An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Roll number: 91497A
Date of inspection: 3 April 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject
English classes in first year are of mixed ability. A system of banding is used in second year and in third year. Students’ average results from all examinations in first year are compared in assigning them to each band in second year. Students are assigned to bands for the study of English, Irish, French and Mathematics. In second year there are three bands consisting of a higher level band, an ordinary level band and a small band for a mixed ability group. There are six classes in third year and these are divided into an ordinary level band and a higher level band. Teacher input is also utilised in assigning students to these bands, along with students’ own choices. In addition, teachers and senior management stated during the evaluation that where movement between bands was seen to be necessary it would always be facilitated. It is important that this fact should be acknowledged and commended.
Some concerns regarding the current system for assigning students to different bands must be stated. The current system for assigning students to each band in second year may not take sufficient account of their individual interests and aptitudes in particular subjects. Consequently, a student who has been particularly engaged by and who has progressed well in English could, potentially, be assigned to an ordinary level English class for the duration of his or her junior cycle studies. This possibility is of particular concern in the context of the recent ESRI study Pathways through the Junior Cycle: The Experiences of Second Year Students. This study notes the degree to which the levels which students attempt for their Junior Certificate Examination are highly predictive of their studies in senior cycle. Alongside the relatively blunt measurement under which students are assigned to English classes in the current system, there must also be concern that, in English at least, there is considerable scope for the assignment of students to different levels to be delayed until later in their second year studies. Such a view is consistent with the recommendations of the aforementioned DES Inspectorate report Looking at English: Teaching and Learning English in Post-Primary Schools. This recommends 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. Such a policy gives more time to students when they are going through an important phase of development and encourages them to have the highest realistic expectations’ (p.9). It is therefore recommended that the school should carefully examine the current system of banding students at the end of first year in order to maximise students’ development in English.
Classes in TY are of mixed ability. This is appropriate given the aims and aspirations of the TY Programme. Classes in fifth year and in sixth year are organised on the basis of higher level and ordinary level bands. Students are assigned to these bands on the basis of their performance in the Junior Certificate examinations and, where applicable, their achievement during their TY studies. Students in need of literacy support are identified on the basis of entrance assessments tests, information provided by their primary schools and communication with their parents. Psychological assessments are also utilised, where applicable. Classes in fifth year and in sixth year are timetabled concurrently. This is also the case for a number of classes in third year. These arrangements are worthwhile as they facilitate the movement of students between levels and classes, where necessary. The extension of concurrent timetabling arrangements to other year groups would be worthwhile, if possible. Teachers rotate between levels and cycles where practicable. The pursuit of such a policy is to be encouraged as it allows for the development of a wide skills base across the subject department.
The library is available for use by English teachers and has set opening hours. English classes may be taken to the library by appointment with the school librarian. It is suggested that the English department could create a reading policy, briefly setting out the ways in which the library and other resources are used to inculcate a love of reading in the student body. Some strategies which could be considered include the appropriate use of Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) time, the display of peer reviews, the creation of a ‘cosy corner’ in the library and the possible involvement of the student council in book choice. The potential for a paired-reading programme to be developed for first-year students with TY tutors might also be worthy of consideration. Further useful ideas for harnessing the library to support students’ literacy can be found in an evaluation report of the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) Demonstration Library Project which can be accessed at www.jcspliteracy.ie. A useful website to support the purchase of books that will be of interest to young adults can be found at www.childrensbooksireland.com.
A majority of English teachers have baserooms. This is worthwhile. Some baserooms are provided with audio-visual equipment. In addition, mobile audio-visual units can be accessed through a booking system. Management states that provision for access to audio-visual equipment continues to be developed. It is recommended that the expansion of audio-visual equipment into all English baserooms should continue. This is important, given the role of film in the Leaving Certificate course, along with the significant impact which the judicious use of audio-visual material can make in junior cycle. Ultimately, the allocation of audio-visual units to all English baserooms should be viewed as an aim to be achieved over time, on an incremental basis, within the necessary constraints of current resources. A list of DVDs available in the English department is included in the English subject plan. This is good practice.
