An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Ballyhale, County Kilkenny
Roll number: 70570N
Date of inspection: 9 February 2009
REPORT ON THE QUALITY OF LEARNING AND TEACHING IN ENGLISH
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Scoil Aireagail. 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 and subject teachers. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
Timetable provision for English is barely adequate to allow for a comprehensive English programme at junior cycle, as there are just four lessons each week within first, second and third year, with lessons varying in length from thirty-five to forty minutes depending on the time of day. Timetable provision for English is poor in Transition Year (TY) also, with just two periods scheduled each week. Provision improves considerably in fifth and sixth year, as students have six periods of English each week. There is an even distribution of English lessons across the week, which is good practice. It is recommended that management examine ways of improving English provision in each year of junior cycle and in TY.
Students are placed in mixed-ability class groups in first year and are then set into ability groupings in second and third year. Students are again placed in mixed-ability class groups in TY and set into ability groupings in fifth and sixth year. The concurrent timetabling of English in second, third, fifth and sixth year allows for movement of students across levels and for whole year group activities to occur. Generally, one higher-level class group and two ordinary-level class groups, which are reportedly of fairly similar ability, are formed in each of second, third, fifth and sixth year. It was reported that the composition of second-year English classes is based on first-year summer examination results, continuous assessment and teacher recommendations, and the composition of fifth-year classes is based on Junior Certificate results, continuous assessment and teacher recommendations. An analysis of results in the Junior and Leaving Certificate state examinations in English suggests that students are achieving high grades at ordinary-level English and it is therefore recommended that the English department and school management consider ways of increasing the uptake of higher-level English. For example, the English department could consider delaying the placement of students into set class groups until the beginning of third year; and instead of forming two ordinary-level class groups in each year, one group could contain a mix of higher-level and ordinary-level students.
All those teaching English in the school are suitably qualified to teach the subject to the highest level. Good practice occurs in that there is rotation of levels among English teachers. In one instance, a qualified English teacher has just one class group for English. It would be better if all teachers had exposure to more than one class group. Some of the English staff are undertaking or have undertaken courses on teaching students with special educational needs (SEN) and this is commended. Some also have good experience of correcting English in the state examinations. In-service courses have been provided by the school and include in-service on inclusion of SEN students in the mainstream classroom. Management facilitates teachers to attend in-service.
It was reported that students are brought to the theatre and cinema to see productions of literary texts on their courses. A writer in residence scheme is sometimes operated in the school and drama groups also visit. Students are entered for a range of writing competitions and have had their work published in local arts publications. TY students are encouraged to participate in the TY show where they perform their own poetry and sketches for a general audience and they also contribute to the TY magazine. These efforts to promote English are commended. There is no school library in the school. However, English teachers are commended for involving their students in the Readathon and for encouraging the reading habit from first year. For example, some first-year class groups have structured reading classes where they read books and then write book reviews.
A large number of students in the school have an assessed SEN. These students are generally withdrawn for extra support in small groups from Irish, if they have an exemption from the subject, or from French, or, in a small number of instances, from other subjects. A small number of students with English as an additional language (EAL) attend the school and are generally given language support lessons, if they qualify, instead of Irish. It was reported that there is very good liaison between the SEN department and the English department. It is suggested that consideration be also given to supporting some students with SEN during English lessons through team teaching.
There is a book rental scheme for all students. However, this impedes variety in English as teachers only have access to the sets of books that are available within the school. In addition, some of the novels available for first-year students have been studied by these students in sixth class in primary school. Care needs to be taken to ensure no overlap between literary texts studied in primary school and junior cycle. Although teachers tend to teach the same literary texts at senior cycle to allow for movement of students between levels, they are obliged to teach these texts at different times as there are not enough texts available for all students to study at the same time. This complicates the movement of students between class groups. It is recommended that teachers and management consider ways of overcoming these difficulties.
There is a computer room in the school but English teachers reported having limited access to this room. Classrooms are student based. These rooms were observed to be unexciting learning environments as there were limited displays of students’ work to be seen. It is recommended that every effort be made to make these rooms more stimulating for the students by displaying more samples of students’ work and relevant posters. In addition, key words and key quotes pertaining to English should be displayed. It was noted that there is no dedicated DVD and television player for use in English and an overall lack of resources for the subject. It is recommended that management give consideration to designating one classroom in the school as a dedicated English classroom where many of the English lessons could be timetabled, and providing the necessary resources, such as a television and DVD player in this room, for teaching and learning.
