An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Saint Patrick’s Comprehensive School
Shannon County Clare
Roll number: 81007U
Date of inspection: 27 November 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in english
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Patrick’s Comprehensive School, Shannon, 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.
Timetable provision for English is in line with syllabus guidelines. Students have five classes of English per week in first, second, third, fourth and fifth years and three classes of English and Communications per week in the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme.
General resource provision for the teaching of English is very good. School management is commended for its general policy of having teachers based in their own rooms, thus facilitating resource storage and the creation of print-rich environments. All classrooms visited are equipped with whiteboards, notice boards, and cupboards for book storage and/or stand-alone storage cabinets. Various items of audio-visual (AV) equipment are located in some classrooms and a multi-media projector and interactive whiteboard are separately based in two of the English teachers’ classrooms. Classroom swopping arrangements are entered into by teachers to facilitate the use of these AV aids in particular lessons and this is commended. The school has a good-sized hall that converts into a performance space. The English department has begun compiling its print and AV resources and class sets of texts and plans to locate them in the teachers’ resource section of the library that is currently under development. This is good practice. To derive maximum benefit from those resources, it is advised that an inventory of them be prepared and then added to the subject department plan. Standard requisition forms are included in the school handbook for teachers, encouraging them to seek resources as required. The English teachers can book either of the school’s two general-use computer rooms. At present, four of the nine English teachers have access to the internet either in their base classrooms or in the rooms they normally use for English lessons. The school is commended for its incremental roll-out of internet access in classrooms used by English teachers, thus providing them with the facility to integrate information and communication technologies (ICT) into the teaching and learning of English.
Of the nine English teachers, three were teaching English to one class group only at the time of the evaluation. The retirement of three English teachers in 2007 was reported as a contributory factor to this situation. Looking toward the future, it is suggested that, as was the case in the past, a more consolidated delivery of the subject by a smaller group of teachers with more substantial contact with the subject would help promote greater consistency and continuity in subject department and individual planning and in the retention of class groups for a cycle of study.
One of the most valuable supports to the teaching and learning of English in St. Patrick’s Comprehensive School is its school library. School management, parents, and teachers are highly commended for their vision and commitment to this whole-school resource that simultaneously supports students’ linguistic, academic, imaginative, and lifelong development. In existence since the foundation of the school, the library has always been supported by the English department and management. A few years ago, the English department and school management agreed that further developing its whole-school library service would be a key support to raising literacy levels and interest in reading across the school. This message was also communicated to the parents’ association, which enthusiastically helped paint the space and organise its books. By the time of the evaluation, the library was a very attractive space, displaying samples of students’ projects, bringing key in-school and out-of-school events to students’ attention, and housing student-built chessboard tables for break time competitions. A librarian (partly paid by school funds) and a post-holder are currently guiding the regeneration of this resource. The librarian has accessed training through the Shannon Town public library, is in the process of cataloguing the library stock, and has installed and is operating an appropriate software package for recording students’ borrowings. The library is open for browsing and borrowing every day and teachers can book the library for class use. It was evident during the evaluation that students are keen users of their school library, judging by the way they enthusiastically rushed toward it for chess competitions and book borrowing during their breaks.
The English department is conscious of the importance of promoting personal reading. Initiatives such as the organisation of trips to hear visiting authors speak at the Shannon Town public library, the surveying of students’ reading habits, requiring students to write reviews of books they have read independently, and the introduction of high-interest low reading age texts in the library to motivate reluctant readers are highly commended. Also, the English department has allocated one of the five timetabled classes for first-year English to library work and plans to extend this facility to second years as well. To further increase the effectiveness of the library as a literacy support for all students, the following advice is given. First, the librarian, post-holder and English department are encouraged to collectively review the publication Room for Reading: The Junior Certificate School Programme Demonstration Library Project (http://www.jcspliteracy.
ie/library_demo_project.htm) to learn additional strategies that could be used to further strengthen the library’s contribution to student learning. Secondly, to help guide the ongoing stocking of the library over the coming years, the librarian and relevant post-holder are encouraged to refer to the School Library Association of Ireland, to Children’s Books Ireland, and to the UK School Library Association. (See http://www.libraryassociation.ie, http://www.childrensbooks.ie, and http://www.sla.org.uk/advice-and-support.php). As part of that ongoing stocking process, the school is encouraged to acquire materials such as Readalong packs (CD and book packs), some English language texts that reflect the diversity of its students, and some dual language texts to support newcomers with little/no English. Thirdly, it is encouraged that representatives of the different subject departments be asked to vet the books related to their subjects currently housed in the library and then to compile lists of the texts that should be removed and should be added.
