An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Árd Scoil Mhuire FCJ
Bruff County Limerick
Roll number: 64020P
Date of inspection: 20 February 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in english
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Ard Scoil Mhuire FCJ, Bruff, County Limerick. 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 and 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.
Timetable provision for English is in line with syllabus requirements. General resource provision for the teaching of English is good. School management is commended for its general policy of having teachers based in their own rooms, thus facilitating resource storage and the creation of print-rich environments. Teachers have good access to TVs and DVD/VCR units either through swopping arrangements or through booking the library for specific classes, where a fixed TV and DVD player are installed. Commendably, the English department has been building up a common audio-visual (AV) and print material reference collection over the years. If an inventory of all AV and print resources in the possession of individual teachers of English were included in the subject-department plan, then that inventory would promote maximum use of available in-school resources and would also act as a useful resource for future planning.
Teachers may use the computer in the staff room for lesson preparation. They may also reserve the school’s computer room or its AV demonstration room, where an interactive whiteboard was recently installed, for use with a particular class. Furthermore, school management plans to install an internet-enabled computer and a printer in the library. Some English teachers use information and communication technologies (ICT) equipment to locate resources, to prepare lessons, to enable students to research English-related topics, and/or to encourage students to publish and edit their own compositions using word-processing software and these uses of ICT to support teaching and learning are commended. Building on this foundation, more uses of ICT should be incorporated into the teaching of English over the coming years. Initially, handouts listing websites supporting the teaching of particular texts/topics could be compiled and saved on a shared English folder on the school network, to broaden the departmental repertoire of resources for supporting all cohorts. In time, activities such as the use of the internet (to help students further develop their understanding of particular biographical and cultural contexts) and of general word processing and specialised software programmes (to reinforce a process approach to writing) can then be incorporated into departmental practice.
The school library is open for lunchtime borrowing twice a week and can also be booked by teachers for use with a class during the school day. The book stock is organised into junior and senior fiction sections and also various curricular sections. Management is very supportive of the school library and this is highly commended. In addition to AV equipment that is already installed or planned, management responds to requests for print and AV teaching and/or reference aids made through a standard form issued to all teachers. Also, management made funds available for the purchase of junior fiction texts in 2007/08 when requested. Looking toward the future, a few suggestions are offered to support the further development of the library as a whole-school resource. Given that some of the texts in the library collection are now obsolete, it is advised that representatives of the different subject departments be asked to vet books related to their subjects currently housed in the library and then to compile lists of the texts that should be removed and others that should be added. Also, in consultation with the school’s special educational support team, it is encouraged that a suitable stock of high-interest, low reading age texts be sourced and added to the library collection, to ensure that students of all ability ranges can select and read appropriately challenging books from the school library. Moreover, to help guide the ongoing stocking of the library over the coming years, useful references can be found through the School Library Association of Ireland, Children’s Books Ireland, the UK School Library Association, and the in-school special education support team. (See http://www.libraryassociation.ie http://www.childrensbooks.ie and http://www.sla.org.uk/advice-and-support.php). Finally, the library post-holder may find in-service courses run by the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) on “Developing Readers and Reading Spaces in Your School” helpful in this regard.
The English department and the library post-holder are conscious of the importance of promoting personal reading. Initiatives such as taking junior cycle students to the library for personal reading sessions, encouraging students to complete reviews on books they have read independently, and bringing book boxes to class to support the teaching of specific topics are highly commended. To further motivate students’ personal reading, it is recommended that the English department work with the school library and the local public library to interweave the promotion of personal reading into its schemes of work for junior cycle students in particular and also for TY students. It is also suggested that the English department celebrate “World Book Day” and/or other similar landmark days, include the explicit teaching of dictionary skills and skimming and scanning techniques in the first-year scheme for English, and post a list of recommended books for particular age groups on classroom walls and/or have them included with booklists for parental reference. (See Circular M16/99 “Guidelines for reading at Second Level Schools”). Furthermore, by developing the school’s links with Limerick County Council Library Services, the school could register as an institutional (bulk) borrower, and thus use public library stock to update the pool of books available for browsing. It is encouraged that the English department and the relevant post-holder collectively review the JCSP publications Time to Read and/or Room for Reading: The JCSP Demonstration Library Project (http://www.jcspliteracy.ie/library_demo
_project.htm) for additional strategies that could be used to further strengthen whole school literacy.
