An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Presentation College Athenry,
Roll number: 62870G
Date of inspection: 29 February 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in english
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Presentation College Athenry, County Galway, 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 subject teachers.
Timetable provision for English is in line with syllabus requirements for all year groups. Fourth-year students are allocated six classes of English per week and fifth-year students are allocated five classes of English per week. If this allocation were reversed, then it would allow teachers to incorporate more time trial exercises into fifth-year students’ preparation for Leaving Certificate (LC) examinations.
Resource provision for the teaching of English is good. Various items of audio-visual (AV) equipment are located in some classrooms. The English department has received significant financial support from the board of management to meet its collective needs. The school’s book rental scheme is a valuable support to students and teachers. Finally, a common English department storage cabinet has been established. If an inventory of all AV and print resources in the possession of individual teachers of English and gathered in the common department cabinet were included in the subject department plan, then that inventory would promote maximum use of available in-school resources and would also act as a useful tool for future planning.
Teachers may use the computer and printer in the staff room for lesson preparation and may reserve the school’s computer rooms for use with a particular class. Moodle software has been acquired by the school to facilitate online learning and discussion and the school is actively installing internet access in all classrooms on a rolling basis. The board provided funding towards the purchase of a laptop by every teacher in the school in 2007 and it has approved a plan to provide a data projector to each subject department. As the English teachers become more comfortable with their school-supplied laptops, it is recommended that they share lesson ideas and useful websites for integrating information and communications technologies (ICT) into their teaching of English. Handouts listing those websites could then be added to the subject department plan, to be used by teachers as appropriate and/or to be distributed to students for independent research. Activities such as the use of the internet (to help students further develop their understanding of particular biographical and cultural contexts) and of general word processing and specialised software programmes (to reinforce a process approach to writing) can then be incorporated into departmental practice over time. School management is highly commended for supporting the integration of ICT into teaching and learning so concretely and for promoting staff development in this area.
All first years are placed into mixed-ability classes and remain in them until the end of second year, when they are set into examination-level classes. The fact that concurrent timetabling is provided in third year means that students can move between different examination levels as appropriate and this is commended. With regard to Transition Year (TY), different student organisation procedures have been used in recent years. In 2007/08, TY students were set into class groups based on their Junior Certificate (JC) results and on their perceived ability. In line with the spirit and aims of the TY programme, it is recommended that TY English classes be formed on a mixed-ability basis. Lastly, fourth-year students opt for the examination level in English they wish to prepare for, guided by their own wishes, teacher advice, their JC results, and where applicable, their performance in TY. Good planning in relation to the selection of common texts and concurrent timetabling facilitates student movement between examination levels and this is commended.
Library management is a post of responsibility in the school and a lunchtime borrowing service operates twice a week. In addition, a separate stock of books, including a number of high-interest, low reading age readers, is located in the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) base room. It is acknowledged that individual English teacher initiatives promote personal reading in the school. To build on this, it is recommended that the English department interweave the promotion of personal reading into its schemes of work for junior cycle students in particular and also for TY students, dedicate occasional junior classes to personal reading, and post a list of recommended books for particular age groups on classroom walls and/or have them included with booklists for parental reference. (See Circular M16/99 “Guidelines for reading at Second Level Schools”). Portable book boxes could be compiled for different year groups and reading age ranges, enabling teachers to bring books for personal reading to general classrooms. Moreover, by developing the school’s links with the Galway County Library service, the school could register as an institutional (bulk) borrower, and thus use public library stock to update the pool of in-school books available for browsing. It is encouraged that the English department and the relevant post-holder collectively review the publication Room for Reading: The Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) Demonstration Library Project (http://www.jcspliteracy.ie/library_demo_
project. htm) to learn additional strategies that could be used to further strengthen whole school literacy over the coming years. Finally, to help guide the ongoing stocking of the library over the coming years, useful references can be found through the School Library Association of Ireland, Children’s Books Ireland, the UK School Library Association, and the in-school special education support team. (See http://www.libraryassociation.ie, http://www.childrensbooks.ie, and http://www.sla.org.uk/advice-and-support.php).
Co-curricular and extra-curricular activities support the teaching and learning of English in Presentation College Athenry. Students benefit from teachers’ organisation of workshops on topics such as film-making and poetry-writing, from preparation for debating and public speaking competitions, from trips to theatrical productions, and from participation in the annual school show. It is suggested that students’ awareness of English-related activities in their locality (such as the Cúirt festival of literature and Galway’s film and arts festivals) could be further developed and that TY students could be invited to help provide co-curricular experiences to junior class groups (for example, by engaging in paired reading projects with first years). School management, the English teachers, and other teachers who organise English-related activities are highly commended for their commitment to providing such stimulating activities for their students.
