An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Irish
St Dominic’s High School, Santa Sabina
Sutton, Dublin 13
Roll number: 60380C
Date of inspection: 23 October 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching of Irish
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Dominic’s High School, Santa Sabina, as part of a whole-school evaluation. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of the teaching and learning of Irish and makes recommendations for the 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 the teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with the students and with the teachers, inspected the students’ work and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed the 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 to the subject teachers.
Programmes in Irish are offered in St. Dominic’s High School for the Junior and Leaving Certificate Irish exams, and provision is also made for the subject at Transition-Year level. Irish as a subject has a good standing among the programmes offered in the school. Students are encouraged to study the language at a challenging level and a significant number of students are interested in taking the subject at the highest level. That coincides with teachers’ expectations about the rate of higher-level uptake.
Irish is highly visible throughout the school, in signs on office and classroom doors. There are ‘leaders of Irish’ among the students, who assist in the promotion of a bilingual environment in the school. An opportunity is provided for the students, at lunchtime, once a week, to visit ‘the Irish room’, where Irish events are organised, including Irish music, Irish singing and Irish dancing. The ‘leaders of Irish’ are responsible for taking charge of these events. The leaders are given the opportunity of addressing the students in Irish, at assembly, to publicise ‘the Irish room’ and they also attend the school’s open night to welcome prospective new first-year students. Other events are organised in the school for Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish Week). Among the awards presented by the school at year’s end, in recognition of student achievements, is an award for Irish, presented to the student who has shown the greatest involvement with the language during the year gone by. These efforts to promote Irish in the life of the school are laudable.
A large number of students from St. Dominic’s High School attend summer colleges in the Gaeltacht every year. In the year 2008, for example, almost forty per cent of the students, apart from those in the certificate exam classes, attended summer courses. All the teachers of Irish attended an in-service course offered by the Second-Level Support Service (SLSS) for Irish, during the school-year 2007/08, a course aimed at promoting active learning among first-year students. The teachers considered this an excellent course.
The time provided for Irish by the management, on the school timetable, is satisfactory and class-periods are well allocated throughout the week. However, it would be worth taking another look at the distribution of class-periods for the current sixth-years – for whom two class-periods are timetabled for Irish on Friday, but none on Wednesday – in order to balance up the allocation, if possible, for the future. The arrangements in operation for concurrent scheduling of Irish classes on the timetable from second year onwards ensure that students’ wishes and varying abilities are served, regarding access to the subject at an appropriate level.
There is a wide range of experience of teaching the subject among the majority of the five teachers of Irish in the school at present. The teaching of the various levels of the subject is evenly allocated among all the teachers, an arrangement applied on the same basis to the newly-appointed teacher as to the more experienced. The operation of such arrangements benefits both students and teachers insofar as it ensures that all staff-members of the department of Irish acquire equal expertise in, and experience of teaching all levels.
The teachers avail themselves of the opportunity of co-operating with one another on cultural events as part of the Irish programme for Transition Year. It would be worth utilising this project to allow for further co-operation and teachers should also consider more sharing of one another’s good practice. Arrangements could be made whereby teachers would occasionally observe aspects of their colleagues’ teaching, thus promoting best practice. Similarly, specialisation in specific areas of language skills, or in particular aspects of literature, for example, might be promoted with classes at the same year-level, for an agreed unit of time. Thus, collaborative planning and co-operation in the practice of teaching would be promoted among teachers, as another step in the worthwhile co-operation already in progress.
Each of the teachers of Irish has her own particular classroom, an arrangement which facilitates the provision of an attractive, stimulating environment for the subject and ready access to resources. In addition, there is a library of material in Irish available in ‘the Irish room’. Commendable efforts had been made to provide an environment supportive of the subject in those rooms. In certain cases, student artwork with wording in Irish was on display and, in another case, composition work was prominently displayed, in recognition of the high standard of the students’ work. Reference material, relating to points of grammar, was also on display. It is recommended that material displayed on the walls of the classrooms for Irish be regularly updated and renewed. It would be a good idea to request students’ suggestions for attractive material in Irish for display during the year and to allocate this responsibility to the students themselves or to the ‘leaders of Irish’.
