An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Portarlington, County Laois
Roll number: 68068R
Date of inspection: 15, 16 April 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Íosagáin, Portarlington. 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.
Coláiste Íosagáin, Portarlington provides English in the Junior Certificate (JC), Leaving Certificate (LC), Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programmes, and in the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP). Students in the LC and LCVP programmes follow the same English syllabus. In the past, the school has provided Transition Year but it was not possible to do so in the academic year 2007-08. However, there are plans to reintroduce the programme, perhaps in 2008-09.
Allocation of lesson time for English is good with five lessons in each year of the JC programme. In the LC programme sixth years have five lessons and fifth years have six. There are three lessons assigned to English and Communications in the LCA programme, years one and two: this is regarded as a minimum requirement, and can therefore be considered adequate; four lessons a week is optimal. (See Looking at English, a report from the Inspectorate on the teaching and learning of English in post-primary schools.) The school should aim to provide four lessons a week in line with best practice. While distribution of lessons is good in the first year of the JC programme and in fifth year, LC programme, it is unsatisfactory for the other year groups and does not optimise conditions for teaching and learning. In year three of the JC programme, the examination year, lessons are taught either during the last period of the day or the second-last period of the day on four days of the week. Moreover, there are two non-consecutive lessons on one day (one of which is held early in the day) and there is no lesson at all on another. The location of lessons on the timetable is optimal in second year. However, there are two periods (consecutive in this case) on one day, while there is no contact with English on one day of the week. Sixth-year LC students have two non-consecutive lessons on one day (Monday) and there is no contact with English on Friday. A fifth-year LCA group has a lesson on Monday, none on the next three days and two consecutive periods on Friday. This represents poor practice. In future, it is strongly recommended that timetabling ensures that students have contact with English on each day of the week and that there is equitable distribution across time slots to avoid the current situation that obtains in third year. In the case of LCA students, lessons should be distributed over the week at the very least. It is reported that at the start of the school year there were considerable difficulties regarding timetabling in general, and that this matter will be remedied in the forthcoming academic year.
English is taught in a mixed-ability setting in the majority of first-year classes. Students are assigned to higher-level and ordinary-level groups in second and third year. Access to level is determined through a combination of criteria including school entrance tests, teacher observation and continuous assessment. Parents are also consulted. LC students are assigned to higher-level and ordinary-level classes based on a combination of criteria including JC results. As lessons are timetabled concurrently, it is possible for students to change level in consultation with teachers and parents. The school encourages as many students as possible to take higher-level English and this is commended. Teachers report that in some cases, students capable of the upper level in both the JC and LC programmes are opting instead for ordinary level. This should be addressed at whole-school level and it may be necessary to adopt a number of strategies, perhaps co-ordinated by the guidance department, to raise academic expectations among a core group of students. LCA classes are mixed ability. Classes generally retain the same teacher from year two to year three and from fifth year to sixth year and this helps to maintain continuity.
It is reported that a significant minority of students are presenting with literacy deficits at pre-entry level and this trend seems set to continue. The learning-support department is attempting to address this issue and creative solutions are being implemented in direct response to the challenge. The learning-support teachers are highly commended in this regard. A programme has been piloted this year in the case of one first-year class and personnel are planning to conduct a formal review at the end of the year. Indications at present suggest that the initiative has been successful. Learning support is offered in a variety of ways, such as smaller classes, withdrawal and small groups. Extra lessons in literacy and numeracy are targeted at those who need them. Special needs assistants (SNAs) are also deployed. It is reported that resources in the area of learning support have improved significantly in the last few years and particularly in the present academic year. A further positive development is that a fully qualified learning-support teacher will be deployed and will be in a position to undertake the onerous responsibility of formal co-ordination in the forthcoming academic year, 2008-09. Currently, those involved in the area of learning support have considerable experience and show great dedication to their students. However, the department has identified lack of continuity and stability in the deployment of personnel as a major barrier to the development of the learning-support department. There are currently a number of very effective, skilled and committed individuals teaching students who find learning challenging, and these teachers are deployed in programmes that are particularly designed to meet the needs of such students. Thus the school is well positioned to develop the area of educational supports. It is recommended that the school prioritise the development of a core learning-support team that is consistently deployed in this area. In line with good practice, such personnel should also have access to teaching mainstream classes in order to maintain an appropriate balance. There is some good practice in the area of language support. For example, a retired teacher voluntarily provides additional lessons for those with particular needs.
