An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Cross and Passion College
Kilcullen, County Kildare
Roll number: 61690W
Dates of inspection: 25 and 26 September 2007
Date of issue of report: 22 May 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Cross and Passion College, 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 deputy principal and the subject teachers.
The English teaching team in the school is large. Thirteen teachers have English on their timetables, and for seven of these it represents half or more of their class contact hours. This reasonably consolidated delivery of English is good practice, enabling teachers to develop a strong sense of the subject as a continuous development of students’ knowledge and skills from first year to sixth year. Three other teachers are involved in first-year English only, delivering resource hours in a team-teaching setting. In general, teachers take a range of classes, levels and programmes in both junior and senior cycle, thus ensuring that they have an opportunity to extend their expertise and that a reservoir of experience is available to the English department. It is therefore advisable that a number of teachers gain experience of English and Communications in the Leaving Certificate Applied programme (LCA); currently only one of the English teaching team is involved in LCA English.
Timetabling arrangements for English are generally very good both in the number and distribution of class periods. English is timetabled concurrently in third, fifth and sixth year, and all have a lesson every day, which is the optimal distribution. Second years have five English lessons also, and all but one class group has English every day. Transition year has core English three times a week, along with modules in communications, media and drama. This is satisfactory, although core English lessons should be distributed throughout the week and not on three consecutive days. LCA guidelines (see www.lca.ie ) recommend four lessons per week rather than the three offered.
In first year, there are four lessons, which would normally represent less than optimal provision. However, team teaching has been introduced this year as a means of providing in-class support to students with resource hours and to those requiring literacy support, and also to facilitate a wider range of teaching methods and learning activities for all students in the group. Its implementation and effectiveness are being monitored, and the present plan is to have the same system for next year’s first year. The school management and the English team are to be commended for introducing and supporting this initiative, which is referred to again elsewhere in this report.
Class formation and student placement are in line with best practice. Junior cycle and transition year classes are of mixed ability and this is very carefully planned in the first-year classes to ensure a good distribution of students with learning needs. Classes in fifth and sixth year are set for English. In third year, concurrent timetabling allows the formation of an additional class group most of whom follow the ordinary level course. This group should be described where necessary as ordinary level, not foundation level as is the case at present. Concurrence in fifth and sixth year facilitates changes of level where necessary.
Most teachers of English have their own base classrooms, and this offers a good opportunity to develop the room itself as a teaching resource. Some rooms had displays of current student work, word charts, posters and displays relating to specific areas of the syllabus. This good practice should be extended to all rooms in which English is taught as some of these were rather bare or had no illustrative material relating to English. To facilitate teachers without a base room to develop the classroom as a resource, they should be timetabled to take the same classes in the same rooms wherever possible. The library and a large classroom are currently in use for team teaching with tables clustered so that students can sit and work in groups. As part of the ongoing and commendable development of team-teaching resources, the storage areas for stationery, texts and work in progress should be increased in these rooms.
Other resources for English include audio-visual equipment, which was in place in most of the classrooms visited, and the library where teachers may bring classes during class time and which students can visit and borrow from at lunchtime when it is managed by library prefects. In the ongoing development of information and communications technology (ICT) resources to support teaching and learning in the school, a number of data projectors have been purchased and teachers have been assisted to purchase laptops by the board of management. This progressive attitude to ICT is noted and commended. There is a heavy demand for the school’s one computer room. Pending the provision of enhanced ICT facilities, it is suggested that the possibility of timetabling some LCA English and Communications lessons in the computer room be investigated.
Members of the teaching team have attended in-service courses covering such areas as team teaching, assessment for learning, poetry and creative writing, and revisiting the Leaving Certificate syllabus. This reflects a progressive and praiseworthy attitude to continuing professional development on the part of the school management and the teachers themselves.
Planning for English has progressed well as part of the school development planning process. A co-ordinator is appointed on a rotating basis and formal meetings are held at regular intervals throughout the year. During the inspection, records of meetings over the last three years were made available to the inspector and, in addition to ‘housekeeping’ matters such as choices of texts and arrangements for house exams, these reflect a level of professional interest in seeking to establish good collaborative practice and to identify priorities in relation to resourcing the subject. Decisions made are recorded in the minutes.
