An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Our Lady’s School
Terenure, Dublin 6W
Roll number: 60860Q
Date of inspection: 17 and 19 September 2007
Date of issue of report: 12 March 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Our Lady’s School, Templeogue. 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/subject teachers. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report, and the response of the board will be found in the appendix of this report.
Our Lady’s School Templeogue was established in 1953 by the Religious of Christian Education, a French congregation. The original school buildings were extended in the 1980s and a further extension to provide specialist rooms and additional general classrooms has been approved by the Department of Education and Science. An important aspect of school life is the ‘House’ system, whereby every student is a member of one of five houses. It fosters a sense of identity and a spirit of co-operation and friendly competition within the school, and to provide senior students with areas of responsibility and leadership.
The timetable arrangements for English are generally satisfactory in both the number and distribution of lessons. Fifth and sixth year have an English lesson every day, in line with best practice, and the provision of four lessons of core English in transition year is very good. While the breadth of subject choice available to junior cycle students in the school is acknowledged, the consequence of such a breadth of choice is that only four lesson periods are available for English in junior cycle. It is recommended that English always be timetabled on both Monday and Friday for each junior cycle class group in order to minimise the gap between lessons and that this be arranged in next year’s timetable. Consideration could also be given to the possibility of a fifth lesson in first year in order to provide an opportunity to establish a firm skills base for the work of the subsequent years. The timetabling of a drama period for first and second year is commendable but, since there is no planned link between the drama module and English, it cannot be seen as a fifth English lesson.
All teachers of English either have their own classrooms or always take English in the same classroom, and this provides a very good opportunity to develop the classroom itself as a resource. In most cases, an environment rich in the printed word and visual material had been created, with themed displays relating to texts and topics, word charts and other teaching aids, posters and photographs, and recent displays of students’ work. This very good practice should be extended to all the rooms in which English is taught. Most classrooms had audiovisual equipment fixed in place, and storage for books and teaching resources. The English department also has a communal storage room, housing textbooks, class sets of novels, folders containing worksheets and other materials on various topics, and some audio and video resources.
The school library is a large and pleasant space, and the school funds a part-time librarian. Books are purchased regularly and catalogued systematically. They have been shelved very sensibly using broad categories such as biography and young adult fiction to make them inviting and accessible. The library is open for borrowing at lunchtime and the librarian is assisted by a group of library prefects. All first-year classes are given an introductory session in the library by the librarian, and teachers are encouraged to bring class groups during lessons. The commitment of all concerned in making the library work effectively is warmly commended. In continuing to develop the use of the library, it is suggested that greater use be made of the admittedly limited display space, particularly for students’ reviews and recommendations.
Our Lady’s School offers teaching practice hours to a number of higher diploma students every year. In general, a qualified teacher is timetabled for the class groups concerned and the student teacher takes a number of lessons with the class by arrangement. Where a higher diploma student and a qualified teacher are sharing a class group, it is important to ensure that there is good collaboration and planning.
The school has a learning support teacher as well as a small number of mainstream teachers who take students with allocated resource hours. The dedicated learning support room is an attractive space with a library and secure storage for students’ records. In further developing this resource, consideration should be given to increasing the number of computers available. Diagnostic tests are carried out prior to entry. The issue of suitable tests was discussed with the inspector who suggested that the Department’s circular letter 99/2007 be consulted. Post entry, subject teachers may refer students to the learning support teacher by way of a referral form, and this is good practice. In junior cycle, literacy support is provided through withdrawal, unless the student is exempt from Irish or is not taking a modern language. However, a commendable initiative has occurred in the area of numeracy support where in-class support has been provided by the learning support teacher in some regular mathematics lessons. It is strongly urged that this model also be used for literacy support as it is more inclusive and productive in many cases than the withdrawal model.
The school offers a wide programme of co-curricular activities that support the teaching and learning of English, including drama productions, theatre visits, debating and public speaking events, and participation in the Model United Nations.
Subject department planning has progressed well as part of the process of school development planning. Senior management facilitates four scheduled planning meetings per year for subject departments. Minutes of meetings are kept as part of the planning record and were made available to the inspector. In addition to routine matters such as text and textbook choices and decisions on work to be covered over the term, the minutes also record discussion of issues including mixed ability as opposed to streaming or setting, various aspects of assessment, the sharing of resources, and programme planning. The level of professional dialogue reflected in the records of meetings is commendable. A number of informal meetings also take place as matters that require collaboration arise. The development of an electronic folder for English has begun. This is a laudable initiative and will greatly assist in the creation, storage and accessing of shared resources.
