An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Dromcollogher, Co. Limerick.
Roll number: 71850B
Date of inspection: 27 September 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 February 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in english
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Hazelwood College, Dromcollogher, Co. Limerick, 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.
Students of English in Hazelwood College have four classes of English per week in second year, five classes of English per week in first and third years, and a generous allocation of six classes of English per week in fifth and sixth years. However, TY students have only two classes of English per week. (Three classes of core English instruction is the recommended minimum, irrespective of whether or not TY students also avail of English-related modules such as drama). For Year 1 and Year 2 LCA students of “English and Communications,” the provision of three classes per week meets the minimum requirements. (See “Suggestions for Timetabling in Leaving Certificate Applied” on http://lca.slss.ie/downloads/timetabling.pdf). However, those classes should always be distributed over three days. (At present, LCA Year I students only have “English and Communications” on two school days). Similarly, best practice would be to timetable the five classes of English for first-year students over five days, given how crucial the year is for consolidating literacy and language skills previously developed and for laying the foundation for junior-cycle achievement. (At present, these five classes are spread over four days). Aside from these discrepancies, timetabled provision for the teaching of English in Hazelwood College is in line with syllabus guidelines.
Students are placed in mixed-ability classes for first year, TY, and LCA. They are set in second, third, fifth, and sixth years. To facilitate student movement between levels, English classes are concurrently timetabled for second, third, fifth, and sixth years. School management is commended for making this facility available, which not only supports student choice, but also makes inter-class/whole-year activities and team teaching possible
General resource provision for the teaching of English in Hazelwood College is very good. All rooms have whiteboards and storage facilities. Teachers have access to TVs, VCR/DVD and CD players, and a colour printer. There are two broadband-enabled computer rooms in the school and broadband-enabled PCs in the school library. Stage lights are affixed to the ceiling in the assembly area for school shows/presentations. School management is commended for its general policy of having teachers based in their own rooms, which facilitates resource storage and the creation of print-rich environments. Also, the subject department is commended for its recent decision to create a central resource area where teaching guidelines, syllabuses, SEC materials, teaching aids, and the subject department plan will be easily accessible to all teachers of English. The school campus itself is stimulating, encompassing a large-scale, vibrant collage of Dromcollogher life and very attractive murals (produced by TY students) of quotations from various texts. Finally, the school has a very impressive website that is regularly updated with digital photographs and captions of current events in the school. It is suggested that the creation of a “voice of the student” page on the website could be a useful tool for celebrating and promoting student writing in various genres (essays, poems, plays, sports reports, letters, speeches, and so on) to the student body and to the wider school community.
A book rental scheme is another significant support to the teaching and learning of English in Hazelwood College. Good collaboration takes place among the English teachers in arranging for the rotation of text sets from the rental scheme. However, due to the school’s rapidly growing intake, the number of copies of a text available from previous years is occasionally smaller than the number currently required. To avoid the situation where students have to share texts, it is advised that the English department plan ahead to determine which text-sets it will be using the following year, and the number of extra copies (if any) that will be needed to augment those text-sets. (To ensure that all students will be able to follow the same text on the same page, it is usually necessary to purchase second-hand copies of a particular edition when augmenting existing class-sets. However, it was reported that this circumstance cannot be accommodated by the school’s official order-book system at present. Hence, it is suggested that school management explore how the occasional purchase of second-hand texts and of specialised teaching aids not available from Irish book sellers can be facilitated). Also, the English department may wish to plan for the purchase of new class-sets of novels and plays, to cater for the needs of ordinary and foundation level junior-cycle students in particular. In the light of school management’s commendable decision to provide dictionaries for students, it is advised that the English department identify the text(s) most suited to students’ needs. For example, a combination dictionary/thesaurus might be most appropriate for junior-cycle students, while a more advanced dictionary might be more suited to Leaving Certificate candidates. The school may also wish to add links to online dictionaries/thesauruses to the school’s computers and to make students aware of how to access such resources at home. (See, for example, www.bartleby.com).