The teachers of Irish make limited use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) resources. That use consists mainly of downloading printed material from websites, for use as contemporary reading material in the classroom. That limited use of ICT resources is commendable and it is now recommended that their use be expanded as soon as possible. Broadband is available almost throughout the school. The major proportion of this equipment has been provided in the dedicated classrooms, interactive whiteboards, data projectors and laptop computers, for example. Teachers in general can apply, on a limited basis, for use of the computer room where thirty computers are available and they also have access to one of the two demonstration rooms, where there are interactive whiteboards, which must be pre-booked. In the discussion with the teachers of Irish, the inspector was informed that they were interested in developing the use of ICT resources in the teaching and learning of Irish. It is recommended that a plan of action be agreed for the integration of ICT resources into the plan for the teaching of Irish. It would be advisable to introduce this on a step-by-step basis and to submit an application for ICT resources for that purpose to the school management when an appropriate teaching plan has been compiled. It is a timely opportunity for this development when the ICT resources for the school in general are being augmented.
The number of students who have an exemption from Irish according to the provisions of Circular M10/94 is fairly low. This is five per cent of the total number of students enrolled and the teachers attest that the exempted students do not upset the running of the Irish classes.
All the teachers of Irish assert that co-operation among them is of the highest order in carrying out all the responsibilities involved in teaching the subject and that the plan provided for Irish is genuinely a result of collaborative planning, with an input from every teacher. The plan gives a good account of the material to be covered with the students in each school-year, at the various levels. That work is set out precisely, term by term, in a way that would allow a newly-appointed teacher to become acquainted without difficulty, with the approach used by the teachers of Irish. There is a common teaching-programme for classes at the same level and teachers ensure that there are common elements for higher and lower levels in each year. This ensures that, where necessary, students can transfer smoothly from one level to another, at any time of the year. The arrangement also ensures that students are not upset if there is a change of teacher during the second year of any course. It is accepted as an integral part of the plan that it must provide every student with a positive experience of learning the language, an objective which accords with the aims of the Irish syllabuses. The clarity of the plan and its concern with devising common teaching programmes are commendable, as is its dedication to ensuring a positive experience for students.
There is a high level of co-operation among the teachers of Irish and co-ordination of the planning work is undertaken on a voluntary basis. One person takes on that responsibility in the junior cycle and another in the senior cycle. In the copy of the collaborative-planning work provided, there is evidence of the discussion and thinking done by the teachers on the best steps to be taken, in their estimation, to promote the teaching of the subject. It would be a good idea to keep a formal, up-to-date record of these decisions. It is recommended, therefore, that responsibility for co-ordinating the subject be taken in turn by the teachers and that minutes of the meetings of the teachers of Irish be kept and a copy of those minutes made available to the management as a matter of normal practice.
It would improve the planning-work if more attention were focused on the learning objectives set out for the students at the various levels of the subject, in addition to specifying the programme content for the subject. Guidance on this is provided in the Irish syllabuses and it would be advisable to specify the quality of learning expected from the students, in the four language skills, for every level of the subject, in the junior cycle and in the senior cycle. Helpful guidance is available in the publication European Language Portfolio to help students towards a clear awareness of their learning objectives and of the progress they are making. It would be worthwhile to get more novelty into the Transition Year plan for Irish by contrast with that for the traditional Leaving Certificate. It is recommended, for example, that an ICT segment be included in this plan and that the teachers should consider inviting an Irish-language writer, or a well-known person from the world of Irish, to visit the school. An account of learning objectives and of student progress would be ideal for the Transition Year Irish programme. This would promote independent learning and responsibility for their own learning among the students, as they enter the senior cycle.
An account of the teaching methodology that will be used in class would enhance the plan drawn up by the teachers. Of particular importance would be clarification of the use of translation as a teaching and learning method, because the plan makes no mention of this practice, while it is evident that translation is used as a learning-support in class. If the teachers consider this method successful, they should acknowledge this by including it in the plan, while taking care that overuse of translation is avoided.
The teachers of Irish hold just one formal planning-meeting per year; their other meetings are informal and are held in the teachers’ own time. The formal meeting is convened at the start of the school-year and it is reported that the business of the informal meetings is conducted under pressure, due to lack of time. At the formal meeting, the teachers review the work of the previous year and plan for the year to come. A single such formal planning-meeting in the course of the whole year is considered minimal, considering the amount and importance of the work to be done. It is recommended that all options available for holding meetings at various times throughout the year be looked at again in order to identify time for the proper administration of planning meetings among the teachers of Irish.
