equipment is in place. Excellent examples of the use of ICT in teaching and learning were observed in some lessons: for example, the provision of school email addresses for students, the emailing of useful links and online resources to the students’ school email addresses and the submission of assignments by email.
The school provides a very wide range of co-curricular activities that extend the students’ experience of English, in particular drama, debating and public speaking. A dramatic production is mounted every year under the direction of a member of the English department, and is an aspect of school life highly valued by students, parents and the school management. A school assembly held during the course of the evaluation gave ample evidence of debating and public speaking skills and achievements. All involved in these activities are commended for the commitment to excellence demonstrated.
The members of the English department meet for forty minutes every week, which is in addition to their teaching time. Senior management and the English department are commended for this arrangement and their commitment to good collaborative practice. The longest-serving member of the department acts as co-ordinator, and there was general consensus on the usefulness of the co-ordinator role in steering and recording the planning process. As a means of further developing the good systems in place, it is suggested that a rotation of this role be agreed, perhaps involving a two-year term. This would extend the experience to each member of the department, and underpin the sense of collective ownership of the subject planning process. A description of the co-ordinator role could also be included in the English plan.
Comprehensive written plans have been drawn up, detailing aims and objectives for each programme and year, desired learning outcomes, the content to be covered, teaching and learning strategies, and methods of assessment. This represents best practice and is highly commended. Teachers discussed with the inspector the need to change plans at times for various reasons, and it was emphasised that the plans should at all times be regarded as working documents, open to adaptation and refinement. The need to focus on learning outcomes was also stressed; where a change in the planned programme or in methods would better achieve these outcomes, that change should be made.
The English teachers share a commitment to a high quality of teaching, and believe that good planning practices are essential. They reported a culture of open and candid collaboration, and recognised each other’s particular strengths and interests. This provides a very good basis for the sharing of good practice and the exploration of a wide range of teaching and learning methods. The teaching team is encouraged to exploit their collective expertise as much as possible: the areas of drama, visual media and ICT provide particular opportunities for the sharing of best practice.
The planned programme for junior cycle English is wide-ranging and challenging, and is firmly based on the principles set out in the syllabus and guidelines. Current practice is to cover a number of texts including substantial novels and a Shakespearean play in first and second year, and to consolidate and revise this work in third year. It is recommended that new material be introduced in the third year – for example, a short story module – which would add to the already very good practices observed, whereby the teaching of language and literature are carefully integrated. The planned Leaving Certificate programme has changed in the last two years to allow different text choices to be made for those taking higher and ordinary level. This is good practice, as the cardinal rule in choosing texts from the prescribed list should be their ability to stimulate and engage the students.
The Transition Year (TY) programme is currently devised on the basis of what will best achieve the aims of the programme and also what allows teachers to exploit their own particular areas of interest. Separate courses of study in English have therefore been planned for the two TY groups, who are each taught by the same teacher throughout the year. Following on from the earlier recommendation to consider concurrent timetabling of English in TY, this report also recommends a modular delivery of the English programme, whereby all students in the year would have access to courses on, for example, duologues or the graphic novel. Even partial concurrence would permit some modular delivery, although full concurrence is optimal.
It was noted that the teaching and learning strategies listed in the year plans, while varied and valid, gave particular emphasis to didactic instruction from the teacher. In continuing to plan for the best teaching and learning practice in the mixed-ability English classroom, the teaching team should focus particularly on the need for a differentiated approach, and should bear in mind the varied capacities of students to access learning through whole-class discussion. This point is further discussed in the section following.
There was evidence of a very high level of individual planning for each lesson, and the thoughtful and thorough preparation of materials and resources to aid teaching and learning. Teachers are especially commended on their sourcing of stimulating background material relating to the lesson topics.
Seven lessons covering all years and programmes and including a drama workshop were observed during the evaluation. In all lessons, a good rapport between teachers and students was evident, and most students displayed a high level of engagement and enjoyment, and participated confidently in the many class discussions observed. Lessons were well prepared as regards learning materials and resources, and teachers brought authority and energy to their work. Pacing was generally good, and a satisfactory amount of material was covered in each lesson. In instances where some of the activities planned were not completed, more careful lesson structure and attention to time are recommended.
The careful preparation and use of resources was an observed strength of the English department. Resources included a drama booklet compiled for the first-year workshop, author interviews sourced online and in DVD format, class quizzes and assignments, copies of visual texts, and work done by the students themselves and used as exemplar material. The resources were well designed and used imaginatively, especially to give a context to the creative impulse of various authors, and they succeeded in engaging the students and eliciting responses from them. More obvious resources were also used, including the board and the materials displayed in the classrooms. Teachers should bear in mind that the board provides valuable visual reinforcement, and work done on the board should always be clearly laid out and easy to read.