In relation to class formation procedures for English, Transition Year (TY) students are placed in mixed-ability classes when the programme runs and fourth and fifth-year students opt for examination level class groups that are concurrently timetabled to enable movement between levels. This is good practice. Until relatively recently, the approach to the formation of junior cycle English classes in the school included a mixed-ability element. However, students are set into concurrently-timetabled examination-level classes from the beginning of first year onward at present. Best practice is when a mixed-ability approach is taken to class formation in first year and ideally that “decisions in relation to level, and the rearranging of class groups that may arise from these decisions, be deferred until the end of second year at least. This policy gives more time to students when they are going through an important phase of development and encourages them to have realistic expectations” (Looking at English: Teaching & Learning English in Post-Primary Schools, pg 9). Hence, it is strongly recommended that the English department and school management review its current junior cycle class formation arrangements. The advice on “whole-school approaches to organisation for inclusion” in Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs: Post-Primary Guidelines (pgs 50-53), the particular context and needs of the students in St. Patrick’s Comprehensive School, and the advice offered in Looking at English (pgs 9-10) should all be consulted in conducting this review.
The final student-placement issue found during the evaluation to be impacting on teaching and learning was the school’s practice in relation to class placement for newcomer students with English as an additional language (EAL) needs. The school has a long, informal tradition of welcoming and successfully educating newcomer students, dating back to its foundation. In the past, those students tended to enrol in smaller numbers and before the start of the school year. However, 2007/08 brought a new challenge to the school when a large group of newcomer students with little English arrived for enrolment in mid-September. At that time, the school timetable had been set, so students were slotted into existing, age-appropriate class groups. This arrangement was found to be unsatisfactory in some English classes during the evaluation, where students for whom English language was their learning need had been placed in classes where English literature was the focus of class work (particularly at senior cycle). Also, while those newcomers receive additional English language support in withdrawal settings, there is little co-ordination between the programmes those students are being led through in their language support and mainstream English classes at present. A formal whole-school approach, policy and procedure should now be devised to address the education of newcomers with little/no English in the school, based on the recommendations of the Intercultural Guidelines for Post-Primary Schools, Circular 53/2007, and Integrate Ireland Language and Training materials (www.iilt.ie).
An array of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities supports the teaching and learning of English in the school. Intra and inter-class debating competitions and trips to theatrical productions and to Cinemobile film screenings are organised. As part of the school’s annual “Arts and Heritage Festival,” students can participate in workshops with visiting poets and journalists, and make short films with professional film-makers. The school is particularly commended for the creative writing competitions it runs for each year group and that are eagerly entered into by students. Evidence of the impact of this promotion of creative writing was noted in students’ copies. (See comments on students’ learning in the third section of this report). School management and the English teachers are highly commended for their commitment to providing such activities for their students.
English teachers wishing to engage in continuing professional development are encouraged and supported. Sources of professional development that have been accessed by individual members of the department include acting as State Examination Commission (SEC) examiners for English, in-service seminars for other subjects that are relevant to English, training on the use of interactive whiteboards, and in-school seminars on topics such as “Teaching and Learning” and “Understanding Special Needs.” With regard to future professional development, the department should collaboratively review the various guideline documents and websites referred to in this report.
The teachers of English began the formal process of subject department planning in September 2006 to complement and enhance existing practices of formal and informal consultation, of collaborative logistical planning, and of individual curriculum planning. This process has been supported by school management’s organisation of approximately four formal planning meetings every year and by the establishment of a slot on the school timetable when no teachers of English are in class, thus facilitating other meetings of the department as required. While the role of subject department co-ordinator was not rotated in the past, it is recommended that the teachers of English now adopt this practice, to develop leadership skills across the department.
By the time of the evaluation, the English teachers had documented their practices under the headings of the relevant School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) subject-planning template and had prepared curriculum content plans for each year group. From minutes of meetings kept by the department since 2007, it is clear that the teachers of English have identified necessary logistical changes required to support students (such as the creation of an extra fourth-year class group for English this year) that they presented to management and that were then acted upon. This use of subject department meetings to effect necessary change is commended. To help develop the English department’s planning even further, two main recommendations are given.
