An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Mullingar, County Westmeath
Roll number: 63290Q
Date of inspection: 23 and 24 October 2006
Date of issue of report: 26 April 2007
This Subject Inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Loreto College Mullingar, 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. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
Twelve teachers are involved in the delivery of English in Loreto College Mullingar. One of these is the learning support teacher who is taking one mainstream class this year. This creates a useful link between learning support, in particular literacy support, and the English department. The English teaching team is large, and this poses some problems for the organisation of department meetings, subject planning and even day-to-day communication. It should be said that the team is committed to the subject and to best practice within it. In practical terms, it is of benefit that there are six teachers who teach more English than any other subject, creating a very solid base for the planning and delivery of the subject within the school. In planning the future deployment of teachers of English, it is recommended that the advantages of a somewhat smaller team be taken into account. Added to the logistical advantages is the consideration that best practice obtains where teachers of English teach a range of year groups, levels and programmes, building within the team a sense of the totality of the subject in the post primary curriculum.
Provision for English on the timetable is generally satisfactory in both the number and distribution of class periods. Indeed, provision in the senior cycle is very generous, with six periods per week including one double period. However, provision for English in first year is less satisfactory, with only four class periods per week rather than the optimal five. Given the very good scheme of work for first year in the plan for English, especially the commendable emphasis on the development of skills, it is advisable to reconsider the lesson allocation for first year so that these skills can be taught and reinforced every day. Provision for English and Communications in Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) is satisfactory in the second year with four lessons, but best practice as indicated in the LCA timetable guidelines is four lessons in both years, and it is recommended that the three-lesson allocation to LCA 1 be reviewed. The timetable guidelines and other useful information and resources are available on the LCA web site, www.lca.ie. Transition year has three periods of core English, and additional time is allocated for work on the school magazine, and for workshops in related areas such as media and film. This represents satisfactory provision, and is fully in keeping with the aims of the transition year programme.
First-year and second-year classes are formed on a broadly mixed-ability basis, but with an element of setting (that is, class formation on the basis of perceived ability in the subject). The six classes in each year are timetabled for English in two groups and the three classes in each group are timetabled concurrently for English. In each group a withdrawal class is then created to provide support for students with literacy difficulties. The school is to be commended on its recognition of the needs of these students and on its willingness to devote additional teachers as it has done. However, concerns must arise where a group of students is taught separately from more able peers, at the beginning of their second-level schooling. Consideration should therefore be given to the formation of full mixed-ability classes, each of which would contain a number of students who were receiving additional support in literacy from the learning support and resource teachers. This mixed ability approach to class formation would provide an opportunity for the teaching team to develop resources and strategies for differentiated learning. Advice on differentiated learning methods is available from the Special Education Support Service (www.sess.ie) and from the Second Level Support Service (www.slss.ie) . In relation to third year and the classes in the senior cycle, the provision of concurrence for English to facilitate the setting of students is noted and commended. Setting from third year on is good practice since considerations of higher and ordinary level come into play at this stage.
The school operates a class-based room system and the classrooms visited were well ordered and mostly of a generous size. However, this system means that it is more difficult for teachers to develop the rooms as resources for the teaching of their subjects. Typically, a well-resourced English classroom would have easily movable furniture to facilitate a range of teaching and learning activities, books on display, class book boxes, audio and video equipment, and walls displaying students’ work in the subject, word charts, posters and photographs as stimuli and as visual texts. Given the current room system, it is strongly recommended that a suitable room be designated the English room, and that it be resourced along the lines described above. A data projector and computer with internet access would open up exciting possibilities in the areas of film and media studies, and research generally. In addition, creating and storing teaching resources including worksheets and writing templates could be efficiently done on computer. Such a room would be of great benefit to the English department, and the very capable team in place would certainly put it to good use. Finally, in relation to timetabling and allocation of rooms, classes should not be timetabled to move to another room halfway through a double lesson in English.
Teachers of English have attended in-service courses in areas such as LCA and learning support, and a number of them are members of the subject association. They also organise additional activities which are of benefit to the students, such as theatre and cinema trips, and talks and readings from visiting writers. The level of commitment shown to the subject and the students is commendable.
Planning has always been part of the practice of the teachers of English, but the move to more formal structures of subject planning as part of school development planning is relatively new. A subject convenor for English has been appointed and meetings, both formal and informal, take place regularly. Six or more formal meetings take place in the year, and decisions taken are recorded.
