An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Cobh, County Cork
Roll number: 62180E
Date of inspection: 18 September 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Muire. 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 and examined students’ work. 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. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report, and the response of the board will be found in the appendix of this report.
Coláiste Muire is a co-educational school. Four lessons per week are allocated for English in first-year classes. This is adequate provision. The school is encouraged to investigate the possibility of expanding the number of English lessons provided in first-year classes to five, in order to ensure daily contact with the subject. The inevitable limitations of the timetabling process are, however, acknowledged in making this suggestion. There is good provision for English lessons in all other year groups. English teachers are assigned to levels and year groups on a rotational basis, thus ensuring a wide skills base across the subject department.
Classes in first year are of mixed ability. Students with difficulties in literacy development are identified through an assessment process in March prior to their entering the school. Meetings with their primary-school teachers also inform this process. During first year, teachers consult, either formally or informally, with the special educational needs department if they believe a particular student is experiencing difficulties and is in need of additional support. First-year students participate in common examinations at Christmas and summer and their performance informs their assignment to second-year and third-year class groups which are formed using a banding system. There are two class groups in the first band and two class groups in the second band. Students in both bands are given the opportunity to undertake the higher level course, if they wish. A review of this system has been undertaken recently, with parental involvement. This is very worthwhile and the school is encouraged to keep this system under review, particularly with a view to ensuring that students’ choices with regard to level are not influenced at too early a point in their post-primary education. This suggestion is of particular relevance in the context of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) study Pathways through the Junior Cycle: The Experiences of Second-Year Students, which is available on the NCCA website at www.ncca.ie.
A wide selection of books is available in the school library. The library is spacious and includes a careers section. A range of junior books has recently been purchased, which is positive. Students access the library with their class groups. Teachers of first-year classes, in particular, encourage reading for pleasure and visit the library on a fortnightly basis with their class groups. Formerly, the library was organised by a member of the trustee’s religious community. This arrangement was followed by the board of management providing for the library to be kept in order for a number of hours per week. However, budgetary constraints terminated this arrangement and a post-holder was placed in charge of the library. This strategy ended with the retirement of the relevant post-holder. The school is about to undertake a review of its post structure. It is suggested that this duty would be worthy of inclusion, given the fine potential which the library presents as a resource for supporting student literacy. However, the fact that other needs may emerge as part of the review of posts must be acknowledged in making this observation. It is suggested that the English department should develop a reading policy as part of the subject plan. Ideas which may be of use in such a policy include the adoption of DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time, the availability of ‘readalong’ books in the library for reluctant readers and the development of the library through the display of media posters connected to various texts available in the facility. A further strategy which could help in the promotion of reading in first-year classes is ‘Wordmillionaire’. The involvement of Transition Year (TY) students in the organising of library services might also be worthy of consideration. Details of these and other useful ideas can be accessed through the website www.jcspliteracy.ie. A further website which may be of service is that of the School Library Association in the Republic of Ireland at www.slari.ie.
English teachers have very good access to audio-visual equipment. Most classrooms are provided with a television, DVD and overhead projector. In addition, subject departments are provided with an annual budget sheet which facilitates the purchase of resources. This is a worthwhile system. English teachers are generally assigned their own base classroom, which is sound practice, as this facilitates the display of students’ work and of subject resources.
The school has been proactive in ensuring access to information and communication technology (ICT) for English teachers. This is to be applauded. In the recent past, a laptop subsidy was offered to all staff and most teachers availed of this. There are a significant number of data projectors at various locations throughout the school and the use of this equipment on the part of the English department was observed during the evaluation. In particular, the use of a PowerPoint presentation to focus students on the features of a type of poem and to scaffold their own writing activities was a successful exercise. In addition, the school’s computer room is available for use by class groups and English teachers have availed of this facility. A number of examples of students’ work being completed with ICT were observed. English teachers are encouraged to continue to develop their use of ICT to enhance students’ literacy skills. In particular, the appropriate use of word-processing packages is encouraged as a means of highlighting the importance of the drafting and redrafting process for students. Other possible ideas for investigation include the use of webquests as a support and focus for genre exercises, developed in conjunction with literary texts being studied, and the creation of an English ‘favourites’ list of useful web-based teacher resources on the school network.