The English teachers are enthusiastically committed to continuing professional development and are encouraged and supported by school management. Also, inputs by teachers are a regular feature of staff development days in the school, thus promoting professional development by teachers for teachers and this is highly commended. With regard to future professional development, the department is encouraged to continue consulting the Teaching English Support Service (TESS) website, the inspectorate publication Looking at English: Teaching & Learning English in Post-Primary Schools, and the various guideline documents and websites referred to in this report.
The consultative, purposeful planning process operating among the English teachers of Presentation College Athenry is a model of good practice and is highly commended.
The teachers of English began the formal process of subject department planning in May 2006. Multiple in-school supports have enabled this activity. The principal’s academic expertise and practical experience in promoting such work in different school settings has clearly been a key factor in progressing collaborative planning in the school. The fact that a significant number of teachers on staff have undertaken further study on school planning has also been a valuable aid. Formal subject department meetings are organised by management at least once a term and individual English teachers working with students in the same year groups/programmes can also ask management to facilitate meetings as necessary. Two team leaders co-ordinate the planning work of the department. The fact that those team leader roles are rotated every year to develop leadership skills across the department and this is highly commended. Finally, the process of subject department planning has also been helped by the agendas and templates pre-prepared by school management to help focus initial department meetings and by the agendas and written communications prepared by the team leaders and distributed to members in advance of meetings, to help maximise time available for discussion and decision-making during scheduled meetings.
By the time of the evaluation, the English teachers had meticulously documented their practices under the headings of the relevant SDPI subject-planning template, had prepared termly schemes of work for each year group, and had gathered relevant documents together to support their planning process (including circulars, syllabuses, sample English subject inspection reports, and information from Looking at English). In particular, three aspects of their electronically-prepared plan are highly commended. Recording decisions taken and items for follow-up action in meeting minutes equips the department with a useful roadmap for reference and for forward planning. Moreover, in relation to the education of students with special educational needs, the department is commended for its wide-ranging analysis of relevant international and Irish policies and pieces of legislation and for its efforts to compile practical information to inform the teaching of English to such students. Furthermore, the plan provides very good evidence of informal action planning in relation to seeking the introduction of learning support for senior cycle students, to the preparation of common assessments, to ongoing re-workings of fourth-year schemes of work, and most concretely in relation to the 2007 in-school production of a substantial grammar booklet to address deficiencies identified among incoming first years.
To help develop the English department’s planning even further, two recommendations are offered. First, it is recommended that time be specifically allocated for a “show and tell” input at the beginning of each subject department meeting, where individual members would be asked to present an effective resource/strategy they use in their practice and/or to share insights they gained from a professional development course, from practices they observed in the English departments of other schools, and/or from further study. Secondly, it is recommended that the department continue to refine its schemes of work. For instance, schemes should be reviewed and amended as necessary to ensure that they set out explicitly how, in the course of each year, teachers will incrementally hone students’ writing skills (by developing their pre-writing, drafting, proofing, editing, and modelling strategies; by widening their vocabularies; and by developing their spelling, punctuation, and paragraphing competencies), reading skills (by teaching skimming, scanning, and other word and text-attack techniques, library layout and usage, dictionary and thesaurus usage, promoting personal reading and so on), and oral communication skills. Finally, while the number of newcomer students with English as an additional language in the school at present is quite low, the English department itself raised the issue of how best to support such students in a Sept 2007 meeting. Among the professional development sources the department may wish to browse in this regard are the Intercultural Guidelines for Post-Primary Schools, Circular 53/2007, and Integrate Ireland Language and Training materials (www.iilt.ie). The English Language Support Teachers’ Association may also be of assistance (http://www.iilt.ie/news/default.asp?NCID=7&NID=542). However, it will be important that the support of such students also be recognised as a whole-school issue, requiring the shaping and implementation of a whole-school policy over the coming years.
The TY English programme is at an earlier stage of development than the schemes of work for other year groups. Key strengths of the current TY English programme include its use of guest speakers and external workshops to introduce students to aspects of English language and literature in a stimulating way and its establishment of cross-curricular links. Further development of four aspects of the programme will make it an even more educative experience. First, as was mentioned in the previous section, TY English classes should be organised on a mixed-ability basis. Secondly, it is recommended that the current TY English programme be reviewed in relation to programmes for other modules/subjects where significant English-related activities are included. Then the ways in which the TY English programme works/should work in structured conjunction with those other modules/subjects should be documented. Thirdly, the department is reminded that “where Leaving Certificate material is chosen for study it should be done so on the clear understanding that it is to be explored in an original and stimulating way that is significantly different from the way in which it would have been treated in the two years to Leaving Certificate.” (See http://ty.slss.ie/resources/guidelines.pdf). Fourthly, it is suggested that the department consider incorporating a key assignment approach to assessing TY students’ progress in English (as is used in the LCA programme). Providing students with an outline of the TY English programme and of their key assignments (including criteria and dates for completion) at the beginning of the school year should help sustain their motivation by giving them a sense of how the elements of their English programme will benefit them. The department may find the TY Support Service’s suggestions for TY English programmes (http://ty.slss.ie/areas_study.html) and the article “The Teaching of English in Transition Year: Some Thoughts” helpful in conducting this review (Teaching English magazine, Spring 2006, pgs. 11-12).
