An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Malahide Community School
Malahide, County Dublin
Roll number: 91325R
Date of inspection: 12 December 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Malahide Community School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in English and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over two days during which the inspector visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with students and teachers, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and subject teachers.
The board of management was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
Malahide Community School is a co-educational school which offers the Junior Certificate, the Leaving Certificate (Established) and the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programmes to the 1,170 students currently enrolled. The Transition Year (TY) programme is an optional third year in senior cycle. This is a popular option and six class groups have been formed this year. The school population is representative of the growing community which it serves and the full range of abilities and interests is found in the school.
The school has traditionally placed students in mixed-ability class groups in first year. Based on teachers’ recommendations and on students’ achievement in a common assessment at the end of first year, students are placed in mixed-ability classes in second year within two bands so that separate class groups for higher and ordinary level classes can be facilitated. Students are encouraged to aim for the highest academic standards and delaying the choice regarding the level at which English is studied until as late as possible is commended as good practice. As a result, uptake of the higher level course is very good. In the senior cycle, students are set for English at the beginning of fifth year. English lessons are timetabled concurrently for all classes within each band in each year group, other than the TY classes, in order to facilitate students’ choice.
Resource provision to support the teaching and learning of English is very good. Deployment of teachers for English is excellent and the timetabled provision for the subject is in line with syllabus guidelines. Teachers are assigned to class groups on a rotating basis and generally remain with the same group through each programme. This allows teachers to develop very good knowledge about the learners in their class groups and facilitates effective planning for their needs. Insofar as is practicable, teachers are assigned their own classrooms and, in many cases, they have created a very vibrant and stimulating learning environment through the display of students’ work and other support material.
The school library is a valuable and well-used resource. It is available to whole class groups by arrangement with the librarian and students can also access the library during lunchtimes. The teachers of English are commended for their commitment to promoting the habit of reading, evident in their regular use of the library with junior cycle students. The spaciousness of the library is ideal for the creation of project work and teachers take advantage of this on a regular basis. The resulting projects are displayed in classrooms, providing opportunities for students to show pride in their efforts and to celebrate their work. Students act as library assistants and they have received in-school training for that role. This is an excellent way to involve them and the organisational and leadership skills they develop are very important.
The availability of information and communication technology (ICT) in every classroom means that all students and teachers have good access to ICT for teaching and learning. It is suggested that teachers should collaborate to identify how best to integrate ICT into the teaching and learning of English in the school. Access to audio-visual equipment is good and additional resources can be obtained by request to school management.
The range of co-curricular activities available for students of English provides opportunities to acquire and practise both oral and writing skills. Students are taught the skills of debating in TY and have the opportunity to participate in public speaking and debating competitions, both within school and at national level. School drama productions are designed to support the teaching of Leaving Certificate texts and teachers arrange trips to the theatre to see professional productions of the plays being studied for examinations. The work done by teachers to facilitate these and other co-curricular learning experiences for the students is commended.
Planning for the teaching and learning of English is very good. Formal meetings of the teachers of English are scheduled to follow staff meetings and co-ordination of the subject department is the responsibility of a special duties post-holder. Formal planning meetings take place a minimum of three times annually. The teachers of English also give of their free time to meet as necessary throughout the year and all meetings are minuted. The records available at the time of this evaluation indicate that there is a very strong focus on teaching and learning in subject department discussions and this is highly commended.
A subject department plan has been drawn up. This document provides a very good overview of the aims and content of the English programme in Malahide Community School. It is particularly good at integrating the syllabus aims with the work planned. This plan is augmented by the minutes of planning meetings, which indicate that teachers have agreed schemes of work for each term for each year group, thus ensuring some consistency of experience in the subject for all students and facilitating planning for common assessments. Records also acknowledge the key role the department plays in supporting students with special educational needs and include appropriate teaching and assessment methodologies to support these students. These notes, together with the formal plan, form the nucleus of a really good subject department plan. It is recommended that a review of the planning document should include a consideration of how the form in which it is presented can be adapted to reflect the ongoing planning which is taking place. For example, a loose-leaf format would allow subject teachers to add their own individual schemes of work annually. It is also recommended that the study of the short story should be more significant in junior cycle, both as genre and as a support in teaching creative writing. Further, it is suggested that individual teachers’ plans should reference specific methodologies used with students who do not have English as their first language so as to indicate how the teachers of English are facilitating the language learning of this cohort of students in their classrooms.
The TY is very popular and eighty-five per cent of students opt for this programme. The plan for English in TY, as presented in the documentation, is quite similar to the plan for Leaving Certificate classes. It is suggested that there should be a stronger focus on aspects of the subject that contribute to the attainment of the aims of the TY as outlined in Transition Year Programmes: Guidelines for schools. For example, an oral work or project-based component might be included. Where Leaving Certificate material is chosen for study it should be done on the clear understanding that it is to be explored in an original and stimulating way (TYP: Guidelines for schools, pages 5,6) and this should be clearly expressed in the TY plan.