English is taught by a committed team of teachers, the majority of whom have the subject to degree level. Provision of resources such as audio-visual equipment and overhead projectors is good. Arrangements are in place for the maintenance and updating of resources. The school is fortunate in having a well-designed library with ample space, lighting, shelving and display units, and the library has two computers. It is open to students on two occasions during the week and books can be borrowed. The library’s administrative system would benefit considerably from computerisation and appropriate software is available for school libraries. Teachers can use the library by prior arrangement and some small group teaching takes place there on occasion. The updating of book stock is a concern for teachers. Funding could be sought from the school’s very supportive local community and parents’ association. Useful information for those involved in school library development can be found at the website of the School Library Association in the Republic of Ireland (SLARI) and it is possible for the school to join the association. Contact could also be made with local county library services. The school does not have the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) on its curriculum. However useful information is available through a link from the Second Level Support Services (SLSS) website at www.slss.ie. The school might find it helpful to access information regarding the JCSP Demonstration Library Project. Information and communications technology (ICT) resources and facilities are reported as being adequate. The English department has access to a data projector located in one of the classrooms. There are computers in the staffroom and in several classrooms. There is also access to a computer room.
Students have the opportunity to participate in extra-curricular and co-curricular activities. For example, they have attended the theatre to see performances of Macbeth and The Crucible that are on their course at senior level. Students have also made cinema visits.
A barrier to learning is poor attendance and punctuality and this was observed in a number of classes visited during the course of the evaluation. While it is reported that some exceptional circumstances obtained at the time of the inspection, nonetheless, attendance records over a period indicate that there is a pattern of poor attendance among a core group of students. This matter needs to be addressed at whole-school level.
There is a very positive collegial spirit in the school and the department has benefited from dedicated and conscientious co-ordination. Meetings occur approximately four times each year and there are numerous informal meetings. There is a reflective approach to the teaching of English and the department has a vision of higher standards of literacy that it would like students to achieve. After consultation, members of the team have developed both long-term and short-term schemes of work for their individual class groups. Good practice with regard to planning should be shared and it is recommended that a comprehensive, common plan for English in all programmes be developed in collaboration with all members of the English department. Learning outcomes for each year group should be documented and there should be planning for the integration of ICT into the teaching and learning of English. As a preliminary step, the English teaching team and the school’s senior management should consult Looking at English. The report’s recommendations and the exemplars of good practice should be of particular relevance.
The plan for each programme should be informed in the first instance by the relevant syllabuses in the junior and senior cycles. It is recommended that emphasis be placed on learning outcomes for each year group ranging over the four skill areas, reading, writing, speaking and listening. Only two of these skills are currently examined in the JC and LC examinations and it is therefore important that the syllabuses and not the examinations inform planning.
During the course of the evaluation the pace of syllabus delivery was unacceptably slow in a particular case. To eliminate the risk of students being poorly prepared for examinations, it is strongly recommended that a timeframe for syllabus delivery be written into the plan for English so that all classes have achieved the same learning outcomes at the same time. This plan should be rigorously implemented in all classes. Thus, for example, in the case of the LC programme, while the single text chosen for the relevant class groups in fifth and sixth year may be at the discretion of the individual teacher, the timeframe within which this text is to be completed should be agreed by all teachers. If exceptional circumstances obtain that disrupt planning and the timeframe for syllabus delivery, alternative strategies must be put in place with the overall objective of ensuring that students are not disadvantaged in any way by external and unexpected events. Common planning for revision in preparation for state examinations should be written into planning for English for the relevant examination classes to ensure cohesive and consistent practice.
Individual schemes should complement and reflect the department plan. Since the English department has identified a need to develop language and literacy skills and individual teachers have expressed concern about standards at pre-entry level, co-ordinated action needs to take place. Already, individual teachers promote reading in a variety of ways and this is commendable. To consolidate and harmonise practice, it is recommended that the department develop a comprehensive and cohesive reading policy that should be consistently implemented in all classes and year groups. A range of activities should be documented, appropriate to each year group. In addition, the department should harmonise practice with regard to the number of texts being read in each year of the junior cycle. In line with syllabus requirements, students should read in a variety of genres. At least one class novel should be read in each year of the junior cycle by all classes in addition to the promotion of independent reading for pleasure.
It is reported that the learning-support department has started to develop a learning-support policy. The policy should be completed, sent for consultation to management and other stakeholders before moving towards the ratification process. To complement the work being done in the learning-support department, Coláiste Íosagáin should develop a whole-school literacy policy. An essential strand of that policy should be the school library.