One member of the team acts as subject co-ordinator on a voluntary basis and senior management supports a system of rotation. This offers all members of the English department an opportunity to experience the responsibilities of the role and to be involved in the effective running of the subject department. It is recommended that the team agree a rota of teachers for the co-ordinator role, and that when the role itself has been discussed by the whole team an agreed description of it be recorded in the English plan. The team should also decide on the co-ordinator’s term of office; two years is recommended.
Planning documents seen during the inspection follow the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) template but contain a number of specific elements, such as reading lists for the various years, and plans for each year that include key concepts, suggested teaching and learning methods, and appropriate forms of assessment. Learning outcomes have been identified in some cases, and this is to be commended, as is the linking of objectives, methodology and assessment. In their continuing development of the subject plan, the English department should focus on identifying specific and targeted learning outcomes for each year, and the methods and materials that will best help the students achieve these. It is also suggested that the provision of drama lessons in first and second year be integrated into the plan for English as part of the development of personal, social and cultural literacy.
Texts have been chosen in line with syllabus requirements and student aptitude and interest. The selection of single and comparative texts for Leaving Certificate is managed so as to facilitate change of level where appropriate. In the case of Transition Year (TY), the written programme for English outlines an appropriate range of topics and approaches. The school sees TY as an opportunity for students to take greater responsibility for their own learning and it is suggested that, in line with this objective, students be given a list of assignments and deadlines at the beginning of the year, which arise out of the planned programme and which will help them to manage and organise their own work.
The subject plan contains a section on literacy support with general information that will be helpful to mainstream teachers as well as profiles of individual students and their learning needs, including information on students who have been granted reasonable accommodations. The inclusion in the plan of suggestions for teaching strategies to all mainstream teachers of students with literacy needs is commended.
Seven lessons were observed during the course of the inspection, covering all years and programmes. In all cases, the material covered met the syllabus requirements and was at an appropriate level for the class. Lessons were generally well structured and well paced and a satisfactory amount of material had been planned and was covered. The learning objectives of each lesson were clear and, in the best instances, these were stated at the outset and indicated what students should focus on and what they would be required to do during and after the lesson. This practice should be extended to all lessons.
Careful preparation was evident in the resources used in the lessons. In a junior cycle lesson, the concept of character was explored very imaginatively through different types of footwear that the teacher handed out to small groups of students. The students then had to write a character profile in the person of the wellington, party shoe, flip-flop and so on, an exercise that they clearly found engaging and enjoyable. A TY lesson took place in the computer room where students investigated the section of the National Library web site dealing with the Yeats exhibition, which they will visit shortly. The board was used effectively in a number of lessons not only to record points made in class discussion but also to set out key words and phrases at the outset of the lesson. In a senior cycle lesson, the seemingly prosaic opening of a Longley poem was written on the board without attribution or context. This served to intensify the juxtaposition of the banal and the murderous when the students read the full text of the poem, and provided a valuable insight into Longley’s poetic craft.
In lessons on drama, audio recordings of the plays were used to assist students to understand and engage with the text. This can be a particularly effective resource in the case of Shakespearean drama, but it is only as good as the quality of the recorded production. It is essential therefore to source and use the excellent recent recordings available, which offer lively and authentic performances of the plays.
Teaching methods observed included a range of questioning techniques from the straightforward checking of students’ understanding and recall to more searching questions that tested the students’ ability to analyse, predict and infer. Except in the case of factual questions, students should be encouraged to think in terms of responses rather than answers. In particular, the concept of the informed personal response, which is central to the English syllabuses, should be explicitly taught. Leading questions were used judiciously to prompt the students to make connections between new and already known material, and such explorations often opened out into lively class discussions. A combination of a policy of ‘hands up’ and teacher vigilance ensured a good level of participation in these discussions. In order to encourage a range of well-developed ideas, class discussion should occasionally lead into pair or group work or ‘think, pair, share’ activity, in which students explore a topic individually and then in pairs, with each pair reporting back to the class.
A helpful emphasis on the development of language skills was a feature of many of the lessons observed. In a junior cycle lesson, students were introduced to the idea of a spelling journal in which to record the meaning and spelling of a set number of words every week. Commendably, the words are to be chosen from texts that the students are reading, so that they are encountered in context. In both junior and senior cycle lessons, teachers introduced students to the use of appropriately sophisticated vocabulary. In one instance, students used a dictionary to investigate the words ‘elegy’ and ‘eulogy’ which they had encountered; in another the word and the concept ‘anthropomorphism’ was discussed, with reference to its etymology and the context out of which it arose.
