An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Griffith Avenue, Dublin 9
Roll number: 60420L
Date of inspection: 26 January 2007
Date of issue of report: 4 October 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Ardscoil Rís, 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 the subject teachers.
Nine teachers are currently teaching English in Ardscoil Rís. One of these is a Higher Diploma student who is taking a first-year class and following the common plan for first year agreed among the English teaching team. This arrangement affords the student teacher a degree of structure and support, and the mentoring provided by the deputy principal augments this. The number of teachers involved in English is relatively large and this creates certain practical difficulties in relation to team meetings. The optimal situation is one where the teachers of English have a substantial timetable commitment to the subject, preferably in both the junior and senior cycle. It is recommended that this be borne in mind when allocating teachers to English next year so that teachers can extend and deepen their experience and expertise in the subject in all programmes. However, it should be said that the teaching team demonstrated a commendable level of commitment to the subject and to their students.
English lessons are well distributed on the timetable in both junior and senior cycle. The number of lessons allocated to fifth and sixth year is also satisfactory. It is however recommended that the possibility of increasing the number of lessons in junior cycle from four to five be investigated. All junior cycle students would benefit from daily contact with the subject since development of reading and writing skills has a bearing on students’ progress across a range of subjects. Priority should be given to increasing the provision of English in first year so that teachers and students have a greater opportunity to create a solid foundation for the development of personal, social and cultural literacy.
All students are placed in mixed-ability classes in first year and follow a common programme in English. The grades achieved in the house exams at the end of first year in all exams are averaged, and the score created is used to place the students in streamed classes from then on. While students who perform particularly well in the lower streams in second year may be reassigned to a higher stream, there was evidence during the inspection that some students who had been placed in lower streams were very able. In addition, there was no evidence of substantial numbers of students with serious literacy difficulties who might benefit from a banding system. It is therefore strongly recommended that the current system of streaming be abandoned, giving students the opportunity to experience the subject English and to develop their skills in a stimulating and supportive mixed-ability environment. Senior management and the English teaching team expressed a commendable readiness to embrace change in this area. The importance of continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers in implementing differentiation and effective methodologies in the mixed-ability classroom should be emphasised. Both the Second Level Support Service and the Special Education Support Service should be approached for assistance with CPD in this area (www.slss.ie and www.sess.ie) .
In senior cycle, students are set for English in fifth and sixth year and classes generally follow either the higher or ordinary level syllabuses. This is standard practice but care should be taken to ensure that students select the level appropriate to their ability. The policy of concurrent timetabling of English in fifth and sixth year is to be commended. This facility should be used as widely as possible, not just to allow students to change levels but also for team teaching, whole-year and inter-class activities, and so that common class tests can be used as appropriate. Transition year (TY) is optional and classes are of mixed ability. Two class periods are allocated to English in TY and there are also related modules in film and drama. In the interests of maintaining a close focus on skills development and delivering fully the wide-ranging programme that has been devised for TY English, it is recommended that consideration be given to timetabling a third period for English in TY.
In Ardscoil Rís classrooms are assigned to class groups rather than to teachers. This has the merit of cutting down on student movement from room to room, but its disadvantage is that teachers do not have the same opportunity to develop the classroom as a resource. Many classrooms visited during the inspection had displays of students’ work relating to studied texts or to writing tasks, and this is good practice. Such displays are best seen as a form of publication and it should be made clear to students that work below a certain standard of accuracy and presentation will not be published. A number of classrooms were rather bare. Efforts should be made to enhance the classrooms as print-rich and visually rich environments with posters, word charts, photographs and other illustrative material, as well as students’ work. The possibility of creating an English room might also be investigated, as this would provide a resource-rich environment for the subject, which could be booked for use with different class groups.
The library, which is housed in a fine room, is in the process of being restocked and a number of fundraising events are being arranged to finance book purchase. It currently holds quite a good range of general fiction and non-fiction, along with reference and critical works relevant to the English syllabus. Two members of staff look after the library on a voluntary basis, and access to the library is available at lunchtime with the assistance of the student council. The school is to be commended for its commitment to maintaining the library despite the demands on space and the issue of funding. The School Library Association (www.sla.org.uk) has an Irish branch which may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Book boxes are also in use, providing a range of titles to encourage reading for pleasure. Audiovisual equipment is available to assist in the teaching of visual literacy.