Direct expository teaching was the dominant methodology, although individual and group tasks were assigned also. Teachers communicated information and ideas with energy and enthusiasm, and generally struck a good balance between direct instruction on the one hand and class discussion or student response on the other. The fact that most students were willing to engage in discussion and could express their opinions confidently led to lively exchanges of views. Students also listened to each other, and raised interesting and challenging points themselves. For example, in a junior and a senior cycle lesson observed, the topic of stereotypes was under discussion, and students were able to make connections between stereotypes and the media concept of the target audience, and to express both an understanding and a rejection of crude stereotyping.
Some good instances of task-based learning were also observed. For example, groups in a junior cycle class were given slips of paper, each referring to an event in the novel they were studying, which they had to sequence both in narrative and chronological order. This created a ‘hands-on’ encounter with a challenging concept, and worked very well. A vital component of successful group work is that all instructions are clearly given in advance of the work and that the students know what they are expected to produce and how long they have for the task. It may therefore be necessary to ensure that all students have a sufficient grasp of a concept such as ‘chronological order’ through the use of simple examples before they have to apply it to the complexities of a narrative text. The board can be used to record a simple explanation to which students can refer. Pair or group work should also require genuine interaction and a contribution from all participants, and this needs to be planned and built in to the task. The exercise described above was appropriately interactive and therefore effective.
The treatment of drama, both as an academic study and as a participatory activity, was thorough and imaginative. In all instances, there was a commendable emphasis on drama as theatre, whether through the very high quality of the teacher’s transmission of the text or through the students’ enacting of short extracts in a workshop context. It is suggested that, as an adjunct to classroom reading of the play, the use of a good and up-to-date dramatised reading of the play on tape or CD be considered. Such an approach may give students an additional insight into characterisation and the range of possible interpretations open to them.
Good questioning techniques were observed, ranging from the use of questions to check on students’ understanding and recall at the beginning of the lesson to the use of open and speculative questions to stimulate discussion and to play ‘devil’s advocate’ at times. Commendably, students were given adequate time to formulate responses to speculative questions, and a variety of responses was encouraged and affirmed.
Teachers are commended on the high quality of the instruction given, and on their encouraging yet robust interactions with students. It should however be borne in mind that variety in methods is required in order to suit different learning styles in a mixed-ability classroom. Participating in whole-class discussion, and at times even following it, may be difficult for some students. Therefore, greater use of a staged approach to class discussion is recommended, for example through a carefully planned use of the ‘think, pair, share’ strategy. The middle stage here is especially important, as it gives students an opportunity to thrash out ideas or findings in pairs or small groups before sharing them with the whole class, and this builds confidence and articulacy in students who are less verbally adroit.
Very good assessment practices were observed, both in classroom interactions and in the very valuable and lengthy feedback given to students following written assignments. In a number of instances, work submitted was handed back in class, and teachers took the opportunity to make a number of recommendations to the whole class where the same error had been made by many. Helpful and encouraging oral feedback was also given quickly to individual students as work was handed back, and both these approaches exemplified the good balance between affirmation and challenge which characterised the teachers’ responses to students’ work.
Exemplary practice was evident in the approach taken to the assessment of written assignments. Students were affirmed where a praiseworthy effort had been made, and clear and substantial suggestions for improvement were made. Teachers showed a very good knowledge of individual students, and a keen awareness of students with particular needs, both those with exceptional ability and those experiencing difficulty. Care should be taken to ensure that students develop a strong sense of responsibility for their own work. For example, a clear distinction should be made between the teacher’s role as critical reader and the student’s role as proof reader of his own work. Teachers’ time should not be taken up with the correction of repeated careless errors in spelling and punctuation.
Good practice was also observed in the use of the students’ own work as exemplar material. For example, a student’s essay was described as opening very strongly and setting up a clear line of argument. The class was given a copy of the opening section and asked to complete it, following a discussion of its structure. This approach emphasises the extent to which students can learn from each other, and is much preferable to the use of exemplars from textbooks or study aids.
Summative assessment is built into subject planning, and the marks to be awarded and the criteria of assessment used are shared with students. This is good practice.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Timetable provision for English is very good both in the number and distribution of lessons.
· School management and the English department are to be commended for their commitment to mixed ability.
· The school provides a very wide range of co-curricular activities that extend the students’ experience of English.
· Comprehensive written plans have been drawn up, detailing aims and objectives for each programme and year, desired learning outcomes, the content to be covered, teaching and learning strategies, and methods of assessment.
· Teachers are commended on the high quality of the instruction given, and on their encouraging yet robust interactions with students.
· Exemplary practice was evident in the approach taken to the assessment of written assignments.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· New material should be introduced in the third year so that the year is not entirely focused on revision.
· A modular delivery of the TY English programme is recommended, to ensure that all students can partake in the full range of topics planned.
· Greater variety in methods should be planned and employed in order to suit the different learning styles in a mixed-ability classroom.
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 September 2008