There is a computer room and all classrooms have broadband internet access. English teachers use the internet to access additional resources. The English department expressed considerable interest in expanding its use of information and communications technology (ICT) and this is commendable. Some ideas which may be of service include the use of webquests as a support to student projects and the creation of an English ‘favourites’ list of websites relevant to the subject on the school network. In addition, the potential for wordprocessing packages to inform students’ awareness of the drafting and redrafting process is worthy of investigation. The expansion of the availability of ICT equipment beyond the computer room and into mainstream classrooms could be a significant aid to teachers in expanding their practice in this area. However, the inevitable limitations of available resources must be recognised in making this observation.
There is an informal induction procedure for new teachers, with the deputy principal introducing them to their colleagues, and they are provided with a guide to the school in the form of a folder. It is suggested that a brief formal subject induction procedure for new teachers could be included in the English subject plan. Beyond this, documents relevant to the teaching of English could be stored in the subject folder and new teachers could be familiarised with these as part of the subject induction process.
English teachers have engaged in a number of continuing professional development courses over the last number of years. This is positive and there have been regular inservice training sessions provided by the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI). A further area which the English department could explore is the range of opportunities for professional development provided by the Second Level Support Service (SLSS). This investigation should not be limited only to the subject, English, but should also encompass other courses provided on teaching and learning where the methodologies examined could have considerable relevance to English teachers. Such professional development could then be harnessed and embedded into teachers’ practice through the subject planning process, in which teachers have already engaged.
There is currently an acting subject co-ordinator. The co-ordinator was appointed on the basis of seniority, as has been the practice in the school. It is suggested that this system should be adjusted in English so that the subject co-ordinator’s role is adopted by different members of the team, on a rotational basis, each year. This approach will support the development of wider leadership experience across the entire English department. The role of the subject co-ordinator should be set down in the subject plan. There are three formal subject departmental meetings each year. Minutes are kept of formal meetings. Agendas are set on the basis of priorities identified by English teachers. The recent focus of departmental meetings has been on the revision of the TY programme for English, common planning for year groups and common examinations. In addition, the department has discussed the further development of the use of ICT in English and the continued expansion of audio-visual facilities for English teachers. A very positive feature of current practice is the school’s analysis of Leaving Certificate results each year at a staff meeting. This is worthwhile and the practice should be extended to include the analysis of Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate results versus national averages by the English department itself. Another worthwhile item for analysis concerns the uptake rates of different levels in the certificate examinations versus the national average.
The English department has displayed considerable commitment in developing a subject plan, as well as common plans, for each year group. Some of these plans include termly plans and they are based on skills development and the relevant syllabus, as well as content to be studied. This is positive and the English department’s work is to be commended. It is recommended that the current plans should continue to be developed in order to link content and skills through a learning-goal oriented approach along specific timelines. A potentially useful model for this work is the Draft Rebalanced English Syllabus for junior cycle which is available on the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) at www.ncca.ie. A grid structure for each year group, setting timelines for work alongside texts to be used, the learning goals to be attained and assessment to be undertaken may be worth considering. The focus on time-linked plans will facilitate common assessment as well as clarity regarding the skills students have studied and attained at each point in their junior cycle and senior cycle studies. The common plans should also highlight that an integrated approach to the language and literature elements of the syllabuses is to be utilised. In addition to using the subject-planning process for the development of common plans, it is recommended that a teaching and learning focus should also be brought to bear as part of the subject-planning process. For example, areas such as cooperative learning and assessment for learning could be explored through teachers’ involvement with the SLSS, as mentioned previously.
English teachers are involved in organising a range of extracurricular and co-curricular activities. These include visits to the theatre, writing competitions, a poetry competition and debating. Teachers are to be praised for their involvement as these activities serve to enhance students’ appreciation of the subject.
Teachers synchronise the study of some texts between classes in junior and senior cycle. This is appropriate, particularly as the current system allows some scope for teachers’ individual selections. In addition, the recent decision by the department that teachers of higher level English classes in senior cycle should ensure that they study a number of the poems set for the ordinary level course is to be praised. Texts studied are varied in junior cycle and in senior cycle and, again, this is very worthwhile. A Shakespearean play is generally studied in higher level junior cycle classes. This is a worthwhile practice, as such an approach provides a bridge for students to their studies in senior cycle and is therefore to be strongly encouraged.