It was reported that the role of co-ordinator of English is rotated among the English teachers. Such rotation is good practice. Management facilitates meetings of the English department on a termly basis and also on a needs basis. Good practice takes place in that minutes of these meetings are recorded. There is a subject plan available for English which contains worthy aims for the subject including: the development of students as more adept and thoughtful users of language; the acquisition of language skills (oral and written) to interpret, compose and discriminately evaluate a range of materials; the improvement of students’ knowledge and control of formal aspects of language; and the development of students’ interest in and appreciation of literature. These are broken down into objectives which are taken from the Junior and Leaving Certificate syllabuses.
While the subject plan follows the school development planning template, each teacher supplemented the subject plan with individual plans, which clearly outlined their plan of work for the year. In some instances, these plans identified the intended learning outcomes for students for each year of their course and this is good practice. It is suggested that this practice be extended and that the English department as a whole determine the learning outcomes that each year of junior cycle should achieve so that there is a clear sense of an incremental approach to learning. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment’s (NCCA) rebalanced ‘Draft syllabus for Junior Certificate English’, which outlines such learning outcomes should help in this regard. In some instances, teachers’ plans showed a focus on the encouragement of the practices of students drafting and redrafting their work and on students modelling answers which is good practice.
The subject plans for each year reflected all aspects of the syllabus requirements. Good practice takes place in that first-year students study a novel and, in some cases, they also commendably study a play. Students also study a novel and play in second year. Higher-level class groups study a Shakespearean drama, as is good practice. At ordinary-level Leaving Certificate, all classes study a Shakespearean drama although many students have not studied Shakespeare in junior cycle. Therefore, it is suggested that all students be given some access to Shakespeare in junior cycle.
Currently, the novel and the play chosen by some teachers for study in junior cycle are not suitably challenging. In this school, third year is used mainly as a revision year for English with few new genres introduced. While it is important that work be reinforced in third year, it is recommended that some new material be introduced in this year to add variety and to stimulate the students, in keeping with the department’s aim of developing students’ interest in and appreciation of literature. It was reported that at higher-level, consideration is being given to introducing a second novel and this is to be encouraged. It is recommended that English teachers examine the programme for English as a continuum from first year through to sixth year, to ensure that the skills and content of the junior cycle programme are challenging enough to prepare students for the greater challenges of Leaving Certificate.
The TY plans presented include plans for the study of poetry, film, a novel, the production of a school magazine, the development of debating skills and participation in a European Studies project. The focus on a range of skills and, in particular, presentation skills is commended. Cross-curricular links are also encouraged in TY. Consideration might be given to providing TY students with a reading list and making it a requirement of TY that they would present reviews on books read.
Good practice occurs in that teachers follow the same course in fifth year although, as already stated, at different times. However, it does allow for students to change level at the end of the year. It was reported that teachers are working towards preparing common examinations for their students. This is very much to be encouraged especially when such examinations determine the placement of students in class groups.
In some lessons the purpose of the lesson was explicitly stated from the outset and in other lessons it was inferred. It is recommended that the good practice of the teacher sharing the desired learning outcome of the lesson with the students be extended so that all class groups will know the intended focus of their lessons. At the end of the lesson, the teacher could then check to see if the desired learning outcome has been achieved. There was good continuity with the previous lessons in many instances, and recapping on the previous lesson put the present lesson in context for the students.
In some lessons, students participated actively through pair work and question and answer sessions. For example, students worked in pairs on assigned tasks on their studied novel and when analysing an advertisement. This led to very good class participation and to students learning from each other. In some instances, the teacher stimulated student learning and brought the lesson to life by showing enthusiasm for the subject matter and by creating links with the students’ own lives. These practices should be applied in all lessons.
In some instances, the students were often passive participants throughout the lesson. This occurred when the teacher did most of the talking or reading, gave the meaning rather than asked for it and invited little discussion. Dependence on such teaching practices is to be avoided. It is strongly recommended in these instances, that a more active and engaged approach be taken to teaching and learning. Approaches that facilitate independent learning, co-operative learning and discovery learning should also be considered
Teaching and learning resources that had been sourced from the internet were used in some lessons and these provided variety to the lesson. In other instances, the textbook was the sole supplementary resource used in the lesson and all questions asked during the lesson were from the textbook. It is recommended that the range of available resources for use in lessons be developed by the English department.