All first years are placed into mixed-ability classes and remain in them until the end of first year, when they are set into examination-level classes. The fact that concurrent timetabling is provided in second and third year means that students can move between different examination levels as appropriate and this is commended. TY students are placed into a mixed-ability class group. Fifth-year students opt for the examination level in English they wish to prepare for, guided by their own wishes, teacher advice, their JC results, and where applicable, their performance in TY. The fact that fifth and sixth-year English students can move between classes preparing for different examination levels through concurrent timetabling is highly commended. Given the concurrent timetabling of English classes for most year groups, the English department is encouraged to experiment with the greater use of this resource for inter-class activities and modular teaching approaches.
Co-curricular and extra-curricular activities support the teaching and learning of English in Ard Scoil Mhuire FCJ, Bruff. Students benefit from debating and public-speaking training, from trips to theatrical productions, and from in-school workshops with visiting writers and guest speakers. A school musical is produced annually that provides students with insights into the mechanics of drama to support their reading of plays and to give them a lifelong interest in performance. It is suggested that links between the English department and the team that directs that show be established to facilitate the delivery of lessons demonstrating the use of stagecraft effects using the dressed stage for the school show. Also, it is suggested that TY students could also be invited to provide co-curricular experiences of English to students in other year groups through activities such as a paired reading project with first years. School management, the English teachers, and other teachers who organise English-related activities are highly commended for their commitment to providing such stimulating activities for their students.
Sources of continuing professional development that have been accessed by individual members of the department include courses on ICT, examination work with the State Examinations Commission (SEC), experience from English departments in other schools, further study, consulting Teaching English Support Service (TESS) magazines and website, and in-school seminars on topics such as “inclusive practices” and “the use of interactive whiteboards.” With regard to future professional development, the department is encouraged to invite a local primary teacher to address it on the English programme within the Primary Curriculum, to clarify for the department the knowledge, skills, and attitudes students should have developed by the end of their primary schooling. This will be an invaluable aid to the department in the area of subject planning for first years. Also, the department should collaboratively review the various guideline documents and websites referred to in this report.
The teachers of English began the formal process of subject department planning in 2005 to complement and enhance existing practices of formal and informal consultation, of collaborative logistical planning, and of individual curriculum planning. This process has been supported by school management’s organisation of a whole-staff input on subject department planning by the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) and by the establishment of one formal subject department planning meeting per year. It is recommended that the English department meet formally three times per year at a minimum and that the tasks associated with subject planning be formally shared across the department and rotated from year to year (such as preparing agenda and co-ordinating planning, keeping minutes of meetings, developing ICT resources for the department, and preparing and photocopying common assessments).
By the time of the evaluation, the English teachers had documented their practices under the headings of the relevant SDPI subject-planning template and had prepared curriculum content plans in half-term units for each year group. The subject department’s specific planning to teach lessons on techniques for tackling unseen poems to senior cycle students and its specific planning for the development of junior cycle students’ literacy skills are two commended aspects of the plan. To help develop the English department’s planning even further, two recommendations are offered.
First, it is recommended that time be specifically allocated for a “show and tell” input at the beginning of each subject department meeting, where individual members would be asked to present an effective resource/strategy they use in their practice and/or to share insights they gained from a professional development course, from practices they observed in the English departments of other schools, and/or from further study. Secondly, it is recommended that over the coming years the department turn its curriculum content plans into termly schemes of work. At the outset, the department should identify what it considers the most appropriate learning outcomes (knowledge, skills, and attitudes) for students in each year group and should plan assessment tasks to test those learning outcomes. (See the draft rebalanced JC English syllabus available on the website of National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), the Leaving Certificate (LC) English syllabus, and JCSP statement materials for exemplars of such learning outcomes). Schemes should outline the minimum amount of content to be taught to each year group. As well as planning to widen students’ vocabularies and to develop their command of grammatical and spelling conventions, they should also seek to hone students’ writing, reading, speaking, and listening skills. Outlining strategies for working with students studying at different levels in the one class group and for stand-alone ordinary level class groups will also be necessary. The existing plans of individual teachers will be an important foundation for, and aid to, this work. The benefits of such year-group schemes will include more incremental, consistently-reinforced learning experiences for students and the creation of reference documents for new teachers. Ultimately, what is envisaged is a planning process guided by the advice outlined in chapter three of Looking at English (a 2006 Inspectorate publication) and customised to the needs of the students of Ard Scoil Mhuire FCJ, Bruff.