There is a subject-specific programme for English in TY. The English department has begun to focus on the further development of the TY programme in the last year. This is positive and the department has selected a range of material for study by TY students which is interesting and challenging. As an addition to the current programme it is suggested that a portfolio of students’ writing in English should form a key element and should be factored into students’ overall assessments at Christmas and summer. This portfolio should be made up of a set number of major genre exercises which have been drafted and redrafted by students until they are suitable for inclusion in this ‘centre of excellence’. The portfolio could also be used to inform teachers’ comments at parent-teacher meetings. Beyond this, the inclusion of skills-based learning goals as elements in the TY programme, as has already been suggested regarding other common plans for year groups, would be a further advance. The reflective approach taken by the English department towards the TY programme is to be praised.
Teachers are given information regarding students with special educational needs at a staff meeting at the beginning of the year. A withdrawal system is used to support students with special educational needs. Classroom support has operated in the school in the past and the adoption of cooperative teaching as another possible support for students with special educational needs is worthy of investigation. English teachers communicate with the special educational needs department through both formal and informal meetings as well as the sharing of results and resources. Individual education plans have also begun to be developed and their use as a further aid to communication between the special educational needs department and mainstream teachers is encouraged. A Learning Support and Resource Plan has begun to be developed and this is worthwhile. The plan should continue to be developed and should be informed by the recent DES Inspectorate publication Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs: Post-Primary Guidelines. Further support for English teachers in the area of special educational needs can be accessed through the Special Education Support Service (SESS), the website of which can be located at www.sess.ie.
The school has a number of English as an Additional Language (EAL) students. Subject teachers have provided keywords for use in EAL support classes to aid students’ acquisition of the language of instruction. Care should be taken with regard to the placement of EAL students to ensure that they are assigned to classes of appropriate ability with strong language role models to aid their English language and literacy development.
A good standard of teaching was observed during the evaluation. Lessons were well-planned. Objectives were clear in all lessons. Good practice was observed in a number of lessons where the learning intention of the lesson was set out clearly for students at the outset.
A wide range of resources was used to support teaching and learning. These included the blackboard, the overhead projector, textbooks, photocopies and visual resources. This is positive and teachers are encouraged to continue to expand their use of a variety of resources as an aid in accessing students’ different learning styles.
Lessons began in a number of ways, many of which sought to support links between new topics and students’ previous knowledge. This was good practice. In one lesson a free-association game was utilised where students were urged to write down their reactions to the word ‘poetry’ which then led to the writing of their own poetry. In another lesson a question-and-answer session was used effectively as a means of recapitulating students’ previous encounters with a particular novel. When questioning was used in lessons, good practice was observed where students were expected to provide evidence to support their claims and where teachers posed higher-order questions which encouraged students to fully develop their answers regarding various topics.
The study of language was a regular feature in classwork. This was commendable. In one lesson the language in a text was highlighted for students effectively, along with the purpose behind the author’s use of a particular word. This was worthwhile and a further extension of this activity could have included the use of techniques which had been utilised in the piece as part of students’ own written work. The use of a question-and-answer session to highlight language in a poem was a positive feature in another senior cycle lesson and the adoption of text-marking to further consolidate students’ ideas and learning is to be encouraged here. In one lesson, where students performed elements of a play, it is suggested that occasional interludes where aspects of language could be discussed would be of benefit.
The use of pair work, group work and other active methodologies as an aid to differentiation was observed in a majority of English lessons. This was positive and the English department is encouraged to continue to develop this element of its practice. In one instance a diagram was used to suggest ways of examining a visual text and students were then divided into groups to complete an assigned task. While a further extension of this group work might have incorporated the assigning of specific roles to all members of each group, students were engaged by the task and accomplished it successfully. The appointing of a reporter for each group as part of the exercise was worthwhile. Following feedback to the class from each group, the other students in the class commented on the work of the group and their use of language. All of this was well-managed by the teacher involved.