Poetry was the topic in two of the lessons observed. In both instances, it was recommended that the students be immediately asked for their personal response to the poem before any close analysis of the poem took place. Also, students should hear the poem more than once before the text is interrogated. It was reported that the audio version of the studied drama is played for some class groups and this is good practice as it allows students to hear a different reading of the text, makes the language more accessible and allows for discussion on stagecraft and dramatisation.
Questioning was most appropriate when the teacher asked questions of named students as opposed to only asking those with their hands up, as in this way it ensured that all students were on task. In some instances, good higher-order questions were asked of students to encourage them to think beyond what happened in the studied text and to form opinions. When studying the novel, good practice occurred in that the key themes and features of style were reinforced during the reading of the text. There was often very good integration of new vocabulary and technical aspects of language when reading a text. These practices are commended. In some instances, there was also evidence of the integration of language and literature so that the functional writing tasks were integrated with literary texts. For example, students had to write a letter from the point of view of a character in a studied drama. This approach is commended and is recommended to all as it allows students to see the course as an integrated whole as opposed to a series of genres studied in isolation.
Students had copies for their written work and, in some instances, had folders which contained an array of detailed notes on various aspects of their course. While it is important that students have these notes for revision purposes, it is recommended that, at times, students themselves be asked to generate these notes together or in groups so that they take more responsibility for their own learning.
Students showed good knowledge of their texts in discussion with the inspector. Students also presented as being very well behaved and mannerly.
Students sit formal examinations at Christmas and in the summer, and examination-year students sit ‘mock’ examinations which are corrected internally by teachers in third year and corrected externally in sixth year. Reports are sent home after these examinations. An annual parent-teacher meeting is held for each year group in the school with a second parent-teacher meeting being held in sixth year, which students also attend.
There was evidence that regular written work was assigned and, in most instances, very good written feedback was given to students on areas where they needed to improve. The assignment of regular homework is very good practice as students need practice in writing in a range of genres. In addition, there was evidence of longer pieces of work being assigned frequently. Good practice also occurs as the discrete criteria of assessment are used in marking senior cycle students’ work. In addition, students are encouraged to write their own poetry at times and to create visuals for magazines when studying media. Additionally, students used information and communication technology (ICT) to design cards and to write poems. A variety of standards of presentation was observed in students’ copies. Consideration should be given to assigning a portion of marks in end-of-term examinations for presentation and maintenance of work. English teachers have an agreed homework policy, which is very good practice.
Results in state examinations are good. There is a high ‘A’ rate at higher and ordinary level in the Junior Certificate examination in English and in the ordinary-level Leaving Certificate examinations in English.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Students are encouraged to participate in a wide range of co-curricular activities pertaining to English.
· There is a subject plan available for English which contains worthy aims for the subject and reflects all areas of syllabus requirements.
· The focus in TY on acquiring a range of skills and, in particular, presentation skills is commended.
· Teachers are working towards preparing common examinations for their students.
· Best practice was seen when students participated actively in the lessons.
· Regular written work was assigned to students and very good written feedback was given to students on where they needed to improve.
· Students showed good knowledge of their texts in discussion with the inspector.
· Students presented as being very well behaved and mannerly.
· Results in English in state examinations are good.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· It is recommended that management examine ways of improving English provision in each year of junior cycle and in TY.
· It is recommended that the school consider strategies to encourage more students to take higher level.
· English teachers should ensure no overlap between texts studied at primary school and junior cycle.
· It is recommended that teachers and management consider ways of overcoming the constraints imposed by the book rental scheme so that a wider range of literary texts
can be taught.
· It is recommended that every effort be made to make classroom learning environments more stimulating for the students. Management should give consideration to making
one classroom in the school a dedicated English classroom, equipped with necessary resources.
· English teachers should examine the programme for English as a continuum from first year through to sixth year to ensure that the skills and content of the junior cycle programme
are challenging enough to prepare students for the greater challenges of Leaving Certificate.
· The good practice of the teacher sharing the desired learning outcome of the lesson with the students should be extended.
· A more active and engaged approach should be taken to teaching and learning in some instances.
· There should be a greater focus on encouraging students’ personal response and students should be expected to take more responsibility for their own learning.
· Consideration should be given to assigning students a portion of marks in end-of-term examinations for presentation and maintenance of their work.
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.
Published April 2010