A wide range of co-curricular activities is offered to enhance students’ experience of language and literature and to extend their skills. In addition to outings to the theatre and cinema, students are involved in debating and public speaking, and a vibrant drama society stages regular productions. Students are encouraged to enter writing competitions and to contribute to the school yearbook. Senior management and all the staff involved are commended for providing students with these opportunities. Some of the English teaching team are members of the Association of Teachers of English, and staff have been facilitated in attending in-service courses.
School development planning is at a relatively early stage in Ardscoil Rís, and subject department structures and planning are also in the initial phase of development. A subject co-ordinator for English has been appointed within the post structure in the current year; previously this position had been undertaken on a voluntary and informal basis. A move towards a more formal description of the responsibilities attached to the post is welcome, but care should be taken to ensure that all members of the teaching team are involved in planning for the subject. A year plan for English in first year has been drawn up to provide a common programme. The plan identifies content to be covered within a given timeframe and also gives details of effective strategies to be used, for example in the teaching of poetry. The English teaching team and the senior management were eager to continue the work begun on subject department planning and the following suggestions are made with a view to assisting in this process.
A description of the role of the subject co-ordinator should be included in the subject planning documents after discussion among the team. The role normally involves calling and chairing meetings, keeping records of decisions taken, liaising with senior management on matters relating to the subject and disseminating relevant information from the Department, the State Examinations Commission, the support services and other bodies. Once the co-ordinator role has been established, it would be useful to consider how it might be rotated among members of the teaching team, so as to give all involved this valuable professional experience. It is suggested that an electronic folder for English which can be accessed by all the team is the most efficient way of storing the documents relating to English, including syllabuses, chief examiners’ reports, material from the support services and the year plans.
It is recommended that the subject team further develop the year plan for first year and use it as a model for drawing up plans for the other years. In developing year plans, teachers should pay particular attention to the integration of language and literature by specifying opportunities for strategies such as creative modelling. All plans should emphasise skills and desired learning outcomes; teachers should avoid planning that is driven solely by the content to be covered. In addition to year plans, the plan for English should also include descriptions of effective methods, and templates and writing frames which can be used to assist students to produce more structured writing. Lists of the resources available to the department and the names of the teaching team and their assigned classes should be included, and all members of the team should have a copy of the plan or access to an electronic version.
The subject department should meet formally three times a year, both for forward planning and review of work done. The subject plan will provide a focus for these meetings and should always be regarded as a work in progress, not a finished product. The team can discuss the need for adaptation or alteration of the plan and make whatever changes are agreed. In practical terms, these procedures will assist all those teaching the subject to have a clear grasp of the English programme from first to sixth year, and this is of very great benefit in the sequential building of students’ skills both in comprehending and composing. Further advice and support in relation to subject department planning is available from the School Development Planning Initiative (www.sdpi.ie) .
Much good collaborative work in choosing texts and sharing resources is happening among the English teaching team, and the procedure outlined above should promote this good teamwork and prevent unnecessary duplication of tasks. The teaching team is to be especially commended on the variety of texts chosen for study in junior cycle, and the care taken to ensure that they will appeal to students.
Good individual planning was in evidence, especially in the preparation of resources including overheads, photocopies of unseen poems, visual texts and worksheets. Teachers spoke knowledgeably about the lesson topics, and were able to give informed answers to students’ questions.
Eight lessons were observed during the course of the inspection, covering all years and programmes except transition year. Lessons were well paced and generally well structured. Best practice was seen where a clear statement of the lesson topic was made at the outset and where the expected learning outcomes were also stated, thus setting the scene for purposeful student work. Use of the board to note the topic and expected outcomes was also observed in some cases, and it is recommended that these good practices be followed in all lessons. Lessons were well prepared and in all cases good links were established between the lesson topic and prior learning.
The resources prepared such as photocopies and overheads were generally well used, although greater use of the board for recording points made in class discussion and for reinforcing new vocabulary is recommended. All teachers should ensure that work on the board is set out clearly so that students can follow the sequence of points made and can use the work on the board as a model for planning their own writing. It is useful to divide the board so that spelling and vocabulary can be recorded in a margin. In expanding the resources available in the department, teachers should focus particularly on those that engage the students appropriately and deepen their understanding of the text: audiotapes of plays should be used as much as possible to emphasise the nature of a dramatic text.