Reflective practice in the area of subject planning has been assisted through a checklist which asked the team to assess provision in a number of areas and to identify areas in need of development. This has the potential to be a very productive exercise if the team is also asked to suggest ways of addressing the identified needs, and it is recommended that this be done.
Over the last three years, there has been substantial work on a plan for English. While the plan follows the template devised by the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI), it has been adapted and individualised to reflect specific aims and concerns. This is good practice and means that planning reflects an ongoing process, as it should. For example, the plan notes the introduction of team teaching in first year and the creation of the additional class group in third year. The plan also gives details of timetable provision for English, and the way in which class groups are formed and student placement is decided. Where the plan lists the criteria governing student placement in fifth year class groups, it is recommended that performance and application in transition year be included and that the students be reminded of this in information given to them on the transition year English programme.
The aims and objectives stated in the subject plan are taken directly from the syllabus documents and the subject plan also gives details of the content to be covered in each year. It is suggested that in further developing the plan for English, the team focus particularly on the learning outcomes appropriate to each year. Thinking of these outcomes in ascending order, the team could agree on what students must, should and could be able to do at the end of a term or year. Decisions on texts and on the order in which course content is to be covered can then be clearly linked to achieving these outcomes.
Collaboration is evident in a number of areas in the plan. For example, there is an agreed range of poems and themes to be covered in the junior cycle and decisions on choice of texts are made collectively. The planning for the team teaching project reflects a strong co-operative ethic, and it is also commendable that the supports for students with special needs are included in the English planning folder. The identification of areas for development is further evidence of discussion and consensus, and forward thinking is clear where the teaching team has earmarked cross-curricular planning and planning for cultural diversity as areas for future work.
The issue of cross-curricular planning is of particular significance in the case of Civic Social and Political Education (CSPE). The CSPE programme in second and third year is delivered using some of the timetabled hours of other subjects, including English. Course concepts particularly appropriate to English are reportedly dealt with using texts and materials relevant to both English and CSPE. While the approach itself is innovative and potentially enriching for both subjects, it requires careful planning, and the planning documents seen contained no reference to CSPE.
Plans for transition year and for LCA were available and were appropriate to the aims and objectives of these programmes. The inspector and the teaching team discussed the issue of material appropriate to the transition year, including the use of the long list of Leaving Certificate texts issued each year by the Department as a transition year reading list, and the best approach to take to the study of poetry. It was agreed that the long list, with whatever additions might be considered suitable, was a useful source of texts for reading and reviewing in transition year. However, the inspector suggested a focus on individual poems rather than the work of a single poet in transition year, with the purpose of developing in students a sense of an informed personal response to poetry.
Individual lesson plans and year plans were made available to the inspector. A very good lesson plan template was used, giving details of students’ prior learning, the expected learning outcomes, the lesson structure, and planned teacher and student activity. In addition, some teachers had prepared a simple one-page year plan for the students, giving an overview of the year’s work and reminders of the books and materials they would need at various stages. This is especially useful for junior cycle students and is a practice that could be adopted by the whole teaching team.
As part of their planning and review practices, the English teaching team and the school’s senior management should consult Looking at English, a report from the inspectorate on the teaching and learning of English in post primary schools.
Seven lessons were observed during the course of the inspection, covering all years and programmes and including classes taking both the higher and ordinary level Leaving Certificate courses. A conscientious approach to lesson preparation was evident throughout, and some practice was exemplary. Connections with prior learning were clearly made where appropriate. Lessons were generally well paced and structured, and covered a satisfactory amount of material. Most lessons began with a statement of the topics to be covered and in some cases these were framed in terms of what the students themselves would be doing and why. This is good practice and should be followed in all lessons, as it helps students to focus and gives them a sense of direction.
A wide range of resources had been prepared and was used effectively. Visual resources included film on DVD, a series of images shown through data projector and a model of formal writing shown on the overhead projector. It is recommended that greater use be made of audio resources, in particular the excellent audio recordings of plays that reflect modern production values and greatly assist in the study of Shakespearean plays. Very fine audiobooks are also available and can enrich the students’ understanding of texts as they read and listen simultaneously. Effective use was made of the board to note down points made in class discussion and to reinforce vocabulary and spelling. Teachers should bear in mind the effectiveness of this common resource, and its importance as a visual aid. Worksheets had been prepared for some lessons and were used to engage students and to consolidate learning.