There is a clear induction process for new teachers and Postgraduate Diploma in Education (PGDE) student teachers. The trustees are involved in organising formal induction regarding the school ethos and senior management meets new teachers to introduce them to the particular culture of the school. The school has also been involved in a mentoring course facilitated in the Cork Education Support Centre by University College Dublin. There is a teacher handbook which incorporates a wide range of school policies. The English department has included a sheet with advice for incoming teachers in the subject department folder. It is suggested that this could also include a statement of policy whereby established English teachers could be explicitly linked to the mentoring of newer colleagues and, particularly in the case of PGDE students, could provide input through classroom observation by both parties.
The school is supportive of English teachers’ continuing professional development (CPD). Whole-staff CPD has recently been provided in the areas of assessment for learning, the school ethos and the inclusion of students with special educational needs. The board of management also provides financial support for teachers who wish to undertake relevant postgraduate research and the school subsidises teachers’ membership of the relevant subject association.
A subject co-ordinator is appointed on a rotational basis. This is good practice. There are four formal meetings of the English department each year as well as a number of informal meetings. Minutes of English meetings are recorded and it is suggested that these minutes should be stored using ICT. The recent focus of English meetings has been on planning for senior class groups, developing common plans and the development of the use of assessment-for-learning strategies.
There is a subject plan which incorporates a range of documents relevant to the teaching of English, including syllabus documents, circulars and material regarding assessment-for-learning strategies. It is suggested that the Department of Education and Science Inspectorate publication Looking at English: Teaching and Learning English in Post-Primary Schools should be added to the subject folder. This document contains useful advice about subject planning and many other areas relevant to the teaching and learning of the subject. It is available on the website of the Department of Education and Science at www.education.ie. Common plans have been developed for a majority of year groups. This is positive and it is recommended that common plans should be developed for all year groups. All of these plans should highlight the use of an integrated approach towards the language and literature elements of the syllabuses and should be time-linked. All common plans should be developed with a statement of clear learning goals which can be easily assessed. Some of these elements have been incorporated in a number of the common plans already created and this is to be praised. In particular, a skills-based approach will allow teachers considerable freedom in choosing texts suited to their students’ experiences, although some commonality may be necessary to allow students to change levels with greater ease, where necessary. A potentially useful model for this work may be accessed on the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) at www.ncca.ie which includes the Draft Rebalanced English Syllabus for junior cycle.
An especially positive feature of the current subject-planning process has been the focus the English department has adopted on developing assessment-for-learning strategies as an element in teachers’ practice. This teaching-and-learning emphasis is most worthwhile and should continue to support the embedding of assessment-for-learning methodologies in the classroom over a set period of time. The sharing of experiences, not only within the English department but also across subject departments, is an important element in advancing this aim in the specific context of Coláiste Muire. Ultimately, this process could be consolidated through the inclusion of an assessment-for-learning policy in the subject plan. This policy could set out the assessment-for-learning strategies which have been found to be effective in the teaching and learning of English. The support of the Second Level Support Service (SLSS) in advancing this process should prove invaluable. In particular, the use of peer-assessment and self-assessment in English lessons is worthy of exploration. Once assessment for learning has been embedded, it is suggested that an area which may be worth engaging with in the future is that of co-operative learning, through a similar adoption of the area as the ‘teaching-and-learning’ theme for exploration in the classroom and in departmental meetings.
English teachers are involved in organising a range of co-curricular and extracurricular activities. These have included theatre visits, public speaking and debating competitions. Teachers’ efforts in these areas are to be praised.
Texts are varied in senior cycle to suit class context and students’ experiences. This is very worthwhile, not only as a means of facilitating student engagement with the subject, but also as a form of CPD for English teachers. This approach should also be regarded as best practice in junior cycle. Support in the choice of texts in junior cycle can be accessed in the English area of the SLSS website at www.slss.ie and on the website www.childrensbooksireland.com. The English department is also encouraged to obtain a copy of the Primary School English Curriculum and the English Teacher Guidelines for primary school teachers. These could serve as a useful resource to help teachers in aiding first-year students through the transition from the study of English in primary school to its study in a post-primary context. These documents can be downloaded from the website www.curriculumonline.ie. It is recommended that the English subject plan should incorporate a note stating that the study of three comparative texts in ordinary level Leaving Certificate classes is departmental policy.