Hazelwood College possesses an airy, centrally-located library, incorporating sturdy shelving, a reference area equipped with broad-band enabled PCs, the storeroom for the book rental scheme texts, and a large study/writing table for multiple users. The library is open at lunchtime three times a week and is maintained by a post-holder. At present, the stock is divided into sections by subject. The English department and school management are highly commended for actively seeking and securing new stock for the library from all available sources (ex-public library stock, donations from individuals, grants from the local Credit Union, and so on).
In its action plan for 2006/07, the English department identified the promotion of reading across the school as a key priority. To date, connections have already been forged between the English department and public librarians in the area. First-year students’ reading ages and reading habits have been analysed within the department. Students are encouraged to complete book reviews in certain classes. To build on these initiatives, it is recommended that a library-skills component be built into the first-year English scheme (including talks by public librarians in the school library and/or in public libraries) and that periods of specific reading instruction and of silent reading be built into the first-year programme (through the use of book boxes in classrooms or in the library itself). Students could also be encouraged to participate in paired reading programmes. It is further recommended that the library be turned into a whole-school showcase for activities supporting English (displays of photographs of visiting writers, accounts of their visits, reviews of their works), commercial posters advertising books, students’ art work depicting scenes/characters from studied texts; advertisements for reading challenges (such as the M.S. Readathon and World Book Day activities), for upcoming theatrical productions, and book reviews and other clippings that would interest students from newspapers/ magazines and so on. Finally, to encourage reluctant readers to read for pleasure, it is suggested that high interest, low reading age texts could be included in the library stock. (The learning support co-ordinator could be consulted to provide a list of appropriate texts or text series for such students). To help achieve these aims, it is suggested that TY students could be recruited to help run the school library in conjunction with the post-holder, to participate in paired reading programmes, and so on. Perhaps a short training programme could be organised for TY students interested in taking part in such projects. As Circular M16/99 (“Guidelines for reading at Second Level Schools”) intimates, emotional, social, and academic benefits will accrue from such a whole-school promotion of reading: “Habitual reading arouses curiosity about, interest in and confident command of language. The reader takes delight in language and is versatile and comfortable in speaking and writing. These are the factors that develop the more able Leaving Certificate examination candidate.”
An array of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities supports the teaching and learning of English in Hazelwood College. Students are prepared to participate in public speaking and debating competitions. English teachers have arranged for authors on the LC English course to give talks to students. (Building on this custom, it is suggested that writers/speakers could also be sourced from the local area and from local writers’ festivals such as Éigse and the Listowel Writers’ Week). The annual school musical, the TY drama module, and trips to theatrical productions provide students with insights into the mechanics of drama that support their reading of drama texts in the classroom. The English teachers have plans to create a school newsletter and to start a film society and book club. In particular, the links that have been forged between the English department and Dromcollogher’s local radio station are highly commended. Not only have students been taken on trips to visit the station, but equipment has been loaned to them to make their own mini-programmes that have been broadcast by the station. In fostering students’ interest and competence in English, such purposeful real-life experiences are highly effective. The management and teachers of Hazelwood College are highly commended for their commitment to providing such stimulating co-curricular and extra-curricular activities for their students.
English teachers wishing to avail of continuous professional development are encouraged and supported in Hazelwood College. Free after-school ICT courses are available to all teachers. School management has organised whole-staff professional development sessions on subject department planning, the use of ICT in classrooms, Special Needs and Inclusion, and IEPS in the recent past. Among the subject-specific opportunities that have been availed of by English teachers are drama courses, involvement in SEC marking, and attendance at Cork English Teachers’ Association events. Building on this commitment to continuous professional development, it is suggested that to help those members of the department who were unable to avail of the Teaching English Support Service (TESS) in-service on the new Leaving Certificate English syllabus, discussions on the main methodological and assessment innovations contained in that syllabus be organised by the department. Irrespective of whether or not individuals are/will be teaching LC English in the immediate future, collaboratively examining the Draft Guidelines for Teachers of English, Resource Materials for Teaching Language, and the LC Syllabus itself will be a very useful stimulus for generating in-house professional discussion and development.