A subject plan for English was made available to the inspector. It contains the mission statement and connects it to the aims of the subject plan: “nurturing the intellectual, imaginative and emotional growth of each student by developing her personal proficiency in the arts and skills of language”. This admirably expresses a vision for the subject that encompasses the aims of the syllabuses and programmes taught in the school. Although the plan for each year is headed ‘Curriculum Content Plan’, the focus is not so much on content as on the skills being targeted. This reflects a very good understanding of the concept of a subject plan as an evolving programme of skills building. In further developing and refining the plan, it is suggested that specific methods, strategies and texts be detailed so that the plan indicates more clearly how the students will learn the target skills. This would also offer scope for the incorporation into the plan of teaching methods to promote differentiated learning, as previously mentioned in the context of mixed ability teaching. In particular, it is recommended that there be a concentration on methods that will encourage independent thinking and learning, and that will challenge students to develop and articulate their own ideas and responses. This last recommendation will be dealt with in more detail in the next section of the report.
The plan refers to various forms of assessment, including the assessment of sizeable assignments such as book reviews, personal writing tasks and end of term tests. This integration of assessment into planning is commendable. To increase the usefulness of the plan in the area of assessment, it is suggested that the criteria to be applied be discussed and agreed at subject meetings, and then incorporated into the plan. As it stands, the plan lists a number of skills and often links them with selected texts; for example, the skill of identifying the hero and the villain is linked to work on the short story. This helpful practice could be developed to include a number of specific learning outcomes, for instance the ability to describe and illustrate different kinds of heroism. These outcomes would then become the basis for an agreed set of assessment criteria. A greater focus in the English plan on desired learning outcomes would clearly link the three key areas of planning, teaching and learning, and assessment.
The subject department plan also contains documents relating to the transition year and LCA programmes, and it is appropriate that they are integrated into planning for English. To promote good collaborative practice and the sharing of ideas and expertise, the whole teaching team should also consider the plans for these programmes as part of the ongoing review process which is essential to keep subject planning alive and meaningful.
Collaborative decision-making is evident in the area of choice of textbooks, novels and plays. A book fair was organised in the school following discussion of the need to broaden the available pool of fiction in the junior cycle. The department is commended both for recognising this need and for taking steps to address it. Discussions about resources to be requested for the department are also recorded in the subject plan and the department has identified its needs and has been successful with a number of requests. All of this suggests that good co-operative practices are in place and that the school management is receptive to the collective wisdom of the English department.
Individual planning and preparation were clearly in evidence, and lessons were well structured, with clear objectives and careful preparation of relevant resources. The department has built up a substantial number of resources and the practice of sharing these seems well established. It is suggested that a list of all resources, including films, audiotapes and paper resources be drawn up and included in the subject plan. It would also be useful to share out the preparation of new resources among the members of the team to avoid duplication of tasks and to underline the practical advantages of the co-operative approach. Further advice on subject department planning can be accessed through the School Development Planning Initiative web site (www.sdpi.ie) and from the local regional co-ordinator.
Eight lessons were observed during the course of the inspection. All were conducted competently and were carefully structured to achieve the objectives either explicitly stated at the outset, or implicit in the way the lesson topic was introduced. Explicit statements are useful for focusing students’ attention, particularly when they state objectives in terms of what students should be able to do or what they should know by the end of the lesson. Pacing was very measured at all times; however, given the careful structuring of the lessons, a slightly quicker pace could certainly be attempted. Evidence of careful lesson preparation was very clear, with copious handouts and thorough preparation of the material to be covered. In all cases, the content was appropriate and in line with syllabus requirements.
Available resources were used thoughtfully. Some very good use of the board was observed, both to record key points clearly and to work on spelling and punctuation, especially in junior cycle classes. Particularly noteworthy was the use of the “spot the deliberate mistake” strategy, which requires students to be alert and questioning and which is an enjoyable way of reinforcing basic grammatical or spelling rules. Good use was made of audiotape in the study of Shakespearean drama in junior and senior classes. To add to the value of this resource, it is suggested that the students be continually reminded of the need to create in their own minds a satisfactory picture of the dramatic action taking place through questioning about the gestures, relative positions on stage and even costumes appropriate to the various characters.