Planning for literacy and language support is good. Close liaison with feeder primary schools and information received from parents allows the school to identify students with support needs and a register of these students is maintained. The school recently appointed a teacher to act as special educational needs administrator and to co-ordinate the work of the support team in the school. The school has developed a support policy which outlines the roles and responsibilities of members of the support team and indicates the arrangements made in the school to support the diversity of students enrolled.
The school provides compensatory and remedial support to students in junior cycle with literacy and numeracy difficulties. The emphasis is on first year students and they are withdrawn from a variety of classes to receive support in small groups. Students with specific language difficulties, most commonly dyslexia, and those with special educational needs, continue to receive help as necessary through to Leaving Certificate. The school is commended for the allocation of an additional teacher in second year, who provides a programme of support in English to students who are exempt from Irish.
The school has an allocation of 0.79 whole-time teacher equivalents to provide support to students who do not have English as their first language. This is used to provide support in English as an additional language (EAL) to thirty students. The school is actively engaged in identifying appropriate assessment tests to determine the EAL support needs of students and are referred to CL 0053/2007 in this regard. In first year, EAL students have been placed in a class group with other students who have been granted an exemption from Irish. Their language support is delivered in the context of support for the full class group and is not specifically targeted at additional language learners. While acknowledging that the school is monitoring this arrangement, management must ensure that the specific needs of EAL students are addressed in the English lessons provided to this group. The allocation for EAL provision is intended for direct support of students and the programme taught, teaching strategies and assessment procedures used to achieve this should be documented.
In all, seven lessons were observed. Most had been very well planned and, as a consequence, were successful in achieving the learning outcomes intended. In one lesson, for example, senior cycle students were being prepared to write a response to a typical examination question. The lesson opened with a statement of purpose for the lesson and a question and answer session designed to check that all students had a common, correct, understanding of the concept, ‘cultural context’. This was followed by whole-class work during which the whiteboard was used very effectively to record students’ suggestions of words and phrases which could be used in tackling the question. In the final phase of the lesson, the teacher modelled an approach to drafting an answer before setting completion of the task as homework. Very good use of class time was made so that the transitions from one stage of the lesson to the next were well managed. The strong focus on the learning target ensured that students could confidently tackle the homework set as a result. The teacher’s careful attention to short-term planning resulted in a lesson that had a clear purpose, was well structured and delivered at an appropriate pace.
Similarly effective planning was evident in many of the classrooms visited. Where planning was less successful, classroom discussion was unfocussed and lost momentum as learning objectives became less clear. There was little evidence that students were making progress in their knowledge and understanding of the stated lesson aim. It is important that classroom discussion is carefully directed so that students can contribute freely and with confidence in the secure environment that strong structure creates. It should engage all students and the learning achieved should be consolidated within class time, perhaps by brief note-taking which summarises the key points covered.
Teachers made very good use of a variety of strategies to support students in mixed-ability settings in junior cycle. In some lessons, they modelled approaches to reading and writing, including the use of graphic organisers and concept maps, so that students were developing skills in note-making. Whole-group instruction was used for introducing new ideas and was followed by individual or pair-work, so that the teacher could provide targeted support when students needed additional instruction and guidance. A reading comprehension exercise with one group of students, for example, was preceded by vocabulary building work. Students used dictionaries to check the definitions of words they were about to encounter and, as they read through the passage, the teacher drew their attention to each word as it appeared. Exploring the new words in context deepened their understanding of both the meaning of each word and how it was used by writers. This practice is commended as it extends the vocabulary of students. It is particularly valuable when they are provided with opportunities to use new words, as happened at the end of this lesson, when students worked independently on a writing task. These strategies allow for the differentiation of learning activities to support students of differing ability and are commended as very good practice.
This strong focus on improving the functional language skills of students was evident in many of the lessons observed. In a senior cycle lesson, the learning aim was to develop students’ proficiency in the interpretation and answering of examination questions. Students and teacher worked together to ‘unpack’ the vocabulary of questions in preparation for end-of-term tests. A question on a character in a text allowed for the application of the skills being taught. This provided students with a very supportive environment in which to learn by doing. In this lesson, the teacher included a second opportunity to apply the same skills to a similar question on a second character, thus reinforcing the learning through repetition.
The level of student participation in the lessons observed was commendable. Teachers used a variety of resources to engage their students. In one lesson observed the teacher complemented an exercise on poetry by showing photographs of related people and times. This is commended as it helped students to identify with the poem. Students volunteered to circle the classroom displaying these photographs to the rest of the class group and this led to a very good level of student participation and enthusiasm. In other lessons, teachers set students tasks to be completed with the support of a partner and the effectiveness of this approach was evident in the contributions made by students during plenary sessions. It is recommended that more extensive use should be made of the whiteboard at the closing stage of lessons, to record students’ contributions and to reinforce the very good learning achieved through active student involvement in lessons.