A notable feature of the lessons inspected was the prevalence of group and pair work. This was seen both in the team-teaching context and in other classes where it involved students working together and then sharing their work with the class. For example, in a junior cycle lesson focusing on the reading of a novel, pre-arranged groups created A3 posters displaying their collective work on a significant aspect of the novel, and then presented this work to the class. Very good practice was seen where each member of the group was involved in the short presentation, and students were learning from and listening to each other to a marked degree. In other cases, the model was closer to ‘think, pair, share’, which can be very useful in encouraging students to come up with a range of valid perspectives on a particular topic. This relates directly to the syllabus aim of enabling students to form and articulate an informed personal response. The preparation for pair and group work is crucial to its success, and the groups must have a clear sense of what their task is, and some very good practice was seen in this regard.
Questioning of students was used effectively for a variety of purposes. Questions to named students checked understanding and recall, and ensured that all students were taking part in the lesson. Global or open questions invited students to express their ideas on such topics as what a good opening paragraph should consist of, or to volunteer opinions about the behaviour and motives of characters. Teachers generally invited and affirmed a range of different responses, and this is good practice. Leading and prompt questions were well used to encourage students to see connections between earlier and current material and to help them in fleshing out and supporting their initial responses where these lacked substance. Teachers generally avoided the pitfall of answering their own questions and are to be commended on the questioning techniques observed.
Given the prevalence of group work and the emphasis on eliciting the students’ response, there was a consistent focus on active student learning. Attention was paid to the development of writing skills, and strategies such as creative modelling were employed to assist students towards more accomplished writing. Creative modelling is an excellent approach, but care must be taken in choosing models for different kinds of writing, as a poor choice of model can leave students none the wiser. In one lesson, a piece of writing chosen as a model gave rise to some confusion, although the point at issue was clarified during the lesson. In another lesson students carefully followed an exemplar of formal writing, and the inspector praised their attention to handwriting and presentation. Productive tasks were set so as to ensure that learning time was maximised; for example, students were set a cloze exercise to test their recall of prior reading while the teacher went round the class to check on a homework assignment. The exercise was then used as a springboard to the next chapter.
In all lessons there was a positive atmosphere, and indications of a cordial relationship between students and teachers. Students readily asked for assistance or clarification and were generally confident and articulate in putting forward their own views. Teachers were affirming and encouraging and created a supportive learning environment in which students worked productively.
Teachers monitored students’ work and levels of engagement in class through observation, questioning of students who were slow to participate or tending to lose focus, and circulation throughout the room to look at students’ work and to give individual attention where required. In the team-teaching context, there was a high level of attention both to the groups and to individual students, and progress was carefully observed. Where questioning revealed gaps or errors in students’ understanding, teachers revisited topics and occasional mistakes were used constructively to clarify a point.
A review of students’ written work provided evidence of substantial and frequently imaginative assignments. For example, there was little evidence of summary work and an emphasis on tasks that required more analytical and creative thinking. Particularly commendable was the prevalence of extended composition exercises, both critical and creative. These provide students with invaluable training that will stand to them in the certificate examinations and beyond. In many instances, there was excellent practice in giving feedback to students on their written work. Encouraging comment identifying strengths and progress was given, and then one or two areas for improvement were identified along with helpful directions. Giving such feedback is time-consuming but most valuable in relation to any piece of substantial student work.
Formal assessments are conducted at Christmas and end-of-year for most students. This year it has been decided that first years will be continually assessed throughout the year, and the system of drafting and redrafting work for a portfolio of finished pieces is being followed to complement this continuous assessment model. This is good practice and should lead to improved written work from all students. Transition year assignments are substantial; it is suggested that a list of these assignments be given to students at the beginning of the year to underline that the planning and carrying out of these is their responsibility. The key assignments for LCA are carefully presented and maintained. Teachers keep records of students’ attendance and progress.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Timetabling arrangements for English are generally very good both in the number and distribution of class periods.
· There is a progressive and praiseworthy attitude to continuing professional development.
· Planning for English has been substantial and reflective.
· There is a strong emphasis on productive, challenging and imaginative work in the supportive environment of the English classroom.
· Affirmative and productive assessment practices are in place.
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 deputy principal, at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.