In terms of individual teacher planning, some weekly, termly, and yearly plans and some accompanying resource folders were presented for inspection. Good practice was seen when teachers were using learning outcomes as the basis for their planning, where they were identifying specific strategies to teach particular syllabus components, and where they had accumulated pre-prepared OHP transparencies/print and ICT resources to support their teaching of particular syllabus components. Where weaknesses were noted, the emphasis in plans was solely on the content to be delivered rather than on the learning to be achieved.
In all classes evaluated, lessons were structured, there was evidence of short-term planning, and the pace of lessons was appropriate. Teachers’ instructions and explanations were clear and all teachers acted as strong oral language role models for students. Very good practice was observed when the intended learning outcome was shared with learners at the outset of a lesson, thus helping students connect new learning with previous work and also inviting them to share responsibility for the lesson.
A variety of resources was used in the teaching of English. In addition, whiteboards were used effectively to record student feedback, to provide written reinforcement of new vocabulary, to model the organisation of key points in preparation for substantial writing tasks, and to set homework assignments. The observed uses of ICT were the preparation of handouts for use in lessons, the downloading of materials for class use, and the use of a laptop to play an audio recording. Building on this foundation and given the variety of learning styles and of student abilities in the school, it is recommended that concrete artefacts (such as relevant props and models), more audio recordings, and more uses of ICT be incorporated into the teaching of English.
Teachers used questioning to good effect to stimulate and interact with students and to structure the learning activity. The good practice of setting questions to guide students’ initial listening to textual extracts observed in a small number of classes ensured that students’ comprehension efforts were guided by a purpose derived from the lesson’s intended learning outcomes. Also, where teachers asked a blend of targeted questions (directed to a named student) and questions open to response from willing individuals, this was commendable. In the majority of classes observed, students’ answers to questions were clearly audible to all. However, in a small number of classes, the answers contributed by students toward the front of the room could not be heard by those at the back. Finally, where teachers posed questions to students that were carefully sequenced, leading them to higher-order thinking and encouraging them to make personal aesthetic responses, this was highly commendable
Among the teaching strategies observed were question and answer, teacher and student reading, peer learning (where students were asked to listen to samples of other students’ work read out to them), the use of graphic organisers to help students select and organise information relevant to a task, oral presentations by students, a keyword approach, and free writing. Particular strengths of the department are its integration of the study of language and literature through purposeful creative interventions (diary entries, letters, reports) and its connection of new material to students’ prior knowledge and experience (through film clips, by linking the location of a studied novel with a studied speech, and by comparing a key dramatic moment in a play with the excitement experienced after an important team victory). Other strategies used less frequently included visualisation, pair/group work, an explicit language development focus, and role play. The English teachers now need to formally share these excellent methodologies to ensure that all students get the benefit of them.
While active learning strategies were in use in a number of classes during the evaluation, it is recommended that the department continue to develop its repertoire in this regard. For example, given that the JCSP is running in the school, it is advised that discussions on and sharing of JCSP literacy-development methods and initiatives be initiated as part of subject department planning meetings. Furthermore, given that a team teaching precedent has been established in the department, it is encouraged that other teachers be facilitated to participate in team teaching (particularly if the partner teacher has learning support/resource training) as another means of extending teachers’ repertoires of active learning strategies.
The English-related resources displayed in rooms included grammar posters, student illustrations of key moments from studied texts, samples of students’ creative writings, mind maps as revision aids, a spider diagram summarising the relationship between two key characters in a studied play, and posters highlighting key words required for discussing the genres of poetry, film and fiction. Other visual aids teachers may wish to develop and display in their classrooms might be posters featuring key quotations from texts, storyboards, character flowcharts or plot timelines for studied texts to act as revision aids, and posters summarising strategies for approaching unseen texts. The fact that the majority of the school’s English teachers do not currently have a base room places limits on their capacity to develop print-rich environments for students. The establishment of a whole-school notice board for English would be one possible response to this situation. The sharing of base rooms by pairs of English teachers was another solution mooted by management at the time of the evaluation.
Very good rapport between teachers and students was evident in all classrooms visited. Teachers consistently affirmed students’ responses and integrated them into lessons. Discipline was maintained in all classes and almost all students observed were engaged in their learning. An examination of students’ copies revealed that, as a result of highly commendable, high-quality formative feedback being provided by some teachers on students’ work, significant improvement in students’ analytical and organisational skills was manifest in a number of instances. Oral questioning by teachers and by the inspector demonstrated students’ very good levels of knowledge of studied texts. Some students were engaging in higher-order thinking about those texts, spontaneously asking their teacher perceptive questions about them. Finally, it was noted that where keyword approaches, graphic organisers, and active learning methods were in use, students’ levels of engagement were particularly raised.