Classroom management was good in all classes. A good relationship was evident between teachers and students. The use of personal anecdotes in one lesson worked well in encouraging student engagement with a particular text. In another lesson the use of a differentiated approach to the work being undertaken would have been worthwhile as a means of ensuring that all students remained on task throughout the lesson. Students were engaged by material studied during lessons, offering their ideas readily. When questioned, students displayed a good knowledge of the topics they had studied. Students were seen to respond enthusiastically when they were asked to engage in pair work or active learning activities.
There was evidence of a print-rich environment in all English teacher baserooms. In a number of instances there had been efforts by English teachers to create a print-rich environment in non-teacher baserooms as well. This is commendable. Good practice in this regard was exemplified, variously, through displays of students’ work in a variety of genres, subject-relevant posters, key quotes, mindmaps and various presentations connected to texts being studied. All of this is most positive, providing students with guidance towards the drafting and redrafting process, while also enhancing their sense of audience for their written work. The possibility of adding the display of keywords, writing frames and character diagrams is offered as a potentially useful additional strategy. It is suggested that the creation of a print-rich environment in English classrooms should be set down as a key aspiration in the English subject plan in order to consolidate and preserve the current good practice.
The English department has created a homework policy to guide its practice. Homework was consistently assigned and corrected in English classes. In one instance, the assigning of a map as part of homework connected to a novel being studied was a good example of a differentiated approach through which students could consolidate new learning. This was worthwhile and the further development of the use of differentiated homework assignments would be a profitable area of investigation for the English department. Ideas which could be of use include mindmaps and writing frames. The latter strategy may prove particularly useful in aiding students with difficulties in literacy development or could benefit EAL students in supporting extended writing exercise in English. Other useful ideas in this area may be found at www.jcspliteracy.ie. In one instance, the potential for the use of an A4 copybook to encourage engagement by students with written exercises of greater length was highlighted. Particularly high expectations on the part of teachers regarding students’ work were also noted on a number of occasions during the evaluation and this was commended.
The use of comment-based, formative assessment by teachers was frequently in evidence. This was good practice. The utilisation by a teacher of students’ own written work to highlight good use of language devices was a further example of assessment for learning being used appropriately in lessons. In a number of senior cycle lessons, criteria for the correction of the certificate examinations were adopted effectively as a means of informing students of what would be required of them to complete successfully particular written exercises. The possibility of other assessment for learning strategies being adopted could be investigated by English teachers, particularly with regard to self-assessment and peer-assessment in English lessons. Further information regarding assessment for learning can be accessed at www.ncca.ie.
A number of examples of an integrated approach to the language and literature elements of the syllabuses were observed in students’ homework. These included the creation of diary entries in connection with a text being studied in one instance, and the creation of student response journals in a number of other lessons. Overall however, there was limited evidence of the use of an integrated strategy in students’ homework. It is recommended that the English department should incorporate such a strategy as a key element in its approach to setting students’ homework and should highlight this aspiration as an important part of the subject plan. The exploration of as wide a range of different genres as possible should also form a focus in the assignment of written homework and classwork in English lessons.
Class assessments are given to English classes at regular intervals. First-year, second-year and fifth-year classes participate in formal house examinations at Christmas and at the end of the academic year. Third-year and sixth-year students sit formal house examinations prior to the midterm break in October. Pre-examinations are organised for third-year and fifth-year classes in February. These examinations are set externally. Pre-examinations for third-year students are corrected internally, while those for sixth-year students are corrected externally. TY students participate in end-of-module assessments twice during the year, in November and February. Common examinations are set for year groups, where possible, and this is good practice.
There is a parent-teacher meeting for each year group once a year. Parents receive a written report regarding students’ progress following the formal assessments for each year group which have been outlined in the previous paragraph. Communication between school and the home is further facilitated through use of the student record book. Teachers are available to meet with parents by appointment and teachers may contact parents if necessary, in consultation with year heads. These arrangements are worthwhile.
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.
Published, November 2008