An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Saint MacDara’s Community College
Templeogue, Dublin 6W
Roll number: 70260V
Dates of inspection: 8 April 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St MacDara’s Community College, conducted as part of a whole school evaluation. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in English and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over two days during which the inspector visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with students and teachers, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and subject teachers.
Timetabled provision for English is generous in fifth and sixth year, with six lessons per week including one double lesson. The Transition Year (TY) programme provides three English lessons per week, and this is the minimum number recommended. However, the presence of other modules linking with English, including drama and media studies, means that the subject is well catered for in TY. In the junior cycle, five lessons are provided in second and third year but in some cases these are not evenly distributed through the week. A second-year group, for example, has English twice on Monday and Friday, and no lesson on Wednesday and Thursday. Optimal provision is a lesson per day, and therefore a more even distribution is desirable. First years have just four lessons per week and, since all lessons are thirty-five minutes long, this is not a generous allocation. Because first year offers the best opportunity to create a firm skills foundation in the areas of speaking, listening, reading and writing, it is recommended that a daily English lesson be offered, notwithstanding the planned change to forty-minute lessons.
Eight teachers form the English teaching team, and most teach English to four or more class groups. This concentrated delivery is commendable as it ensures that teachers have regular contact with the subject. The current practice in the school is to timetable teachers to take a number of class groups in the same year. It would generally be recommended that teachers take as wide a range of years and programmes as possible, but teachers pointed out that the present system encouraged them to vary their approaches to a topic and to develop a rich variety of teaching materials. While these points have merit, the teaching team and school management should bear in mind that teaching a range of years reinforces the sense of the subject as a continuum of knowledge and skills development from first to sixth year, and adds incrementally to the range of experience available to the subject department. Most teachers of English teach in both the junior and senior cycle, and this is good practice. One teacher takes English in TY and consideration could be given to involving other teachers in the programme. A possible increase in the number of TY class groups could provide an opportunity for modular delivery, involving a number of teachers.
Junior cycle class groups are formed on the basis of the modern language choice made by students. While it is intended that these groups be of mixed ability, the perception that some modern languages are easier than others tends to lead to variations in the general level of ability in each group. However, teachers were generally satisfied with the mix achieved, and felt that the current system was greatly preferable to the former streamed classes. In fifth year, students are placed in one of two bands, largely on the basis of Junior Certificate results with a particular emphasis on Mathematics. Concurrence within each band facilitates movement between classes. Areas of the syllabus common to higher and ordinary level are studied in the first term of fifth year, and students may be re-assigned following Christmas exams in fifth year. These practical arrangements help students to make informed decisions on levels, and teachers encourage students to take the highest appropriate level.
Most teachers of English have their own classrooms and teachers without base rooms are timetabled for the same room as much as possible. Many of the classrooms, including non-base rooms, have been developed as rich and stimulating resources for the teaching and learning of English, with striking posters, photographs, themed displays based on studied texts, word charts and other illustrative material. Current students’ work was displayed in a number of rooms, and this affirms students’ efforts and encourages them to work on editing and presentation in order that their work can be “published” in this way. This good practice should be extended.
The school has a library and a special duties post of library co-ordinator. Students can access the library twice weekly to browse and borrow books. The current stock is quite extensive and new stock has been purchased recently. Co. Dublin VEC, which maintains the school, has a centralised book-buying system. The library is housed in a very large space, currently sub-divided by a half-height partition to form a classroom, which is in constant use. This arrangement curtails access to the library and its full development as a resource, and a full partition or some other re-arrangement of space could be considered to address this limitation. Both the Schools Library Association (www.slari.ie) and the JCSP Demonstration Library Project (www.jcsp.ie) are a stimulating source of ideas on the development and use of a library. Information and communication technology (ICT) and audiovisual equipment are available, either fixed in classrooms or movable. An inventory of resources for English, giving description and location, is drawn up every year by the subject co-ordinator, and this is exemplary practice.
The school offers teaching experience to student teachers, and there was evidence of very good support to them from the English department. Shared teaching of some junior cycle classes has been arranged, and student teachers and mentor teachers meet frequently to plan work and to share ideas. It is particularly commendable that an integrated approach to the teaching of language and literature has informed this joint planning. Continuing professional development (CPD) is valued and availed of, and has included postgraduate studies and in-service courses.