A number of the classes observed began with a review of homework or of work done in a previous class, thus maximising the chances that students would retain their new learning. Where good practice was observed, homework assignments were written on the whiteboard; students were given specific instructions on how homework was to be presented and on the criteria that work should meet (page length, number of points and quotations required); and sufficient time was allocated for students to note down their assignments. The English department’s agreed homework and assessment policy is a further support to this aspect of student learning.
From a review of student copies, it was evident that homework was being set and monitored in all classes. In some cases, students’ work was acknowledged by a tick and/or short comment (very good/excellent). In other cases, the teacher comment offered formative feedback that affirmed specific strengths in the piece of writing and gave specific ideas for improvement and this is commended. The department has already received inputs on the principles and practices of “Assessment for Learning” and has arrived at an agreed position on it, stating in its subject department plan “We recognise that a simple grade or mark without supporting comment provides students with little support or guidance with future learning.” Hence, it is recommended that, over the coming years, “show and tell” discussions and peer support be utilised to bring about the consistent provision of formative feedback on substantial pieces of students’ written work across the department.
Three other aspects of student assessment now need to be developed by the department. First, it is recommended that the department consider awarding some marks toward end-of-term results for tasks linked to the agreed learning outcomes for different year groups. (Those tasks could include spelling and vocabulary tests, a cumulative average for composition work, folder maintenance, oral presentations, and project work). Broadening the modes of assessment being used by the department will help all students. Secondly, while a few teachers already use the Leaving Certificate PCLM (Purpose, Coherence, Language use, Mechanics) criteria to comment on and/or mark students’ work from fourth year onward, it is recommended that this practice be consolidated across the department. (It is suggested that senior cycle students’ awareness of those criteria could be further deepened by making them familiar with the grid explaining the criteria and with the “Assessment Advice for Students” document issued at the time of the syllabus launch. A simplified version of the criteria could also be introduced to junior cycle students, to help them identify the strengths and areas for development in their own writing). Thirdly, it is recommended that the department deepen students’ capacity to engage in peer review.
The English department is commended for its work in preparing and administering common Christmas and end-of-year examinations to all first and second years and higher and ordinary-level examinations for third, fourth, and fifth years. This practice facilitates the comparison of achievement across year groups and thus provides an evidence base for planning to meet students’ needs. A common examination for all aspiring fourth-year higher-level candidates is also administered before the autumn mid-term, to motivate and help guide them to the examination level appropriate to their level of commitment and ability. Teachers use SEC chief examiners’ reports and marking schemes to inform their work and this is good practice. The English department produces an annual analysis of students’ results in SEC examinations in English as an aid to self-evaluation and future planning. A good level of contact is maintained between the school and parents. Reports are sent to parents four times a year and ongoing information regarding students’ progress is also communicated to parents through students’ homework journals and through annual parent-teacher meetings.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Timetable provision for English is in line with syllabus requirements for all year groups.
· School management is commended for its active support of subject department planning, for making funds available for the purchase of resources available in response to collective departmental requests, and for supporting the continuing professional development of the department and of individual English teachers.
· The English teachers and school management are highly commended for their commitment to providing an array of English-related co-curricular and extra-curricular activities for students.
· The consultative, purposeful planning process operating among the English teachers of Presentation College Athenry is a model of good practice and is highly commended. The subject department plan for English was very advanced by the time of the evaluation.
· Students are placed in mixed-ability English classes in first year and remain in those classes until the end of second year. They are then set into concurrently timetabled examination-level classes in third year. This practice is highly commended for encouraging students to achieve to their full potential.
· In all classes evaluated, lessons were structured, there was evidence of short-term planning, and the pace of lessons was appropriate. Teachers’ instructions and explanations were clear and all teachers acted as strong oral language role models for students.
· Varied teaching methodologies were observed and all teachers used questioning to good effect. Efforts to create print-rich environments had been made in some classrooms.
· Very good rapport between teachers and students was evident in all classrooms visited. Discipline was maintained in all classes and almost all students observed were engaged in their learning.
· From a review of student copies, it was evident that homework was being set and monitored in all classes.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The English department should further develop its common approach to assessment, as advised in this report.
· The TY English programme should be reviewed.
· Over the coming years, the English department should formally pool its teaching strategies and resources. In particular, discussions on and sharing of JCSP literacy-development methods and initiatives should be organised as part of subject department planning meetings and the department’s collective expertise in using ICT and graphic organisers to support student learning should be further developed.
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.
30 September 2008