Strengths of the current TY programme for English include its detailed weekly planning that deliberately avoids clashes with core TY experiences. Also, the linking of research skills, analysis skills, a process approach to writing, and performance skills in the “Book Writing” unit of the programme is a holistic, creative approach to improving the writing confidence and skills of a mixed-ability cohort. Further development of three aspects of the programme will make it an even more valuable educational experience. First, it is suggested that a film-making component be incorporated into the film analysis unit of the programme. Secondly, it is suggested that consideration be given to extending the “book buddies” precedent now established with sixth-class primary students into a paired-reading project with first years. (The JCSP publication Reading Pairs: Teacher’s Manual and Resource Pack offers useful advice on setting up such a project). Thirdly, it is encouraged that the department consider incorporating a key assignment approach to assessing students’ progress (as is used in the Leaving Certificate Applied) into its TY English programme. Providing students with an outline of the TY English programme and of their key assignments (including criteria and dates for completion) would help them take responsibility for their own learning. The department may find the TY Support Service’s suggestions for TY English programmes (http://ty.slss.ie/areas_study.html) and the article “The Teaching of English in Transition Year: Some Thoughts” helpful in this regard (Teaching English magazine, Spring 2006, pgs. 11-12).
Some individual teacher planning documents and accompanying resource folders were presented for inspection. Good practices observed in these documents included planning for the weekly integration of skill development into students’ learning, planning for junior cycle thematic units, teachers’ recording of comments made on students’ work to keep a check on their progress, and teachers’ recording of brief self-reflective notes about how particular lessons/units of work could be improved or extended with future class groups. Where weaknesses were noted, the emphasis in plans was solely on the content to be delivered rather than on the learning to be achieved.
In all classes evaluated, lessons were structured, teachers had a good knowledge of the texts or topics they were teaching, and there was evidence of short-term planning. All teachers acted as oral language role models for students. Teachers’ instructions and explanations were precise in all classes observed. The pace in most lessons was lively. Finally, very good practice was observed when the intended learning outcome was shared with learners at the outset of a lesson, thus helping students connect new learning with previous work and also inviting them to share responsibility for the lesson.
The resources used by English teachers over the course of the evaluation included handouts, AV equipment, film clips, still photographs, and samples of advertisements brought to school by students. Whiteboards, chalkboards, and flip charts were variously used during the evaluation to provide written reinforcement of new vocabulary and to record key points to support textual study. Other structured board/chart uses the department might find useful could include using different coloured markers/chalks to help students discriminate between headings and sub-points and the consistent use of vocabulary and homework columns. Evidence was also gathered that teachers sometimes use concrete materials and visual supports to support students’ learning and that they sometimes use audio versions when teaching poems. Given the variety of learning styles and of student abilities in the school, it is recommended that more CDs/audiotapes of play productions and of poems being read by their authors, more graphic organisers (such as grids, writing frames, and mind maps), and more uses of ICT be incorporated into the teaching of English.
Teachers used questioning to good effect to stimulate and interact with students and to structure the learning activity. Where very good practice was seen, teachers asked a blend of targeted questions (directed to a named student) and questions open to response from willing individuals. Moreover, where teachers posed questions to students that were carefully sequenced, leading them to higher-order thinking and encouraging them to make personal aesthetic responses, this was commendable. Where weaknesses were noted, questions were invariably answered by whole class/chorus answers, only lower-order recall and recognition questions were asked, students personal responses to texts were not sought, and/or no links were made through questioning to related material previously studied by the group.
Among the teaching strategies observed during the evaluation were question and answer, teacher and student reading, group work, peer learning (where students were asked to listen to and comment on samples of other students’ work read out to them), directed viewing of a textual extract, quotation test games, and text-marking of literary techniques by students. In almost all classes observed, teachers awakened students’ relevant prior knowledge and experiences before commencing the study of new material and then recapped on material at the end of the lesson, checking for new words and/or concepts that students still found difficult to comprehend. In particular, very good management of group work activities was observed during the evaluation. The roles students were required to perform, the end-product the group was expected to produce, and the timeframe for task completion were clearly communicated and checked by the teacher before the groups commenced working. Moreover, the provision of a few stationery items in group workboxes along with a reference dictionary on each group table created a productive active learning environment. English teachers now need to formally share and document these excellent methodologies to ensure that all students get the benefit of them.