A variety of methodologies was used to explore the lesson topic and to assist student learning. Teachers asked closed questions to check on recall and basic understanding, and open questions were used effectively in many cases to stimulate student response and to encourage students to evaluate and analyse the text. Commendably, students were encouraged to express their own views and were reminded that all evidence-based responses were valid. It should be borne in mind that an incorrect or unsupported response or an apparently wild theory can provide a very good opportunity for clarifying or revisiting important points. It was encouraging to see that questioning was a two-way process, and that students were happy to ask for further information and to challenge opinions they dissented from.
Teachers expressed a particular concern about reinforcing accuracy in writing and the need for students to check and proofread their work carefully. Very good practice was seen in a junior cycle lesson where students were required to read each other’s work, thus emphasising the importance of legible handwriting and clearly structured sentences. It is recommended that teachers focus especially on methods that promote more accurate, thoughtful and frequent writing. Class discussion should often lead to student writing, for example a substantial paragraph stating and supporting an important point. The use of computers to develop editing and structuring skills should also be encouraged.
Good use of group and pair work was seen in a number of cases. Particularly impressive was the extent to which students listened attentively to the points made by other groups, and this underlines the importance of bringing pair and group work to the reporting back stage, so that the whole class can benefit from each group’s findings. Time should be allowed for students to note down the findings and it is also essential that clear instructions and a timeframe be given before group work begins. In addition to their participation in questioning and in group work, students were also engaged in reading texts aloud. A clear distinction should be made between reading practice with younger or less able students and reading as a form of engagement with the text. A good strategy that was observed involved giving students the opportunity to practise beforehand by way of homework what they would be reading aloud in class. This gives the students greater confidence and allows the emphasis to move from accurate reading to the more sophisticated areas of tone of voice and pace. This is particularly important in the case of reading drama. Where dramatic texts pose particular challenges in language, the use of audiotapes is strongly recommended.
Students were exemplary in their behaviour, very co-operative and attentive, and willing to participate and to listen. There was a commendable emphasis on learning and students were constantly affirmed for the efforts made. Students were encouraged to find links between current work and previous learning and there was a good sense of progression in all classes. It was also notable that most students were well organised and had the necessary books and copies with them. Expectations in relation to standards of work and co-operation expected were generally high, and the interaction between students and teachers was friendly and respectful.
Ongoing monitoring of students’ understanding and ability to participate was seen in the constant use of questioning in class, particularly to named students, and in the teacher’s observation of students’ involvement in the lesson. In a number of instances, a quick review at the end of the lesson of the work done reinforced key points and provided feedback to the teacher. This good practice should be used wherever appropriate. Good practice was also seen where questioning was used at the beginning of the lesson to ensure that students were ready to move on.
There was evidence that homework is set regularly and some lessons began with a quick oral review of homework, with the teacher circulating to do a visual check. This is good practice where short assignments or drills in spelling or grammar have been set. More substantial assignments should be taken up and feedback should be given to students to help them improve their work and to assist them in developing self-checking skills. Some very good practice was seen in this area, and teachers are commended for the care shown in giving feedback to students. The kind of formative assessment known as ‘Assessment for Learning’ (AfL) is of particular use in developing in students a sense of their responsibility for their own learning and a capacity to evaluate how well they are doing and the areas in which they may require further help. Further details of AfL may be accessed through the web site of the NCCA (www.ncca.ie) .
It was reported that a small minority of students are careless about homework. A consistently applied policy on homework is required to deal with this issue, so that students and their parents can see that homework is a valuable and a valued activity. In the marking of work done by Leaving Certificate students, it is recommended that the discrete criteria used in the State examinations be made known to students and used in relation to all substantial assignments. All Leaving Certificate students should be made aware of the helpful document, Assessment advice for students, available on the Second Level Support Service (SLSS) web site under ‘Official Documents’.
A common end-of-year exam in English is set for first years, and there may be other common elements in house exams for other years. In accordance with the changes recommended in this report in relation to class formation and streaming, common assessments should be set wherever possible. Although this may be easier where the same texts are studied, it does not preclude variety in choice of texts as both the Junior and Leaving Certificate papers provide models of open questions.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· The teaching team demonstrated a commendable level of commitment to the subject and to their students.
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.