Co-curricular activities that enhance the students’ experience of English include both in-school and inter-schools debating and public speaking, and drama productions. Visiting speakers to the school have included a past pupil who is now a published author, and the English department is eager to extend this practice through the “writers in schools” scheme and other means. The department is also warmly commended for organising poetry and short story competitions, and for the high profile it gives to creative writing.
Subject department planning for English is long established in St MacDara’s. One member of the department co-ordinated the subject for many years; the English teachers have now decided to rotate the role, and this is commendable. A two-year rotation is suggested, to allow each co-ordinator to become familiar with and then develop the role. The role itself should be discussed and reviewed annually in a collaborative spirit, and a brief description could be included in the subject plan. Five timetabled planning meetings are held each year, agendas are circulated and minutes taken. The meetings focus not only on routine matters of text choice and student placement but also on the bigger picture for English, including areas such as reading initiatives and the sharing of successful methods. Some suggestions in relation to extending further the range of teaching and learning methods used are made in the next section.
Collaborative plans for English in the junior cycle and for Leaving Certificate have been drawn up and each member of the team has a copy. The junior cycle plan sets out an agreed approach to the delivery of the syllabus, while allowing each teacher to draw up more detailed complementary schemes of work, including individual decisions on text choice. The plan is clearly based on fulfilling the aims of the syllabus and places a valuable emphasis on the development of skills. It briefly describes topics and associated competences and gives indicative numbers of weeks for each. This is very good planning practice. In further developing the plan, it is suggested that more detailed links between learning outcomes and suitable methods of assessment be established and agreed.
The senior English work plan draws similarly on the syllabus document in setting out the learning objectives, and contains an outline of the areas to be covered each term. The emphasis on the five uses of language and on the comparative study in the fifth year programme is noteworthy, as the single text is the usual focus in fifth year. The integrated approach to reading and writing skills in line with the syllabus aims was also noted and is commended. The English plan for TY is appropriate to the spirit of the programme. Although only one teacher currently teaches TY English, it should also be planned collaboratively and distributed as part of the whole-school English plan.
The anthology-style textbooks chosen collaboratively for junior cycle classes are selected following a critical review of their contents, especially the poetry, and are supplemented by other resources where necessary. A good range of novels is studied in the junior cycle, and students are encouraged to read beyond these and write personal reviews. A Shakespearean drama is included in the junior cycle programme. An interesting range of films and novels has been selected for TY, and there is a commendable emphasis on creative writing and practical film-making. The choice of Leaving Certificate texts varies somewhat within the bands. While the majority of students take the higher level, it is important to ensure that the texts chosen for ordinary level are accessible and appropriate, and not overly influenced by the requirements of the higher-level course.
Individual teacher planning was thorough and well organised, and complemented the whole-school plan for English. Lessons and teaching resources were generally very well prepared.
Nine lessons were observed during the course of the evaluation, covering all years, levels and relevant programmes. The quality of teaching and learning observed was generally of a high standard, and exceptionally so in a number of instances. Most lessons were structured with a view to covering a substantial amount of work in the thirty-five minutes and pacing was accordingly swift, but not rushed. However, the planned change to forty-minute periods will give greater opportunities for discussion and activities, and is to be welcomed. The good practice of stating the objective of the lesson at the outset was observed in many instances, and should be followed in all lessons. A rapid review of the lesson topic concluded a number of lessons, and is a very useful practice to reinforce student learning.
A wide range of learning materials was used, including footage of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address shown on data projector; exemplars of functional writing and simple writing templates; and a list of quotations to prompt students’ responses to a novel. The Kennedy footage, and the transcript of his speech which was used with it, provided a real-life context for the study of persuasive language. The exemplars of writing, which the teacher had laid out with great clarity, served as a very useful model for students to follow. In other cases, students’ own writing was used to show the possibilities inherent in specific writing tasks. Both approaches underline the value of creative imitation as a learning strategy, and are commended. The greater use of writing templates is also encouraged, as these provide a structural framework for students whose difficulty in completing extended writing tasks is often not so much with content as with structure and sequence. Good use of the board was observed in many lessons, where it served to record and review key points, set out plans for writing tasks and provide visual reinforcement of new vocabulary.