First, it is recommended that time be specifically allocated for a “show and tell” input at the beginning of each subject department meeting, where individual members would be asked to present an effective resource/strategy they use in their practice and/or to share insights relevant to the teaching of English they gained from a professional development course, from practices they observed in the English departments of other schools, and/or from further study that individuals are currently undertaking. Those strategies can then be documented in a methodology section of the subject department plan.
Secondly, it is recommended that the subject department turn its curriculum content plans into termly schemes of work. At the outset, the department should identify what it considers the most appropriate learning outcomes (knowledge, skills, and attitudes) for students in each year group and identify activities and texts that will help achieve those outcomes. (See the LC English syllabus and JCSP statement materials for exemplars of such learning outcomes). In particular, it will be important for the department to document the required coverage of syllabus areas and the most appropriate sequencing of texts for each junior cycle year group in its schemes of work. Statements such as “further development in concepts underpinning years 1 and 2” and “inclusion of exam papers” in the curriculum content plan for third year, for example, are lacking in necessary specificity. Outlining differentiation strategies for working with students studying at different levels in the one class and/or with students with literacy, language, or special educational needs will also be necessary. Equally, schemes of work should set out explicitly how, in the course of each year, teachers will incrementally hone students’ language skills. Once the first-year scheme units and their sequencing are agreed, the same process should then be employed, over the coming years, to prepare schemes of work for the other year groups. Such re-visioning of the department’s existing curriculum content plans will result in a more incremental, consistently-reinforced English learning experience. The resultant schemes of work will also act as a roadmap for teachers providing literacy support to students in different year groups and for teachers assigned to teach classes in the middle of the junior or senior cycle. Of course, for students to have the full benefit of this work, coherence between teachers’ individual plans and the collective department plan will be essential.
In terms of individual teacher planning, some termly plans were presented for inspection. The best of them included evidence that teachers were explicitly planning for skill development and/or were identifying specific strategies to teach particular syllabus components. Where weaknesses were noted, the emphasis in plans was solely on the content to be delivered rather than on the learning to be achieved.
[Planning, preparation, and provision of literacy and language support are discussed in the main WSE report.]
Effective teaching was observed over the course of the inspection. In all classes evaluated, lessons were structured and there was evidence of short-term planning. Most lessons observed were focused on achieving a particular learning outcome. Very good practice was observed when the intended outcome was shared with learners at the outset of a lesson, thus helping students to connect new learning with previous work and also inviting them to share responsibility for the lesson. Where weaknesses were noted, lesson focus was on progressing through a text rather than on helping students gain specific knowledge or skills through their study of that text.
All teachers acted as strong oral language role models for students. Teachers’ instructions and explanations were precise. Good practice was observed where a teacher used a pre-teaching strategy (directing students to engage in internet research the night before) to ensure that all students in a diverse class cohort were able to engage with a particular literary text. It is encouraged that the department continue to develop its repertoire of pre-teaching strategies for working with diverse student cohorts over the coming years.
The resources used by the English teachers over the course of the evaluation included handouts, textbooks, whiteboards and an interactive board, a laptop and data projector, an overhead projector (OHP), concrete artefacts (a World War I-related photograph and medal), film clips, and student dictionaries. The English teachers are commended for using such a range of aids to stimulate their students and to illustrate key concepts and skills. It was also reported that teachers use writing frames (book review and character profile templates), newspapers and magazines, and encourage students to use ICT for word processing particular assignments. In most classrooms, the board was used to provide written reinforcement of new vocabulary, to model the organisation of information and ideas in preparation for substantial writing tasks, and/or to set homework assignments. Given the wide variety of learning styles and of student abilities in the school, it is recommended that even more concrete artefacts and more of the school’s existing stock of audio-visual stimuli be utilised in the teaching of English. In particular, CDs/audiotapes of play productions and of poems being read by their authors and concrete artefacts associated with texts are recommended. Also, given the expertise in using ICT in the teaching of English that exists in the department, it is suggested that a list of websites relevant to the teaching of English be compiled by teachers and/or students. Handouts listing those links organised under specific topics could then be added to the subject department plan, to be used by teachers as appropriate and/or to be distributed to students for independent/ directed research.