Although classes are banded so that higher and ordinary level courses may be taught separately, it was evident from observation of students’ work and participation in classroom activities that a range of ability levels is represented in all classes. Students’ contributions to class discussions indicate that they are familiar with the texts they have studied and many used the appropriate vocabulary accurately and with assurance when engaged in critical analysis. The teachers ensured that students’ learning is extended through frequent opportunities to express, explain and defend their own opinions and, in all lessons observed, students engaged in discussion quite confidently. It was evident, however, from an inspection of student copybooks, folders and written projects that student confidence and competence when writing varied considerably. However, the standards achieved reflected the full range of ability in the subject. In many instances, students on the higher level courses demonstrated the ability to write well in a number of modes. They paid good attention to the audience for their writing and their ideas were sufficiently developed to communicate their purpose. Where weaknesses were evident among this group of students, they occurred where students had focussed too strongly on form and text type such that their ideas and arguments were undeveloped. The attention paid in the classrooms observed to developing students’ sensitivity to language and their imaginative engagement with what they read will address this difficulty over time.
Students taking the ordinary level courses are making good progress, supported by the work done by their teachers to provide models for writing and to encourage planning for writing. In those classrooms where students were encouraged to draft and redraft their work, the progress made from one version to another was clear. This practice is a very effective teaching and learning strategy and teachers are commended for their use of it. Although teachers clearly encouraged students to engage with and respond to their texts, many students have difficulties moving beyond writing simple summaries and repeated syntactical and spelling errors were evident in their work. The inclusion of some written work in every lesson planned for these students will provide opportunities for skills development and practice in a supportive environment and those teachers who already plan for this are commended. It is suggested that all teachers of English should review the opportunities for writing which they provide in their plans.
Teachers made extensive use of oral questioning to assess learning and motivate students. This was particularly effective when there was a balance between global questioning and questions directed to specific students. The answers provided by students were initially brief but the teachers used ‘why?’ questions to push them to explore and infer meaning in the texts and to defend their interpretation of them. In all classes there was acceptance and clarification of students’ questions and students were encouraged to initiate questions and to express opinions. In addition, the teachers were sensitive to students’ difficulties in understanding material and set about clarifying these difficulties as they arose.
The school has a homework policy and work is set and corrected regularly. It builds on the work done in class and gives students opportunities to master the skills in each of the modes of writing. While some teachers took this valuable opportunity to provide students with critical feedback, including pointers for self-correction, simple ‘tick’ acknowledgements of the work dominated in the copies examined. The use of comment-based marking is recommended, as is the inclusion of positive feedback to motivate students’ efforts. Teachers of English in Malahide Community School have communicated to students the quality of presentation and layout for students’ work which they expect and they are commended for this. As a result, students’ work is labelled and dated and its legibility is well-supported by the neatness of their handwriting.
Formal examinations are held for all students at the end of the first term and all year groups not taking the certificate examinations also have summer examinations. Certificate examination students sit ‘mock’ examinations early in the second term. The use of common assessments for year groups as appropriate is very good practice. This allows for comparison of students’ progress across a year group and, as a result, careful planning to meet the needs of the students.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Resource provision to support the teaching and learning of English is very good. Deployment of teachers for English is excellent and the timetabled provision for the subject is in line with syllabus guidelines.
· The school library is a valuable and well-used resource and the teachers of English are commended for their commitment to promoting the habit of reading.
· All students and teachers have good access to information and communications technology for teaching and learning.
· The range of co-curricular activities available for students of English provides opportunities to acquire and practise both oral and writing skills.
· Planning for the teaching and learning of English is very good. There is a very strong focus on teaching and learning in subject department discussions and a subject department plan has been drawn up.
· The school provides compensatory and remedial support to students in junior cycle with literacy and numeracy difficulties and is commended for the allocation of an additional teacher in second year who provides a programme of support in English to students who are exempt from Irish.
· Most lessons observed were very well planned and, as a consequence, were successful in achieving the learning outcomes intended.
· Teachers made very good use of a variety of strategies to support students in mixed-ability settings, including differentiation of learning activities.
· The level of student participation in the lessons observed was commendable and its effectiveness was evident in the contributions made by students in class.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The study of the short story should be more significant in junior cycle, both as genre and as a support in teaching creative writing.
· Management should ensure that the specific needs of EAL students are addressed in the English lessons provided to this group.
· More extensive use should be made of the whiteboard at the closing stage of lessons, to record students’ contributions and reinforce the very good learning achieved through active student involvement in lessons.
· The use of comment-based marking is recommended, as is the inclusion of positive feedback to motivate students’ efforts.
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 September 2008