The English teachers of Hazelwood College have been engaged in subject department planning for the past few years. This process has been supported by the scheduling of three formal meetings for the subject department during the school year, a provision for which school management is commended. Teachers’ voluntary contribution of their own free time to this process is also highly commended.
A collaborative team spirit was evident among Hazelwood College’s English teachers during the subject inspection. A senior teacher acts as subject co-ordinator for the department. By the time of the evaluation, the English department had prepared a draft plan that included outline schemes of work for all year groups, the minutes of subject department meetings, relevant school policies (homework and draft SEN policy), a completed SDPI subject department plan template, and an action plan for 2006-07. In December 2004, the English subject department plan (along with all subject department plans in the school) was reviewed, and priority action areas were identified. Hence, the subject department plan had gone through a cycle of development, review, and evaluation by the time of the inspection. This is best practice, for which the department is highly commended.
To help progress the English department’s planning even further, the following recommendations are offered. First, it is recommended that the department identify the student-learning outcomes (knowledge, skills, and attitudes) that should be the focus of work with each year-group. There should be consistency between those desired outcomes and year-group schemes. Hence, in reviewing its existing schemes, the department may determine that some minor amendments are necessary. Second, it is recommended that the department document the methodological strategies its members find most effective for student learning and supplement them with new strategies through group sharing of current practice and through research, where necessary. Clearly, this sharing of in-house expertise and resources will equip all department members with a greater range of teaching strategies, thus heightening students’ enthusiasm for the subject. Including a list of the print, audio, visual and software resources available in the school to support the teaching and learning of English would also support this work. Not only would such a list be a great asset to new teachers, but it would also act as a useful foundation for planning the purchase of other departmental resources. Third, it is recommended that a specific section on the teaching of writing be included in the subject department plan. (See the “Teaching and Learning” section of this report). Fourth, it is recommended that the homework and assessment section of the plan be further developed. (See the “Assessment” section of this report). Fifth, it is recommended that an extra-curricular or “past achievements” section be added to the subject department plan, so that such information can be easily accessed by new teachers. Ideally, such a section will constitute the department’s official memory bank, ensuring continuity of experience for students when their teachers change due to unforeseen circumstances. Ultimately, what is envisaged by these recommendations is the formalisation, documentation, and compilation in a single file of discussions and activities that are already ongoing.
It was evident that one of the main aims of Hazelwood College’s Transition Year plan was to consolidate prior learning and to lay a foundation for senior-cycle study. That aim was appropriate. However, when introducing texts to TY students that anticipate the LC course, teachers are reminded that such texts need to be explored “in an original and stimulating way that is significantly different from the way it would have been treated in the two years to Leaving Certificate” (TYP: Guidelines for Schools, page 6). In reviewing its TY English plan, it is recommended that student-learning outcomes, methodologies, assessment practices, and the cross-curricular dimensions of the programme be further developed. For instance, it is encouraged that the teachers of TY English and Drama plan how to provide students with connecting rather than overlapping experiences of drama and film. (For example, it would be highly beneficial if some of the scenes students enacted in their drama module were from the drama text to be studied in the TY English class. Similarly, the requirement to keep a diary for TY Drama could be reinforced by diary-writing exercises in TY English). Finally, it is suggested that TY students could also be recruited to help promote reading across the school by assisting in the operation of the library, by participating in paired reading programmes, and so on. Not only would such experiences give the students leadership and mentoring opportunities, but it would also benefit the development of other students’ English language skills.
[The planning, preparation, and provision of literacy and language support in Hazelwood College is discussed in the main WSE report.]