Two recommendations are offered with regard to pedagogical areas for development. First, an incremental, consistent approach to the development of students’ literacy skills from first to sixth year needs to be established. While good work is being done on different literacy elements by individual teachers, this work needs to be shared and delivered consistently across the entire department. Areas for discussion should include: the use of spelling tests and vocabulary copies, teaching aspects of sentence and paragraph structure through exemplars from texts students are reading, encouraging students to keep a folder of writing models and self-selected articles, the use of writing samples as diagnostic instruments, teaching students presentation and editing routines from first year onward, and the use of writing frames and of word processing and other software packages to reinforce the process approach to writing. Among the professional development resources the department may wish to browse in this regard are those described on the websites http://www.jcspliteracy.ie/school_wide.htm and http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/. Secondly, while it is acknowledged that differentiation by question and/or by method or task was observed in some classes during the evaluation, it is recommended that the English department further develop its expertise in this area. Possible sources of such professional development include team teaching, Inclusion of students with Special Educational Needs: Post-Primary Guidelines, the Special Education Support Service (SESS), and the distance learning course provider ICEP. (See www.slss.ie, www.sess.ie. and http://www.icepe.eu/inclusive_classroom.html).
In all classes observed, very good rapport between teachers and students was evident, discipline was maintained, and all students were engaged in their learning. Where strengths were noted in students’ written work, an appropriate variety of writing tasks (ranging from summaries and comprehension questions to creative interventions and compositions) had been assigned. Also, advanced achievement was evident in some students’ creative or personal response work and activities to develop students’ vocabularies and their command of the mechanical conventions of English were evident in some students’ copies. Where weaknesses were noted, notes provided to candidates preparing for ordinary-level SEC examinations had not been adequately differentiated to meet their needs; some students’ study of texts was not being adequately integrated with the development of their language, critical analysis and personal response skills; and some junior cycle students’ introduction to literary terms needed to be planned and delivered in a more incremental, experiential and less definition-driven manner. Oral questioning by teachers and by the inspector demonstrated students’ good levels of knowledge of studied texts. Some students were engaging in higher-order thinking about those texts, spontaneously asking their teacher perceptive questions about them. Others were able to discuss the writing process impressively and to identify specific areas for development in their own writing. Finally, it was noted that where a literacy focus, graphic organisers, and active learning methods were used, the levels of engagement of all students were particularly raised.
In almost all classes observed, teachers had created motivational print-rich environments to support their teaching of English. The English-related resources displayed in rooms included film posters, flowcharts of the interrelationship between characters in a text, newspaper articles, text-related cartoons, an author poster project, illustrated definitions and examples of poetic techniques, students’ illustrations of characters from studied texts, and samples of students’ poems. In one classroom observed, an atmosphere that was particularly conducive to learning had been created through the combination of a few soft furnishings with a poster and mural display. The teachers of English are commended for their efforts to provide motivational print-rich environments for their students.
A range of assessment modes is used to monitor student competence and progress in English including oral questioning, homework, in-class writing assignments, continuous assessment, and formal examinations. Other assessment practices are also used by individual members of the department. For instance, some students’ capacities to engage in self and peer assessment are developed in a deliberate, incremental manner, equipping them to respond on personal and analytical levels to pieces of writing. In addition, other teachers provide students with exemplar answers to help them identify and internalise the elements of successful answers. Furthermore, it was reported that marks are variously awarded toward end-of-term results for essays, spelling tests, and book review projects by different teachers. Such assessment practices are highly commended and it is recommended that they be incorporated into the department’s collective assessment practices.