Particularly praiseworthy is the frank account of the review of the work of the schoolyear 2007/08, included in the planning-work. It contains confirmation that the teachers of Irish are reflecting on the challenges facing the teaching of the subject and on possible strategies that would help to meet those challenges. Particularly praiseworthy is the evidence that the teachers understand that oral Irish must play a more central part in their class-work and the recorded efforts to promote oral Irish in Transition Year are also commended. In the case of Leaving Certificate classes, however, it is suggested that the amount of time recorded as necessary to cover the literature course be radically reviewed. The proportion of the total marks awarded for that element of the exam should be taken into account in that review.
Six classes were observed in the course of the evaluation, three in the junior cycle and three in the senior cycle. It was evident that good preparation had been done for these classes and supplementary sheets were provided in many cases, to support the learning and to help in managing the classwork. There was a common approach among the teachers regarding the management of the classes. All the teachers displayed a self-confident presence and their Irish was accurate and fluent. The roll was called in each case, homework was checked at the outset of each lesson and further homework assigned at the end of class.
All the teachers used the same approach in their interaction with the students, although employing different teaching methodologies. They were quick to praise and friendly towards the students at all times and great efforts were made to encourage the students to get to grips with the material and to express themselves. On the students’ part, they paid full attention to the teachers, they were orderly and organised and they had their books, copybooks and diaries to hand. It was clear that they understood what was to be done and they went about it enthusiastically. The diversity of the work to be undertaken was a strong element in holding the students’ attention and, in four of the six classes observed, the students were afforded an opportunity of playing an active part in the work. This took the form of pair-work or group-work. Oral questioning by the teacher was central to the work in all classes.
An example of this variety of activities was the fact that the first ten minutes of a junior class were spent on listening-comprehension work. Another five minutes were spent on checking homework and further practice arising from problems therein. The next five-minute segment was devoted to revising vocabulary with the help of good-quality pictures. Pair-work of almost ten minutes duration followed, with the teacher circulating among the various groups. The next five minutes were spent on revising reading the clock; this was a lively, energetic exercise, using a real clock to show the various times. This was followed by writing-practice, and the lesson ended with recording of the homework assigned. There was a good pace to these activities but it was clear that the students were well able for that pace and they took part enthusiastically in the activities. In another class, with weak students, the teacher succeeded admirably in focusing the students’ attention completely on listening-comprehension by playing a recording of the song Cailín na Gaillimhe (The Galway Girl) and challenging the class to fill the gaps in the text of the song provided in print by the teacher. This variety of methodologies was successful, as was the crossword devised by a teacher for a junior class, to arouse their curiosity and to make the lesson lively and pleasant. Great work was done in that same class on enriching the students’ vocabulary in preparation for composing an account of a road-accident. A handout was distributed giving appropriate vocabulary and phrases which paved the way for composing a report in good, natural Irish. The vocabulary and phrases involved were explained or illustrated in Irish only.
In other cases, students got speedy practice, with the use of translation, to ensure their acquisition of vocabulary. A list of words was called out in English and the students were then asked to provide the Irish equivalents orally. This method was used mainly with individual words, both nouns and verbs. It was evident that the students enjoyed this work and it was also obvious that they had learnt the wide-ranging list of words thoroughly by heart, because they were eager to answer the questions. A listening-comprehension exercise followed, with an analysis of the questions as an opening gambit and words being explained by translation to English. When the listening-comprehension segment of the lesson was completed, the teacher assigned it as homework that the students learn by heart the new vocabulary to which their attention had been drawn.
A learning strategy which enables students to extend their vocabulary has its own place, especially when it is evident that they enjoy showing what they have learnt, as it was in this case. Nevertheless, it is recommended that teachers use such a method judiciously. The major limitations of the effectiveness of such a methodology are that a student might acquire a long list of vocabulary, with no context available to support the anchoring of this material learnt by heart. The listening-comprehension passage from which the new vocabulary was sourced was not sufficient as a context. It is accepted that only bilingual dictionaries are available in Irish, but it is as a support to a learning context, whether oral, written, or listening-comprehension, that a dictionary is used. It would be preferable to provide a context for students by using dictionaries to a certain extent only, rather than memorising words merely as an exercise, in the hope that the vocabulary acquired can be practised, later on, in its proper context.