The area of language support is in need of concerted planning. To cater for students with language needs, the school should develop policy and supports in this area. In addition, an intercultural policy should be developed. The recently published guidelines that the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) issued to all post-primary schools should he helpful in this regard[d1] .
Lesson preparation for all classes was good and appropriate resources had been made ready to aid learning and to ensure the smooth running of the lesson. Best practice was observed where a variety of resources was prepared. Text in the form of handouts, such as notes on the poet, copies of individual poems with questions, and worksheets, were disseminated and these complemented textbooks. Acetates and film clips were prepared for lessons in advance with the objective of using lesson time effectively. In a well-prepared lesson, large backing posters intended for project work had been made ready for student groups (selected in advance) prior to their entry into the classroom. Visual materials and stationery, such as markers, were located centrally so that students could access them easily and efficiently and use them to supplement their own materials. Preparation indicates a thoughtful approach to teaching and learning and the team is complimented in this regard. Individual lesson plans were presented to the inspector in many cases and these were indicators of conscientious and thoughtful preparation.
In view of the fact that students in all year groups are issued with a number of handouts and support materials, the department should develop a policy on the maintenance of student folders and this should be implemented in all year groups. The aim of the policy should be to develop organisational skills. The high standards of presentation noted in some cases should be a model for all classes. It is reported that some class groups have a variety of folders for different genres of writing (for example, poetry, drama) and this represents good practice.
The English department should develop a policy on continuous professional development (CPD) and as an initial step, teachers should identify their own personal needs in this regard so that priorities can be agreed. It is understood that the school provided in-service training in the area of mixed-ability teaching to all staff and this is commended.
Poetry, language skills, fiction and advertising were the themes of lessons and these were in line with programmes and syllabuses. The delivery of the lessons was good in most lessons observed and the pace and content of lessons was appropriate in most cases. Exemplary practice was noted in one case where the teacher made the learning objective explicit to the class and the closing phase of the lesson was used to review what had been learned. A variety of activities had been planned to reinforce learning and students were challenged and engaged throughout. This good practice should be replicated in all classes. In a small minority of cases, students were not challenged by the lesson content. The learning activity linked to the text was too simple for the stage and level of the class group, too long a period of time (almost all of the lesson) was devoted to an undemanding practice activity so that the time was poorly used. The lesson had no closing stage and very little was learned. It is strongly recommended that lesson planning and delivery be reviewed in such cases. Poorly used lesson time militates against appropriate and thorough delivery of the syllabus in adequate time for the state examinations. In all lessons, it is recommended that clear, achievable learning outcomes appropriate to age, stage of syllabus delivery and level be communicated to students at the start, and lesson closure should be used to assess if these outcomes have been achieved. Good practice should be shared.
Appropriate use was made of resources in the lessons observed. In addition to resources made ready in advance, the board was used well, for example, to indicate the topic of the lesson, to record new words and to write down students’ ideas and contributions.
Revision was underway in most examination classes and this was appropriate given the time of year at which the evaluation took place. Interaction with the inspector indicated that most students had a good understanding and recall of the material they had covered. In a small minority of cases, examination preparation must be reviewed as students did not appear to have attained knowledge commensurate with their level and stage of preparation and they lacked conviction and confidence. It is essential that a revision programme is carefully planned for all examination classes: the period leading up to the final examinations should be used for intense review, the revision programme should be well organised and structured and clearly communicated to students, and should be informed by the examination papers and examination-type questions appropriate to level. The aim of this revision is to develop skills, to review material that has already been learned and to build confidence. In one lesson, good practice was observed where a helpful review sheet and support materials helped to direct students’ revision and were appropriate to the requirements of the examination.
Language skills were developed in the course of the best lessons: the extension of students’ vocabulary was a focus in a lesson observed and this is commended. Students were encouraged to keep personal dictionaries. A transparency recording a list of descriptive keywords was used to develop a critical vocabulary. Students’ receptivity to language was nurtured in lessons. A transparency featured a poem that focused students’ attention on form and language in a whole-class exploration. Copies of the poem were distributed to students so that they could annotate them. Correct punctuation and grammar were learned to improve writing skills. Reading skills were also developed. Visual material was used as a stimulus and this is positive. Copybooks also indicate that students practise a variety of skills. To help students develop a greater understanding of the writing process, it would be helpful if portfolios of writing were kept showing work at different stages from drafting to completion. ICT is a useful tool in this regard. Apart from usage through research on the internet, there was no evidence of the integration of ICT into the teaching and learning of English in the majority of lessons observed. However, LCA classes do use ICT in order to write their key assignments. It is recommended that ICT be fully integrated into the teaching and learning of English in all programmes and year groups.