All teachers used questioning to good effect to stimulate and interact with students and to structure the learning activity. Where very good practice was seen, a blend of whole-class and targeted questions was used and questions were carefully sequenced, leading students to higher-order thinking and encouraging them to make personal aesthetic responses. However, in a small number of classes, the questions asked were predominantly lower-order ones (focused on the recall and recognition of information). Irrespective of the examination levels students are preparing for, teachers should challenge students to relate to characters and situations, to identify their own personal responses to texts, to practice defending those responses using evidence from texts and to amend/uphold their opinions after listening to other responses and to other uses of evidence. Encouraging students to consult in pairs when developing answers to higher-order questions can be a useful strategy for motivating students who are less confident of their ideas and/or of their linguistic competence to engage in such higher-order thinking.
In most of the classes visited, active learning strategies were in use and this is highly commended. Among the varied teaching strategies observed were question and answer, teacher and student reading, pair and group work, peer learning (where students were asked to listen to and comment on samples of other students’ work read out to them), directed viewing of a scene from a film, and connecting new material to students’ prior knowledge and experience. In addition, evidence was gathered of teachers’ use of visualisation, of the use of poems to illuminate the worldview of characters in a studied novel, of helping to expand students’ vocabularies by building up word banks with them for particular topics/tasks, and of using free writing, writing frames, and creative modelling to help develop students’ writing skills. As was recommended in the previous section, the English teachers now need to formally share and document these excellent methodologies to ensure that all students get the benefit of them.
In terms of identifying pedagogical areas for further development across the department, the following two recommendations are given. First, the department should further develop its resources and strategies to support the incremental, consistent development of students’ writing skills from first to fifth year. While good work is being done on different literacy elements by individual teachers, this work now needs to be shared and delivered consistently across the entire department. Areas for discussion could include the use of spelling tests and vocabulary copies, teaching aspects of sentence and paragraph structure through exemplars from texts students are reading, encouraging students to keep a folder of writing models and self-selected articles, Make a Book projects, the use of writing samples as diagnostic instruments (as outlined in the next section of this report), and the use of word processing and other software packages to reinforce the process approach to writing. Among the professional development resources the department may wish to browse in this regard are those described on the websites http://www.jcspliteracy.ie/school_wide.htm and http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/.
Secondly, it is recommended that the department begin to assemble a bank of potential teaching texts (such as poems and short stories in translation and subtitled films) that will reflect the various cultures and ethnicities of the school’s student body. Useful research points in identifying such materials would include www.wordswithoutborders.org and the International Children’s Digital Library (www.childrenslibrary.org). Interweaving such texts into year group schemes as appropriate will enrich all students’ imaginations and will further deepen their understanding of how cultural contexts influence the decisions made in shaping texts.
Excellent rapport between teachers and students was evident in all classrooms visited and discipline was maintained in all classes. Teachers consistently affirmed students’ responses and integrated them into lessons. Most students were engaged in their learning. Most notably, evidence was gathered of significant attitudinal and academic progress being made by certain students who, it was reported, had previously been disaffected learners in other schools. The pastoral attention paid to these students and the active learning strategies employed by teachers to engage them were clearly succeeding and school management and the English teachers are commended for these achievements. Strengths observed in the learning of the general student body were the development of students’ ability to make unexpected connections between new material and their personal experiences or previously studied texts and to produce pieces of writing characterised by a strong sense of students’ personal voices and of their creativity. Given that these pedagogical strengths exist in the department, addressing the class formation, student placement and planning issues identified in the previous two sections will inevitably raise the levels of general student achievement even higher.
In most classes observed, teachers had made efforts to create motivational print-rich environments to support their teaching of English. The English-related resources displayed in rooms included programmes of play productions, student-produced posters of media celebrities, key quotations from studied plays, student illustrations of their national flags and countries, samples of students’ written work, commercial postcards/posters illustrating famous writers, fliers advertising in-school and national writing competitions, and topical newspaper reports on recipients of prestigious prizes for writing. The department is commended for striving to provide motivational print-rich environments for its students.