In another activity in the same lesson, group-work was initiated by using dialogues, cut into individual sentences and enclosed in envelopes; these envelopes were distributed among the groups, and the students then challenged to reconstitute the dialogues correctly. This work, too, was diligently undertaken, but the students were heard resorting naturally to translation to English as a help to re-ordering the sentences. The students took this step of their own accord, without any suggestion from the teacher to try the translation route. The honest effort made by these students points to the danger of giving translation a central role in learning the language. In the case of some copybooks belonging to students in two other classes, with other teachers, answers to questions based on prose and poetry were seen, which had both English and Irish versions of the answers. It is recommended that this overuse of translation be reconsidered as part of the teachers’ discussion and review.
Students in one of the senior classes demonstrated a striking ability to express orally their opinions on a challenging poem on the Leaving Certificate course. They were well able to master this material and were comfortable in answering the questions. Accuracy of language and vocabulary was an integral aspect of the teacher’s language in addressing these students when discussing a listening-comprehension passage. Regarding the verb ‘mol’ for example, which arose in the extract, the teacher asked the students for the noun and verbal noun derived from that verb and any other meaning for the verb besides that in the context in hand. The students were well able to answer these questions.
In general, the quality of the work being done by both students and teachers was highly praiseworthy. Both groups were doing their level best at all times and the teachers were diligent and central to the work from start to finish. It is recommended, however, that the teachers place a greater proportion of the burden of the work on the students, rather than being so central to the work at all times themselves. A helpful strategy for that would be to include a chat about everyday events as a regular part of the lesson and to allow the students to play a central part in the conversation, in group-work and individual work already assigned as homework. To support this methodology, it would be helpful to use extracts from TG4 programmes regularly in class, as exemplars of authentic spoken texts. Such an approach would dovetail naturally also with the objectives of the subject-plan for Irish, to promote the students’ ability in oral language, rather than limiting students’ opportunities for speaking Irish to answering questions relating to the pre-prepared subject-matter of the lesson itself.
A selection of copybooks was inspected which indicated that the students were being very well prepared for the requirements of the written papers for the certificate exams, but teachers are reminded to take account of the concern already mentioned regarding overuse of translation as a teaching and learning strategy. The copybooks were neat and orderly and students’ efforts were duly acknowledged in them.
New first-year students are assigned to mixed-ability classes and Irish is not included in the assessment for entry to the school. It is mentioned in the subject-planning documents that the primary-school students entering St. Dominic’s High School do not have a good standard of Irish. It would be worth bringing this to the attention of teachers and principals in the feeder schools, with a view to steps being taken to address the problem. It would be helpful, therefore, for this purpose, to record the ability in Irish of all students, before they come to St. Dominic’s High School. It is recommended that teachers consider devising a test of new students’ ability in Irish, taking account of the learning-objectives outlined in the revised primary-school curriculum. This would be a reliable reference-point as a record for teachers of students’ achievement in primary school and their requirements from the start of post-primary school.
Written homework is regularly assigned and corrected. In the current school-year 2008/09, continuous assessment is replacing house exams at Christmas. A common number of exams has been agreed among the teachers of Irish, to be taken into account for that assessment. It is evident that the teachers are anxious to have an oral exam as an integral part of the assessment in the house exams, but that there are difficulties involved in the model being recommended for that purpose. Only in Transition Year are orals formally held as part of the house exams, using an external examiner. It is recommended that an effort be made to take account of acknowledging students’ ability in oral Irish in house exams, as soon as possible. It would be worth devising alternatives to the use of an external examiner as models of assessment, when it is not possible for the school to implement that arrangement. For example, a continuous account might be kept of students’ efforts to speak Irish in class, but, to implement this approach, the amount of oral communication undertaken by the students in class would need to be increased.
In light of the changes due to be implemented in accordance with the provisions of Circular 42/2007 concerning the increase in the proportion of marks to be awarded for oral Irish in the certificate examinations to forty per cent, it is recommended that priority be given to the final recommendation in the paragraph immediately above, in the proceedings of the department of Irish. It is also recommended that teachers consider the advantages that might be derived from entering students for the optional oral Irish exam for the Junior Certificate. A decision on the assessment model to be used for oral Irish in house exams should be recorded in the subject-plan.
The student-uptake of the subject at the various levels in the certificate examinations is a good indication of the strong standing of Irish among the school programmes. In the school in general, over fifty per cent of the students were attending higher-level classes at the time of the subject-inspection. It would be worth recording an account of student participation and their achievements in the certificate examinations, in the subject-plan also, as an affirmation of the work of both students and teachers and as a guide to assessing and reviewing the subject-plan.
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:
A post-evaluation meeting with the teachers of Irish and with the principal was held at the conclusion of the evaluation, at which the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published June 2009