Creativity was encouraged in some lessons: for example, a group project was designed to cater for students whose dominant learning styles were visual and kinaesthetic and students expressed themselves creatively and cognitively through the selection and use of materials for their projects. In another lesson, students were assigned a creative writing exercise based on a text that encouraged them to synthesise their knowledge of the text and transform it into fiction through the creation of an alternative scenario. The exercise was also designed to encourage greater empathy with, and understanding of, the central characters in the text.
Oral communication skills were practised mainly through students’ responses in question and answer sessions. There was no evidence of focused planning around the teaching and learning of oral communications skills and this is an area for development across all programmes and levels.
A variety of teaching strategies was used to reinforce learning. Links were made with earlier knowledge. Questioning is integral to teaching and learning and questioning technique was used for a variety of purposes in the classes visited. Best practice was observed where a variety of question types was used, for example to test understanding of a concept, to tease out the meaning of a new text, to elicit personal responses, to help students link their learning to earlier lessons and to encourage evaluation. While efforts were made to maintain a balance between global questions and those targeted at individuals in some classes, in other classes, there was an imbalance and an over reliance on questioning addressed to the group as a whole. The effect of such a strategy is to invite chorus answering or to encourage those who are more confident and able; the diffident or disinterested student may disengage from learning in such circumstances. It is therefore important to maintain a balance between global questioning and questions aimed at individual students. Very good practice was observed where questioning encouraged discussion and reflection or challenged students to find evidence for their arguments, thus promoting higher-order thinking skills such as analysis. In a junior cycle lesson observed, higher-order questioning encouraged students to speculate about the ending of a story. Closed questions to which just one answer was possible were useful for assessing comprehension and recall. As they test lower-order skills it is important that they are not over-used. A balance between lower-order questioning and questions designed to promote creative thinking, the expression of more complex ideas and personal opinions based on evidence, should be maintained in all lessons. In general, it is useful to review questioning strategy in all lessons on a regular basis and it would be advisable to consult Blooms Taxonomy in this regard. Students need sufficient time to formulate answers to questions, particularly those that require more “thinking time” and this should be factored into questioning sessions.
Group work was used effectively where roles were assigned to students, where the task was clearly understood by all participants and was sufficiently challenging to engage all and where the desired outcome was shared. Poor use was made of this strategy in one example: the task did not challenge students and left many with little to do so that they disengaged and became involved in activities extraneous to the teaching and learning of English. Where group or pair work is used as a strategy, the activity should be time bound, roles should be specific, the activity should produce defined learning outcomes and there should be a clear transition to whole-class activity in preparation for the closing phase of the lesson. Good practice was observed where teachers circulated to monitor and assist students who were engaged in group or pair work.
In most classes visited, there was a good balance between student and teacher activity and between group or individual tasks and whole-class sessions. In the best lessons observed, there were good quality interactions between teachers and students and students were stimulated by the material and pace of the lesson. In most lessons, students were confident in their learning and had a good knowledge and understanding of key concepts and keywords. Students exhibited learning deficits in a few cases and this is a matter of some concern as gaps in student knowledge were out of line with expectations. Lessons must be reviewed in such cases and lesson outcomes should be measured at the end of lessons to ensure that learning has taken place.
The classroom was used as an additional learning resource in some instances and this is commended. Wall displays featured lists of words to develop a critical vocabulary, for example. Books and dictionaries were on display in some classrooms. Good practice was noted where seating arrangements were configured to suit group work. In classrooms, teachers should ensure that students are seated in positions where they are able to see the board clearly, and are able to interact with both the teacher and other students. If teachers are in classrooms that do not suit the group that they are teaching, management’s attention should be drawn to this with a view to arranging a change of classroom. In one instance, inappropriate seating arrangements were observed.
A very good rapport was observed between teachers and students in classes visited. Students were affirmed in their efforts and their responses and contributions were treated sensitively. In one case in particular, the warm affirmation that students received created a very positive learning environment for students, many of whom had special educational needs, and this resulted in a productive and purposeful classroom atmosphere. Classroom management was effective in all lessons observed.