There is a subject-specific TY programme for English. The programme has been shared with students and incorporates a learning-goals approach. All of this is worthwhile and it is suggested that the practice of sharing yearly programmes with students could be worth considering in all year groups. As a means of motivating and focusing student writing during TY, an English portfolio, incorporating twelve major genre exercises during the school year, could usefully be adopted. The portfolio could form a part of students’ overall assessment for the year and should be used to inform discussions at parent-teacher meetings. Such a policy would support the continuous-assessment approach currently being undertaken in English. Beyond this, a portfolio would focus students on the importance of the drafting and redrafting process in producing good written work.
There are good links between the English department and the special educational needs department. There is some crossover of personnel between the two departments, which aids communication and the sharing of expertise. Members of the special educational needs team liaise with English teachers regarding students about whom there is particular concern. Students with difficulties in literacy development are retested during the year. It is suggested that the results of such tests could usefully be shared with mainstream teachers as a means of affirming the progress of students, thus emphasising the impact that the support provided by mainstream teachers has made. There is some team-teaching in the English department. English teachers are encouraged to continue to explore the use of this strategy, where practicable. The school is currently developing a special educational needs policy. This is positive.
The school has a small number of students with English as an Additional Language (EAL). A teacher has attended in-service education in the area of EAL, provided by the SLSS. Plans for this training to be returned to the whole staff are in train, and this is applauded. An intercultural day has been organised in the past and a notice board is used to celebrate EAL students’ home languages. It is suggested that the school should consider the creation of a policy which will acknowledge its support for the use and development of students’ home languages in the school environment, where practicable. A number of items may be worthy of exploration in this area. The website www.integration.ie contains a wide range of resources which should prove useful in supporting the needs of EAL students and newcomer students. Beyond this, the school is encouraged to support links with the English Language Support Teachers’ Association (ELSTA), the website of which may be found at www.elsta.ie. Further resources in this area may be found at www.ncca.ie in the Inclusion area of the website. A further useful document for mainstream teachers to read in connection with the learning experience from the point of view of bilingual students is Learning in 2+ Languages which can be downloaded from www.ltscotland.org.uk.
A good standard of teaching and learning was observed during the evaluation. All lessons observed were diligently planned and evidence of planning was presented during the course of the inspection. A regular feature at the beginning of lessons was the recording of the class roll, which is good practice. Particularly good practice was observed where the learning intention was set out at the beginning of the lesson and it is suggested that this practice should be adopted across the department. A recapitulation of items previously studied also featured at the start of most lessons and this was worthwhile as it linked students’ new learning with knowledge they had already mastered.
Teachers used a range of resources in English lessons to engage students’ interest and to support learning. These included textbooks, the television and DVD, photocopied resources and ICT. Reference was also made to students’ dictionaries during lessons. This was positive, as the regular use of dictionaries and thesauruses in lessons will expand students’ word power and their awareness of the possibilities offered by both the imaginative and precise use of language. The English department is encouraged to include a statement highlighting the use of dictionaries and thesauruses by students as an element in the English subject plan. In one lesson, the use of a film version of a play to support student engagement and understanding was worthwhile, although some consideration should be given to the line of sight of students when viewing DVDs in the future. The English department is encouraged to continue to expand its use of resources, particularly to aid the engagement of students who are less motivated by purely verbal or written presentations.
The use of pair work and group work to support students’ learning in lessons was regularly observed during the evaluation. In one lesson, students were asked to create a title for a poem and later they were given the task of constructing a poem in pairs. This was worthwhile. It is recommended that the English department should explore possibilities in assigning specific roles in group work activities which target the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. Such approaches will encourage clear communication and engagement on the part of all members of the pair or group. Strategies such as placemat, snowball, and envoy are just some of a wide range of activities which could be considered as useful in this regard. Material dealing with co-operative learning strategies can be found at www.slss.ie and at www.co-operation.org. A number of other approaches which facilitated a differentiated strategy in dealing with students with differing interests and abilities were also observed. In one lesson, a photocopy was used to scaffold students’ analysis of a particular character, while in a lesson focusing on a Shakespearean play, key elements of scenes formed the basis of classroom analysis and discussion. It is suggested that the use of differentiated versions of texts could usefully be considered in the study of Shakespeare, where there are students with a wide range of academic abilities.