In all classes inspected, there was evidence of short-term planning and the content being taught was in line with syllabus requirements. Teachers’ instructions and explanations were clear and precise in almost all cases. While all lessons observed were focused on a particular objective, that objective was primarily defined in terms of progressing through a text in some classes. Best practice is when lessons are planned to serve specific student-learning outcomes and when those learning outcomes are shared at the outset of the lesson with the learners. This practice reduces the likelihood of lesson pace lagging, as was observed in a few classes. Furthermore, such explicit sharing of the desired learning outcome(s) helps students connect new learning with previous work and also invites them to share responsibility for the lesson.
The resources used by the English teachers over the course of the evaluation included handouts, textbooks, whiteboards, print stimulus materials (sample speech, recent article from a local newspaper, and a sample informal letter) and overhead projector transparencies. While those print resources supported lessons appropriately, it is encouraged that more audio-visual stimuli and concrete artefacts be utilised in the teaching of English, to cater for students’ different learning styles and ability levels. In particular, CDs/audiotapes of play productions and of poems being read by their authors, educational websites, and film clips are recommended. A variety of uses of the whiteboard was observed over the course of the evaluation, including diagramming plans for answering examination questions on texts, eliciting and reinforcing students’ knowledge of letter layout, and recording the key techniques of persuasive writing. Students were then directed to transcribe this information into their copies/notebooks in some classes. Such uses of the whiteboard were very effective, because they modelled how students might organise their own ideas in preparation for writing tasks. Other structured whiteboard uses the department might find useful could include occasionally inviting students to record class feedback on the whiteboard and teachers’ consistent use of vocabulary and homework columns. Such practices will equip students with an ever-expanding reserve of vocabulary, syntactical structures, and writing models. Also, the requirement that students transcribe board work into their copies will provide them with an invaluable revision aid.
All teachers used questioning to good effect to stimulate and interact with students and to structure the learning activity. Their questioning styles varied from whole-class questioning to a mix of directed and open questioning to groups within classes. Occasionally, student answers to teacher questions were inaudible. To ensure that all students can hear answers given by their fellow students, it is suggested that teachers repeat students’ answers for the whole class and/or ask another student to repeat the answer given, as an audibility (and attention) check. Where best practice was observed, questions were carefully sequenced and graduated, leading students to higher-order thinking and encouraging them to make personal aesthetic responses.
Many teachers built on students’ prior knowledge and experiences to deepen their understanding of texts being studied. For example, students in one class were asked to compare and contrast a poem encountered for the first time with previously studied poems. In another class, students were instructed to write a letter of protest based on the information contained in a newspaper clipping on a local event (the Anti-Croagh Mast campaign). In some cases, new vocabulary was related students’ personal experiences and environments, to help students understand and internalise new words. Such linking of lesson topics/tasks with students’ localities, hobbies, and personal experiences is highly commended.
The primary teaching methods observed over the course of the evaluation were question and answer, teacher/student reading, and in-class writing. Such methods constitute the backbone of all good teaching and learning. Well-managed group activities and evidence of project work and of independent student research on the internet were also observed in some classes. Over the coming years, it is recommended that the English department pool its resources and strategies in relation to the teaching of writing. (For example, building on the practice of getting students to listen to and comment on samples of other students’ work read out in class, it is encouraged that anonymous written samples of such work spanning the grade continuum be occasionally distributed. Students could then be encouraged to identify the strengths and areas for development in those samples, leading to the introduction of criteria for assessment to help structure such peer assessment discussions. Similarly, a departmental promotion of drafting/re-drafting approaches, creative modelling, the integration of language and literature in writing tasks by requiring students to write the diary entry of a character in a studied text and so on, and the integration of grammar and literature teaching will raise the standard of writing even higher in all classes). Also, it is recommended that the English department continue to add to its repertoire of active learning methodologies by experimenting with techniques such as visualisation, prediction, language games, cross-curricular links, teaching with ICT, role play and hot-seating. (See pages 68-69 of the Draft Guidelines for Teachers of English – Leaving Certificate English Syllabus).