A number of the classes observed began with a review of homework or of work done in a previous class, thus maximising the chances that students would retain their new learning. In a small number of classes observed, homework assignments were written on the board for students to note down. Otherwise, teachers called out homework assignments orally at the end of class. It is recommended that teachers write such assignments on the board/OHP to ensure that all students copy down their assignments. This practice will be of particular benefit to students who are less academically inclined, and who tend not to remember homework tasks set orally.
From a review of student copies, it was evident that homework was being set and monitored in all classes. In some cases, students’ work was acknowledged by a tick and short comment (very good/excellent). In other cases, the teacher comment offered developmental feedback that affirmed the strengths in the piece of writing and gave concrete ideas for improvement and this is commended. The department is encouraged to discuss this issue and to arrive at a consensus on it, so that teachers’ responses to students’ writing are consistent from first to fifth 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” web pages, the JCSP publication Between the Lines, and the relevant section of Inclusive Dyslexia-Friendly Practice useful. (See http://www.sess.ie/sess/Files/
Two other aspects of student assessment now need to be developed by the department. First, it is recommended that the department consider awarding some marks toward end-of-term results for tasks linked to the agreed learning outcomes for different year groups. (Those tasks could include spelling and vocabulary tests, a cumulative average for composition work, folder maintenance, oral presentations, and project work). Such student-centred assessment approaches would help all students. Secondly, it is recommended that teachers further develop their diagnostic use of assessments. For instance, teachers are advised to assign class time early in the first term of every year for students to produce a substantial personal writing sample. Using those samples diagnostically (that is, analysing and recording the recurring errors in each student’s work) will give teachers a good benchmark for skill development programme planning.
First, second, and fourth-year students are assessed using class tests and formal Christmas and summer examinations. Third and fifth-year students are assessed using a formal Christmas examination and a pre-certificate examination in the spring. Some teachers use SEC chief examiners’ reports and marking schemes to inform their work. This is commended. Parents/guardians are informed of students’ progress through school reports, annual parent-teacher meetings for each year group, notes in homework journals, and individual meetings (either requested by parents/guardians or where parents/guardians are invited to the school to discuss a student’s progress).
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· School management is commended for the very good standard of general resource provision for English.
· One of the most valuable supports to the teaching and learning of English in St. Patrick’s Comprehensive School is its school library. School management, parents, and teachers are highly commended for their vision and commitment to developing this whole-school resource.
· The English teachers and school management are highly commended for the array of English-related co-curricular and extra-curricular activities they routinely arrange for students. In particular, the school is commended for the annual creative writing competitions it runs for each year group. Evidence of the impact of this promotion of creative writing was noted in students’ copies during the evaluation.
· The formal process of subject department planning for English has been supported by school management’s organisation of approximately four formal planning meetings every year and by the establishment of a slot on the school timetable when no teachers of English are in class, thus facilitating other meetings of the department as required. By the time of the evaluation, the English teachers had documented their practices under the headings of the relevant SDPI template and had prepared curriculum content plans for each year group.
· Effective teaching was observed over the course of the inspection. In all classes evaluated, lessons were structured and there was evidence of short-term planning.
· In most of the classes visited, active learning strategies and a wide variety of teaching resources were in use and this is highly commended.
· Excellent rapport between teachers and students was evident in all classrooms visited and discipline was maintained in all classes. Teachers consistently affirmed students’ responses and integrated them into lessons. Most students were engaged in their learning. Strengths observed in the learning of the general student body were the development of students’ ability to make unexpected connections between new material and their personal experiences or previously studied texts and to produce pieces of writing characterised by a strong sense of students’ personal voices and of their creativity.
· In most classes observed, teachers had made efforts to create motivational print-rich environments to support their teaching of English.
· 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 monitored in all classes.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· A formal whole-school approach, policy and procedure should now be devised to address the education of newcomers with little/no English in the school, based on the recommendations of the Intercultural Guidelines for Post-Primary Schools, Circular 53/2007, and Integrate Ireland Language and Training materials (www.iilt.ie).
· Junior cycle class formation arrangements for English should be reviewed by the English department and school management.
· Subject department planning should be further developed in line with the advice in this report.
· The English department should further develop its resources and strategies to support the incremental, consistent development of students’ writing and should begin to assemble a bank of potential teaching texts that will reflect the various cultures and ethnicities of their students.
· The English department should further develop its common approach to assessment in line with the advice in this report.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of English and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published June 2008