Teachers drew on a variety of teaching methods, and it was notable in all cases that the aim was both to challenge students and to affirm their efforts. The level of teachers’ input and questioning was appropriately demanding; for example, teachers drew on their own experience as readers and referred to a range of writers and critics in class discussions, and used higher-order questions to point students towards thematic or other links between different texts. This level of challenge was balanced by encouragement to students to express their own views, acceptance of a range of responses, and friendly and supportive classroom interactions. Students were perhaps a little more silent than they would normally be, and teachers commented on this. Nevertheless, teachers should bear in mind the need for a good balance between teacher and student talk.
The focus on skills development led to an effective task-based approach in a number of lessons. For example, students in a junior cycle class were given a context for the writing of a formal letter, a plan was done on the board and copied by students, and they began to write, with the teacher circulating to monitor their work. Instructions on content and style were given clearly, with a commendable attention to purpose and audience. The use of an overhead projector could be considered for this kind of work, as it enables the letter format and layout to be demonstrated more clearly than on the board. In a senior cycle lesson, students were instructed to mark the text of a speech as they were listening, thus building their text-attack skills, and ensuring that they remained actively engaged and on task. An emphasis on the real-life contexts of certain genres of writing was noted, for example in a lesson focusing on the writing of reviews. This approach gives great scope for creative modelling using real texts, and these should be used to the full wherever possible.
A range of stimulating approaches to the teaching of poetry was observed. A junior cycle group was encouraged to see links between the depiction in a poem and a novel of the restorative powers of nature. Poetic techniques were explored very enthusiastically and, most commendably, the emphasis was placed on examining the effects of the various techniques, and not on merely naming them. Senior cycle classes were directed, through skilful questioning, to place poems in the context of the body of a poet’s work, and to identify recurring themes and techniques. Open questions invited a range of responses, and students felt secure in asking questions themselves.
Classroom management was uniformly good. Classroom atmosphere varied with the age and level of the students, but the focus was on productive work in a supportive environment. Student passivity was discouraged. It was noted, for example, that older students were in the habit of making their own notes from work on the board, so that teacher writing led to student writing. This is good practice and students should be introduced to it at an early stage. In some instances, the arrangement of chairs and tables in the classroom was particularly conducive to group work and student interaction. In extending the range of student-centred methodologies, the English department could investigate strategies to promote discovery learning and co-operative learning, since these would strengthen the emphasis already placed on skills development.
Students’ participation in class discussion and activities was effectively monitored by teacher observation and questioning. Focused questions were asked of named students in order to check understanding or recall. Where the lesson topic followed on from previous work, teachers’ questions assisted students in making the necessary links, and teachers recapitulated or explained further as required. In classroom interactions and in discussion with the inspector, teachers demonstrated a good knowledge of individual students and of class groups.
An examination of students’ copies and folders showed that students have produced a substantial volume of work, generally of a good standard. Some exemplary practice in giving developmental feedback to students was observed. This entailed an affirmation of the effort and progress made, and clear and helpful directions and suggestions as to how the work might be improved. It is recommended that this approach be taken with all substantial assignments. Teachers should discuss the homework policy as part of subject planning and set out manageable guidelines for themselves and for students. Common assessments are given in first, second and fifth year. A common marking scheme is in development and this is commended. Teachers maintain good records of students’ progress and performance.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Generous timetable provision is made for English in all years except first year.
· Good collaborative planning is well established in the English department and the introduction of a rotating co-ordinator is commended.
· The quality of teaching and learning observed was generally of a high standard, and exceptionally so in a number of instances.
· Teachers drew on a variety of teaching methods, and it was notable in all cases that the aim was both to challenge students and to affirm their efforts.
· Good assessment practices are in place and the effective use of Assessment for Learning strategies was observed.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· Timetable provision for English in first year should be improved both in the number and distribution of lessons.
· Greater access to the library and its further development as a learning resource should be pursued.
· The introduction of strategies to promote discovery learning and co-operative learning would strengthen the emphasis already placed on skills development.
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