Photocopiable resources available from educational suppliers and relating to novels and plays being studied were also in use. These are often of high quality and are particularly suitable to support the independent learning mentioned previously in this report. They can be used very effectively, for example, as a basis for group or pair work, and should be worked on directly by the students rather than being mediated through the teacher. Explanations can of course be offered where points or references are not clear but equally students should be encouraged to track down references themselves and to share the fruits of their research with the class. Such methods empower and engage the student.
Questioning was used widely. In a junior class, targeted questioning was used to encourage the participation of students who were inclined to be silent, and questioning was also used very well to ask the class to verify that a student had given the correct spelling or punctuation during a language skills session. This strategy of handing over to the class is also a very good means of engagement and affirmation, especially in the supportive and friendly atmosphere that prevailed in the school. Targeted questioning was also used well in senior classes, especially to check students’ recall of key moments in texts. There was a tendency for teachers to answer more open questions themselves, or at least to take a student’s bald response and amplify it, rather than using the question as a way of drawing out a more thoughtful and detailed response from the student. It is of particular importance that teachers and students recognise the importance of adequate time for these more speculative questions. It may be useful to do a count to eight seconds with students, to demonstrate the time that, research suggests, is required to gather one’s thoughts to respond to an analytical question. It should also be stated however that, in many cases, teachers reminded students of the importance of their own personal responses and this is commendable.
Students were notably diligent in their work and very biddable, complying immediately with requests to take out books and copies, to listen attentively and to copy material from the board. Time in class is therefore potentially very productive and students are keen to make progress. In these fortunate circumstances, the teachers of English should feel confident that students will work very well in pairs and groups, will follow instructions carefully and will be eager to show the results of their work. Class debates and role plays or hot-seating strategies which encourage students to explore the complexities of the characters and situations they encounter in their reading should also promote a lively engagement with the more challenging and thought-provoking questions raised. Again, to encourage more independent thinking and to affirm the importance of students’ personal response, writing frameworks or templates could be given to students which will help them to structure their responses but will give them freedom in relation to the views they express. Such an approach is also very conducive to differentiated learning.
In all cases, classrooms were managed so as to provide a very structured and supportive learning environment. There was a warm rapport between students and teachers, teachers showing a high level of care for students and students being respectful and co-operative. Teachers affirmed students’ efforts, particularly and commendably in the case of younger students, and there was a high level of trust shown in all classroom interactions. This is an excellent foundation on which to build student confidence and assertiveness, and the teachers are commended for their part in creating such a secure atmosphere. Advice on active and independent learning strategies is available from the Second Level Support Service (www.slss.ie)
Ongoing monitoring of students’ progress was evident in the use of questioning in class to check recall and understanding, and in the practice in junior cycle particularly of beginning the lesson with a quick review of homework. In some instances, students read out the short homework assignments they had done. The class listened attentively and positive peer review was encouraged. This is commendable as it provides immediate feedback and affirmation. It is important that oral review of homework is viewed as an opportunity to address areas that cause difficulties for students. For example, in answering comprehension questions students frequently substitute narrative (telling what happened) for analysis (suggesting why or how something occurred). Oral review provides a very good opportunity to alert students to the critical question words that indicate the kind of response required.
The orderliness evident in the classroom was reflected in the regime for students of designated copies and sections in folders for different areas of the course. In all lessons, students had a written record of the points covered, and were assiduous in noting homework assignments. Substantial written assignments are set regularly for homework. In correcting this work, teachers generally make supportive comments and give advice on how the student could improve her work. This is very good practice and should be extended.
The students’ work reviewed by the inspector was generally substantial, of a high standard and very well presented. The standards expected for written work were made clear to students. This is an important principle of assessment for learning, in that it informs students clearly of the criteria that will be applied in assessing their work. It is particularly recommended that the English teaching team consult the material on assessment for learning (AfL) available on the NCCA we site (www.ncca.ie) as AfL would particularly assist in the development of the more independent learning practices advocated in this report.
Regular summative assessments take place in the school, and the department is commended for putting common assessments in place, and for integrating this strategy into their planning for English. The practice of combining marks for work done during the term and marks earned in the end of term assessment is also praiseworthy, as it acknowledges and gives a value to sustained student effort. Students perform very well in the state examinations and teachers are aware that this is an important goal for the students who attend the school. It may therefore be reassuring to know that the recommendations made in this report in relation to the development of students’ skills and of confident and well-informed personal response are strongly in line with the findings and recommendations of the most recent chief examiners’ reports for English which may be viewed on the State Examinations Commission web site (www.examinations.ie) .
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
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.