Writing tasks observed in the lessons and the work in students’ copies showed that students are required to write in a variety of genres. Simple writing frames were used to good effect, for example in the writing of character profiles and responses to poems. It is important that key genres such as diary writing are clearly illustrated for students through the sourcing of exemplars on which they can model their own writing. Students do not always distinguish between diary writing and first-person narrative and so need particular assistance in developing a sense of this genre.
In some instances where teachers were concerned that students would find the material difficult, there was a tendency to engage with the text in very short chunks, then pause to review the material and check the level of understanding. However, a great deal of understanding depends on context and having some sense of the direction a story is taking. It is advisable therefore to give students a sufficient opportunity to grasp the big picture, especially in a narrative text, before their comprehension of elements of it is assessed. It is better to signal in advance significant words or situations which students can actively look out for, and then engage with the text at sufficient length to assist students’ grasp of plot, character and situation.
In all the lessons observed, students applied themselves diligently. There was no time-wasting and a purposeful and supportive atmosphere prevailed. Exchanges between teachers and students were friendly and respectful. In most instances, students engaged willingly in class activities, responded to topics articulately and were confident in asking questions and seeking clarification. Given this level of attention and co-operation, all teachers should emphasise to students the importance of independent thinking and make it clear that they welcome the expression of alternative points of view and a healthy mix of opinions. The teaching and learning methods chosen should encourage these outcomes as far as possible. Such an approach is advocated in the syllabus documents; the Department’s composite report on the teaching and learning of English, Looking at English; and the certificate examinations and chief examiners’ reports in the subject.
In the classroom, students’ understanding of the topic and their recollection of prior learning were checked through targeted questions and monitoring of their work and participation levels. Chorus answering was minimised through a well-maintained policy of ‘hands up’ or ‘one voice’. Where students were assigned work to do individually or in pairs or groups, the teacher circulated to observe their progress and to give assistance where required. The classroom vigilance of teachers is commended.
Inspection of students’ copies and folders showed that in most cases a very good volume of work has already been done in the current academic year. In the best instances, the assignments given were imaginative and appropriately challenging, for example imaginative interventions in a studied text, point of view exercises, and exercises requiring analysis and creativity. The writing of summaries has its uses, but it is best to ask students to summarise the action very briefly and then to write a comment on how the chapter or scene has advanced the plot or shed light on a character. In most cases, helpful developmental feedback was given to students in the form of written comments and suggestions, and this is very good practice which should be followed in the case of all substantial written work. Good standards are expected in the presentation of written work, and this is commendable. Teachers keep records of students’ attendance and attainment.
Common assessment is a natural outcome of collaborative planning for teaching and learning and it is the general rule in the case of formal in-house assessments in English. It is important to bear in mind that, once learning outcomes in terms of specific knowledge and skills, have been agreed, some variation in the texts studied can be easily accommodated, as it is in the state examinations.
Concerns were raised with the inspector in relation to advising students about the appropriate level at which to take English in the Leaving Certificate, particularly where students were unconvinced of the merits of following the ordinary level course. While the choice of level is ultimately the students’, it is important that teachers assist them to have a realistic sense of what is involved at both levels. To this end, a class test to assess students’ aptitude and application is set at an early stage in fifth year. The information sessions for students and parents on subject choices could also provide an opportunity to discuss the merits and demands of both levels, and the developmental benefits of the ordinary level course for certain students could be conveyed to students and parents at these meetings.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Provision for English is generally good with regard to timetabling, deployment of teachers, and resources.
· Subject planning is well advanced and collaborative structures and practices are in place.
· Students are learning in a supportive and well-managed environment.
· A wide variety of teaching materials and methods was observed. These were generally well chosen and used effectively.
· Good assessment practices assist students’ progress.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· All junior cycle students should have English on both Monday and Friday.
· The model of in-class literacy support should be pursued and ICT resources for learning support should be reviewed.
· All teachers should emphasise to students the importance of independent thinking, and the teaching and learning methods chosen should encourage this as much as possible.
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.
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1 Observations on the content of the inspection report
The staff and the Board of Management were very happy with the report.
Area 2 Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection.
Timetabling, in a school of this size, by its nature is very difficult. Block subjects in all year groups must take priority. However, where timetabling allows an effort will be made to timetable English at junior cycle on Monday and Friday.
The model of in-class literacy support will continue to be implemented and the I.C.T. resources for learning will be determined by the availability of finance.