Three other aspects of student assessment need to be developed by the department. First, it is encouraged that teachers assign class time early in the first term of every year for students to produce a substantial personal writing sample. Analysing and recording the recurring errors in each student’s work will give the teacher a good benchmark for skill development programme planning. Secondly, it is suggested that the department agree a common position on awarding some marks toward end-of-term results for tasks linked to the agreed learning outcomes for different year groups. (Those tasks could include spelling and vocabulary tests, a cumulative average for composition work, folder maintenance, oral presentations, and project work). Thirdly, it is recommended that the practice of deepening LC students’ understanding of the SEC criteria for assessment be adopted as a consistent departmental one. Rather than providing decontextualised marks or grades at the end of substantial assignments, teachers’ use of the PCLM (Purpose, Coherence, Language use, Mechanics) criteria to comment on and/or mark substantial assignments will give senior cycle students more specific insights into strengths and areas for development in their writing. Similarly, a simplified version of the criteria could also be introduced in teacher commentary on or marking of substantial pieces of junior cycle writing.
A number of the classes observed began with a review of homework or of work done in a previous class, thus maximising the chances that students would retain their new learning. In a small number of classes observed, homework assignments were written on the board for students to note down. Otherwise, teachers called out homework assignments orally at the end of class. It is recommended that teachers write such assignments on the board/chart to ensure that all students copy down their assignments. This practice will be of particular benefit to students who are less academically inclined, and who tend not to remember homework tasks set orally.
From a review of student copies, it was evident that homework was being set and monitored in all classes. In some cases, students’ work was acknowledged by a tick and/or short comment (good/very good review). In other cases, the teacher comment offered formative feedback that affirmed specific strengths in the piece of writing and gave specific ideas for improvement and this is commended. The department is encouraged to discuss this issue and to arrive at a consensus on it, so that teachers’ responses to students’ writing are consistent from first to sixth year. In arriving at a common policy on the correction of mechanical errors and on the provision of formative feedback on substantial pieces of writing, the department may find materials such as the NCCA’s “Assessment for Learning” web pages and the JCSP publication Between the Lines useful.
The English department prepares and administers a common end-of-year examination to all first years to facilitate the comparison of achievement across the year group. Building on this foundation, it is encouraged that more common assessments be prepared for class cohorts preparing for the same examination level. Some teachers use SEC chief examiners’ reports and marking schemes to inform their work. This is commended. Finally, as an aid to collective self-evaluation and planning, it is recommended that the subject department produce an annual comparison of students’ certificate examination results in English with national norms for the uptake of levels and for the spread of grades.
First, second, and fifth-year students are assessed using class tests and formal Christmas and summer examinations. Third and sixth-year students are assessed using class tests at the end of units, a formal Christmas examination, and a pre-certificate examination in the spring. Parents/guardians are informed of students’ progress through school reports, annual parent-teacher meetings for each year group, notes in homework journals, and individual meetings (either requested by parents/guardians or where parents/guardians are invited to the school to discuss a student’s progress).
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Timetable provision for English is in line with syllabus requirements.
· School management is commended for its concurrent timetabling arrangements for the subject, for making funds available on request for the purchase of resources, and for supporting the continuing development of the school library.
· The English teachers and school management are highly commended for providing English-related co-curricular and extra-curricular activities for students.
· By the time of the evaluation, the English teachers had documented their practices under the headings of the relevant SDPI subject-planning template and had prepared curriculum content plans in half-term units for each year group.
· In all classes evaluated, lessons were structured, teachers had a good knowledge of the texts or topics they were teaching, and there was evidence of short-term planning.
· Varied teaching strategies and resources were used in the lessons observed.
· In all classes observed, very good rapport between teachers and students was evident, discipline was maintained, and all students were engaged in their learning.
· The teachers of English are commended for their efforts to create a print-rich environment for their students.
· From a review of student copies, it was evident that homework was being set and monitored in all classes.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The English department should agree and implement an incremental, consistent approach to the development of students’ literacy skills from first to sixth year and should further deepen its expertise in relation to differentiation.
· The English department should further develop its common approach to assessment in line with the advice in this report.
· Subject department planning should be further developed in line with the advice in this report.
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 November 2008
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1 Observations on the content of the inspection report
· Inspection was carried out in a fair and non-intrusive manner
· Teachers felt that it was a positive portrayal of the Department
· Feedback was positive with very useful suggestions for the development of student potential
· Advice and discussion was very helpful
Area 2 Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection
activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection.
· Discussion has taken place at SDP meetings with regard to Assessment for Learning
· Discussion has extended to full staff during a staff department day
· Teachers to attend In-service on Using Assessment to support Teaching & Learning in the Classroom
· Subject Planning & Reviews – more frequent during the year