Very good rapport between teachers and students was evident in all classrooms visited. Teachers consistently affirmed students’ responses and integrated them into the lessons. Discipline was maintained in all classes and almost all students were attentive and engaged in their learning. It was noticeable in some classes that had been set as higher/ordinary level classes that there were significant variations in ability within them. To help all students achieve to the best of their ability in those classes, differentiation strategies should be employed. In-service on differentiation from the Special Education Support Service (http://www.sess.ie/sess/Main/Home.htm) could be of benefit to the English department (and possibly the whole staff) in this regard.
As was mentioned in the first section of this report, the promotion of reading was identified as a key action item by the English department for 2006/07 through the subject department planning process. This focus emerged from an analysis of the reading ages and reading habits of first-year students. While the English department and learning support co-ordinator are highly commended for this collaborative work, they alone will not be able to raise literacy levels across the school. Best practice would be to take a whole-school approach to literacy development. In particular, it is advised that concerted efforts be made to increase the literacy levels of first year students. A useful stimulus for prompting school-wide discussion and planning on this issue would the JCSP publication Between the Lines.
In almost all classes observed, teachers had made efforts to create a motivational print-rich environment to support the teaching of English. The English-related resources displayed in rooms included a mixture of commercially-produced posters (parts of speech, “Readathon” and “World Book Day” materials, book cover and play advertisements) and teacher-produced posters (information about LC English criteria for assessment, features of style posters, a list of English-focused websites for independent internet browsing). Samples of student work were also displayed in some classes (poet project posters, book reviews, and sample essays). The department is highly commended for striving to provide such motivational print-rich environments for its students. To reinforce this good work being done in classrooms, it is advised that the library also be developed as a print-rich showcase for activities supporting the teaching and learning of English.
A range of assessment modes is used to monitor student competence and progress in English in Hazelwood College, including oral questioning, written assignments, peer assessment, and formal examinations. Additional assessment practices are also used by individual members of the department. For example, criteria for assessment are taught through information sheets posted on classroom walls and by some teachers when when marking and commenting on substantial writing assignments. Also, assessments are used as diagnostic instruments by some teachers (for instance, identifying common errors from student essays and designing follow-up lessons to address those errors). Such assessment practices are highly commended and it is recommended that they be incorporated into the department’s collective assessment practices.
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. From a review of student copies, it was evident that homework was being set and corrected in all classes. However, variations in the treatment of student work were noted. The department is encouraged to discuss this issue and to arrive at a consensus position on it, so that teachers’ responses to students’ writing are relatively consistent from first to sixth year. In arriving at a common policy on the correction of mechanical errors and on the provision of developmental feedback on substantial pieces of writing, the department may find materials such as the NCCA’s “Assessment for Learning” webpages, Between the Lines, and the relevant section of Inclusive Dyslexia-Friendly Practice.
In some classes visited, teachers called out homework assignments orally at the end of the class. For the benefit of students who are less academically inclined, and who tend not to remember homework tasks set orally, it is recommended that teachers write such assignments on the whiteboard and allow time for students to copy down the assignment. Teachers may even wish to write homework assignments on the whiteboard at the beginning of class, as a reminder to themselves of the task they want to set to reinforce classwork. To help ensure that homework is regularly set and incrementally increases in difficulty for different year groups, it is recommended that the English department agree its homework expectations (types and amounts of homework assignments, number of essays per year, standards of presentation in copies and so forth) as part of the subject department planning process. Lastly, it is suggested that common copy and folder systems of organisation be adopted across the department, thus enabling all students to easily revise their notes at the end of junior/senior cycles of study.
All non-examination classes are assessed at Christmas and at the end of the school year. In addition, different year groups are assessed at random throughout the year. The English department undertakes an analysis of student’s state examination results in the subject every year. The fact that members of the department have considerable experience as SEC examiners of English is also of vast benefit to the department in this regard.
The school reports that liaison with parents is good and that parents are very supportive. The standard formal structures for parent-teacher meetings and for reporting to parents through homework journals are in place.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
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.