Reading and writing activities were frequent features of English lessons. A discussion about students’ own lives was used as a pre-reading exercise to introduce part of a text in one lesson, linking the events outlined to students’ lived experience. In another lesson, where students were set a writing exercise, the teacher provided a scaffold for the writing activity by highlighting an appeal to the senses as an important element to be included in the piece. In a junior cycle lesson, students were instructed to scan a piece of writing, and this approach was further supported through the use of a guided reading strategy to develop students’ understanding. The possibility of ‘teacher modelling’, alongside students’ engagement with these activities might be usefully considered. The use of a ‘model’ review to support students’ engagement with a specific genre was sound practice in another senior cycle lesson. In one lesson where students read their homework aloud, peer assessment, based on rubrics previously set out for the successful completion of the exercise, might usefully be adopted. This would conform to the principles of assessment for learning, while ensuring the engagement of all members of the class during this part of the lesson.
In a number of lessons, an explicit focus on the use of language was adopted. This was very successfully accomplished in a junior cycle lesson where the arrangement of syllables served to introduce the exploration of a new poetic form and in another lesson where students were focused on aspects of language when describing the characters in a text they were studying. In another lesson, where some students completed an exercise more rapidly than others, consideration could be given to assigning an extension exercise. This could involve, for example, their preparing pieces discussing the language techniques which particularly appealed to them in their reading of the text being studied. In another instance, the potential for some students to work with writing frames in preparing responses in class, rather than being set to work completely independently could be worthwhile.
A very good relationship between students and teachers was observed throughout the evaluation. Classroom management was very good. In one lesson, humour was used to good effect as an aid to teaching and learning. Teachers were affirming to students during the lessons observed. Students offered answers to teachers’ questions readily and were engaged by and displayed knowledge of the texts studied when questioned. An appeal to students’ visual senses in the exploration of a particular poetic form worked well in engaging students’ interest and enthusiasm.
A number of rooms incorporated a print-rich environment, with posters connected to theatrical productions and students’ work being displayed. In general, however, there was limited development of a print-rich environment in English classrooms. While making this observation, it must be acknowledged that the evaluation took place early in the school year and that the preparation of some classrooms for the certificate examinations prior to the summer also made an impact on teachers’ ability to develop this element of their practice. Nevertheless, it is recommended that the print-rich environment in English classrooms be expanded and that this strategy should be noted as an important element in the department’s approach to developing students’ literacy skills. Useful ideas to be considered include the display of keywords, graphic organisers, character diagrams, key quotes and student genre displays. The latter strategy in particular will add to students’ awareness of audience and to their sense of self-efficacy. Beyond this, strong visual and print environments will support students with special educational needs and EAL students, along with all other members of the student body.
There is a whole-school homework policy. In almost all cases there was evidence of homework being regularly assigned and completed. In the small number of classes where students’ completion of homework was somewhat limited, a number of suggestions are offered to increase student motivation and focus in this area. A folder system could be worth developing in some classes, as a means of organising students’ work coherently and in order to increase students’ awareness of the advances they are making in their own learning. Such a system could include a method whereby the English teacher involved could store the relevant folders for students to access during English lessons and add to from the homework they completed the previous evening. Folders would also facilitate the storage of photocopied resources distributed to students by their English teacher. Beyond this, some element of students’ writing practice could be planned as a regular part of one of their English lessons during the week, so that they would be encouraged to extend their written work, while this would also serve to focus them on the type of conditions they could expect in the certificate examinations. A key strategy to be explored in supporting extended writing activities on the part of students who have difficulties in literacy development, who may therefore experience low motivation in engaging with the subject, is the use of writing frames. The adoption of a range of DARTS (Directed Activities Related to Texts) should also be considered in this context. Further ideas for supporting students’ engagement with written activities can be accessed on the website www.jcspliteracy.ie.
In almost all cases, there was evidence of comment-based, formative assessment being used in the correction of students’ copybooks. This was positive. In particular, the use of peer assessment in one lesson, where students were asked to examine their classmates’ work, based on the rubrics for the exercise which they had been provided with the previous day, was worthwhile. This encapsulated an assessment-for-learning approach, and could be further added to by emphasising the use of specific language devices as an element in the rubrics attached to particular written assignments.
There were examples of differentiated approaches to the setting of homework in a majority of lessons observed. In one, junior cycle, lesson an exercise was developed around the features of a character in a play and it is suggested that as a means of further consolidating this work, a graphic organiser could be developed around the major events and quotations associated with that character. A useful resource for all English teachers is the Second Level Support Service (SLSS) publication Using Graphic Organisers in Teaching and Learning which is available in the Class Resources area of the SLSS website at www.slss.ie. A brainstorm, developed regarding the setting of a novel, was worthwhile in the homework set for another class, along with the development of notes grids by students. In this context the adoption of a DARTS activity was highly appropriate, given the presence of an EAL student in the classroom. Teachers are encouraged to continue to develop differentiated strategies when setting homework for students in order to ensure that they engage all of the different abilities, interests and cultural backgrounds in the student population.