In Coláiste Íosagáin, assessment of learning takes place through in-house, “mock” and state examinations. To ensure the implementation of the English plan and to ensure that the timing of delivery is synchronised for all classes and in all programmes, it is strongly recommended that common assessment take place in all year groups relevant to the appropriate level, higher or ordinary. Thus, for example, all LC higher-level English classes should have the same in-house examination at Christmas and at the end of the summer term and at any other interval agreed by the department. The examination should reflect the appropriate standard for the syllabus and level at the time the examination is set. It is recommended that there is a commonly agreed marking scheme for all year groups. Moderation should take place to ensure standardised marking. As some members of the team have experience of marking in the state examinations, their expertise could be utilised. The task of setting examination papers should be shared among team members. The results of “mock” JC and LC examinations, whether marked by internal or external examiners, should be compared with expectations of individual students to ensure accuracy and all results achieved should be analysed by both the English department and by management and comparisons made with achievement in other subjects. All examination results for both in-house and state examinations should be analysed and discussed by the department and by management as a whole to identify trends, to get important feedback that should inform teaching and learning and to glean information that would inform policy at both departmental and whole-school level.
The department needs to develop a subject assessment policy that specifies a variety of modes of assessment taking cognisance of the purposes of assessment and of syllabus requirements. The policy should also document specific arrangements for common assessment referred to above. Assessment for learning should be strongly emphasised in the department’s policy. Information can be accessed on the NCCA website at www.ncca.ie.
Formative assessment was used well in lessons where interactions such as question and answer sessions were used to measure understanding and guided teaching and learning strategies. Good assessment practice in relation to the marking of written work was observed at an individual level in some cases. For example, homework copybooks examined showed that informative feedback was provided to students through teacher annotations. This is very useful in guiding students’ learning. It is also commendable that in the best examples, assessment was dated. Good practice such as this should be extended to all classes. In some cases, there was less evidence that homework was assigned and marked on a regular basis. Good practice should be shared. It is recommended that the English department agree the number of challenging and substantial written exercises in a variety of genres that should be completed by all class groups appropriate to age and level in each year of the respective programmes.
The school communicates with parents and guardians regarding students’ progress through school reports, the student journal and annual parent-teacher meetings held for all class groups. There were inconsistencies regarding record keeping in the classes visited. Exemplary practice was observed in some instances. In others, there was less or indeed little evidence of accurate record keeping. It is strongly recommended that practice in regard to record keeping be harmonised, and that the maintenance of accurate records of attendance and assessment, including assessment of homework and class work across all skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening) be kept. Accurate record keeping provides information to teachers, students, parents and other professionals involved in the care and teaching of students and should be practised by all teachers. Records of Christmas and summer formal in-house tests and “mock” examinations alone do not provide a complete student profile.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Whole-school support for English is good in some areas.
· A collaborative ethos characterises the teaching team and there is some good planning at an individual level.
· Classes were well prepared in all cases.
· Planning for and use of resources was good.
· The pace of lessons and variety of teaching strategies was good in almost all cases.
· Students were confident in their learning in most cases.
· The classroom was used as an additional learning resource in some cases.
· The learning-support department has a reflective approach, examines and implements creative solutions and resources continue to improve.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· It is strongly recommended that a timeframe for syllabus delivery be agreed at departmental level and rigorously implemented in all class groups in order to ensure that all students complete the required syllabuses in adequate time for summative assessment including state examinations.
· It is strongly recommended that common examinations for common levels be set to ensure that the syllabus is fully delivered in all class groups. A common marking scheme should be agreed and marking moderated. Criteria for assessment should be shared with students and clearly understood by students.
· An assessment policy should be developed and accurate records of assessment and attendance should be maintained by all teachers in all class groups. Outcomes of all formal assessment should be evaluated at departmental and management level.
· The plan for English should be fully written up and implemented in all classes.
· Lesson time should be used to maximise learning in all cases and lesson content in all cases should be sufficiently challenging and appropriate to level. Clear, achievable learning outcomes should be communicated to students and lesson closure should be used to assess if these outcomes have been achieved. Good practice should be shared.
· The distribution of lessons should ensure that all students have contact with English on each day of the week and that conditions for teaching and learning are optimised for all class groups. In the case of LCA students, the school should aim to provide an additional lesson in line with best practice.
· The school should prioritise the development of a core learning-support team and the learning-support policy should be fully written up, sent for consultation to management and other stakeholders before moving towards the ratification process. In tandem with this the school should develop a whole-school literacy policy.
· The school should develop policy and practice in the area of language support and an intercultural policy should be written up.
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 October 2008
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 2 Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection
activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection.
· Assistant Principals are engaging with the recommendations in the report where they refer to Whole School issues in consultation with the Principal and Deputy Principal.
· English teachers are engaging with the report and will report their progress to the Board of Management.