There was some evidence of an integrated approach being adopted in the setting of homework for the language and literature elements of the syllabuses. This is encouraged as a means of ensuring that the different skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing are used together to support the development of students’ literacy development. Thus, specific language techniques or genres which are encountered and spoken about in class should lead to homework which is explicitly linked to both the text being investigated and the language aspects of that text which have been explored. In this context, while acknowledging the value of summary exercises regarding the events of a text, along with staged questioning, the development of a ‘genre sheet’ may be worthy of exploration. This could be developed through a brainstorm during a departmental meeting and would delineate a wide range of genres which could be used to support genre work linked to texts. It could then support teachers in assigning homework exercises.
Formal house examinations are organised for all year groups at Christmas and for first-year, second-year, TY and fifth-year students at the end of the academic year. Third-year and sixth-year students participate in mock examinations in the spring. An especially positive aspect of the school’s current provision for house examinations is the fact that students who will avail of Reasonable Accommodations in the Certificate Examinations (RACE) are provided with this recognition as part of their house examinations. English teachers are informed by the members of the special educational needs department of those students who will be provided with spelling and grammar waivers; while learning-support teachers and special needs assistants provide other forms of support. In the case of some students, differentiated forms of assessment may be adopted as part of their formal assessments. Common assessments are organised where practicable. The English department also analyses students’ results in the certificate examinations measured against national norms. This is an important practice which will serve the department well in identifying trends both in students’ performance and in uptake of levels for the certificate examinations.
One parent-teacher meeting is organised per year for each year group. Parents are also sent reports regarding students’ progress following formal house examinations. Further contact between the school and parents is facilitated through the student journal and it is possible for parents to arrange appointments to meet with English teachers, should the need arise. In addition, a full review of a students’ progress involving all of their subject teachers may be initiated. All of these arrangements are worthwhile.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· A good standard of teaching and learning was observed.
· There was a very good relationship between teachers and students.
· There are good links between the English department and the special educational needs team.
· There is very good access to audio-visual equipment.
· The school’s support for teachers’ acquisition and use of ICT equipment is to be applauded.
· The provision of base rooms for English teachers is most worthwhile.
· Common plans have been developed in a number of year groups.
· There is a subject plan which includes documents related to the teaching of English.
· The department has adopted a focus on assessment for learning as part of its subject planning process.
· Texts are varied in senior cycle.
· Planning was presented by all teachers.
· A range of resources was used to support teaching and learning in English lessons.
· Pair work and group work were regularly utilised.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The print-rich environment in English classrooms should be expanded and this strategy should be noted as an important element in the English subject plan.
· The English subject plan should incorporate a note stating that the study of three comparative texts in ordinary level Leaving Certificate classes is departmental policy.
· The English department should explore possibilities in assigning specific roles in group work activities which target the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing.
· Common plans should be developed for all year groups which highlight an integrated approach to the language and literature elements of the syllabuses, incorporate specific learning goals and are time-linked.
A post-evaluation meeting was held with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published, January 2010
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1 Observations on the content of the inspection report
The Board of Management of Colaiste Muire welcomes the recognition in the subject report of the strengths in the teaching and learning of English in the school. The Board also welcomes the observation of a very good relationship between teachers and student and of very good subject planning by teachers.
The Board appreciates the hard work being done by the English teachers and by the School Development Planning Co-Ordinator and thanks students for their co-operation and participation.
The Board also thanks the Special Eductional Needs Co-Ordinator, the special educational needs department and teachers of students with English as an Additional Language (EAL), whose work supports the teaching and learning of English in the school.
The inspection report finds that the Board of Management provides very good access to audio-visual and ICT equipment to support teaching and learning. The Board of Management welcomes the announcement by the DES that €50m is being allocated to support the integration of information and communications technology in teaching and learning in schools.
Finally, the Board of Management thanks the inspectorate for the courtesy and professionalism shown during the inspection process.
Area 2 Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection
The fact that three comparative texts are studied in ordinary level Leaving Certificate will be noted in the subject plan.
The English subject plan will be modified to refer to enhancing the the print rich environment of English classrooms and will develop common plans for senior cycle.