An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of French
Cnoc Mhuire Secondary School
Granard, County Longford
Roll number: 63730S
Date of inspection: 24 September 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in French
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Cnoc Mhuire. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in French and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over one day 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.
Cnoc Mhuire, Granard is a co-educational voluntary secondary school under the trusteeship of the Sisters of Mercy. The school provides for the educational needs of its students through a wide range of programmes including Junior Certificate, Transition Year (TY) Leaving Certificate Established, and Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP)
At present, French is offered to incoming students in an option line with German, Music and Business. Students must choose two subjects out of four. While the study of a modern language is not compulsory, strong emphasis is placed on the importance of languages in the curriculum and almost all students in junior cycle study French. German has been discontinued in the current academic year. During the evaluation, it was noted that the small number of students who were not studying French were accommodated at the back of the classroom. It would be more beneficial to those students if they could be withdrawn for extra tuition in a core subject, for example, if staffing levels permit.
Students are taught in mixed ability settings in junior cycle and divided into higher and ordinary level groups in senior cycle. The allocation of single periods for the teaching of French is very satisfactory as are the number of weekly periods in junior cycle and in senior cycle. The provision of two periods per week to Transition Year French is unsatisfactory however, particularly as those periods are on two consecutive days midweek. TY students also have two periods of European Studies (taught by a different teacher) where emphasis is placed on cultural and political issues in Europe. Taking account of the fact that most students will wish to continue to study French for Leaving Certificate, it is recommended that three periods per week be allocated to the language in TY. Such provision would ensure that students have sufficient time to maintain and develop the language skills they have acquired in junior cycle.
The French department comprises four teachers, one of whom was on maternity leave during the evaluation. Presently, two teachers have dedicated language classrooms while the other members of the department teach in general classrooms, where it is very difficult for teachers to create a supportive language-learning environment for students. One of the teacher-based classrooms visited provided a stimulating environment for students through the display of posters in French and Irish, examples of student-generated work, a French flag and a map of France. The other designated classroom was quite bare. As the French department has an annual budget of approx. €400 Euro, it is recommended that some funds be made available to purchase stimulating visual materials to enhance the learning environment and to support the teaching of the language.
The teachers have good access to audio-visual aids as every classroom is equipped with a television, video/DVD player, an overhead projector and screen. Each teacher has a good quality CD player. A stock of French films, books and magazines which all teachers can access is stored in a central area.
To date, ICT has been used to a limited extent to teach French with teachers downloading material occasionally. Apart from TY, students of French have little access to the school’s computer room. There is great potential for using ICT in the teaching of languages and it is hoped that the limited opportunities presently available to students and teachers can be extended over time. The school is broadband enabled and the recent acquisition of some interactive whiteboards represents a positive step. As many students now have access to a computer at home it was good to note that, as part of a homework assignment, some senior-cycle students were directed to look up three French websites to access information independently.
School documentation provides evidence that the teachers of French have engaged in collaborative planning. The French department presented a planning folder containing comprehensive documentation relating to the teaching and learning of French in the school. The time and effort required of teachers to draw up such a plan is fully acknowledged and warmly commended, especially as from September onwards, there appears to be little designated time for formal subject planning meetings throughout the school year.
The aims and objectives of the French department are documented in the subject plan, together with a programme of syllabus-guided work for each year group. Commendably, the four skills of language learning (listening, speaking, reading and writing) are listed and suggested methodologies on how to teach each skill in an integrated way are included. This is very good practice as it gives practical guidance to all teachers of French on possible teaching approaches. The subject plan includes the Chief Examiners’ Reports on Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate French and teachers have wisely used these reports to inform the teaching and learning of the language in the school.
A fresh look at the existing programme for Transition Year French is recommended. The topics listed in the subject plan replicate basic work done in junior cycle. Transition Year affords students the opportunity to bridge the gap between junior and senior cycle and allows teachers to adopt a new approach to teaching. With this in mind, it is recommended that the teachers review and modify the present programme.
Some further issues for discussion at department meetings might include the choice and acquisition of updated resources, the gradual use and integration of ICT to support the teaching of French, a department policy on the use of the target language in the classroom and some strategies to promote and to assess the oral proficiency of students
There was clear evidence of individual planning and organisation for lessons, with the preparation of handouts, worksheets, visual stimuli and audio equipment.
Inspection activities included the observation of lessons, interaction with students and the monitoring of students’ copybooks.
A number of the language-teaching strategies observed during the evaluation reflected good practice. The writing of the theme and proposed layout of the lesson on the board at the start of class helped to direct students’ attention to the task in hand. Another strategy that proved effective was the use of brainstorming and posters to galvanise students and to ensure good participation. Where the lesson content was related to the lives and experiences of the students themselves, lively discussion and full engagement ensued. In some classes, the good interaction between the teacher and the students was a strong feature of lesson delivery.
In a number of lessons, work was carefully structured to ensure a smooth progression from one element of the lesson to another. For example, in a senior cycle lesson on the theme of holidays, a brainstorming session on the board proved effective in engaging the interest of students. A collage of pictures of various holiday activities was used to good effect as a stimulus for a teacher-led question and answer session. The recommended integration of language learning skills was effected through a range of interlinked activities around a single theme. Oral work, listening exercises, a short reading passage all led into the task of writing a holiday post-card. The lesson, in terms of pace, structure and content exemplified best practice.
Use of the board as a means of visual reinforcement is important and all teachers employed the whiteboard productively. As previously mentioned, classrooms are also equipped with an overhead projector. It is suggested that teachers make full use of the overhead projector by preparing additional material in advance in order to complement work on the board.
Short, focused listening exercises were integrated into all lessons, both at junior and at senior level. Key words and structures were extracted from the listening passage and written on the board. This is good practice. In one class, a relevant listening passage from a past State Examination paper was skilfully incorporated into the lesson. This proved an effective means of showing students the clear link between the topics in the textbook and the State Examinations.
Some lessons observed would benefit from a more defined structure. In some instances, too much diverse material was crammed into the lesson with the result that little time was available to check the level of students’ understanding or learning. There was a tendency to be over reliant on the textbook, and this was seen to result in a lack of concentration and interest on the part of students. Teachers need to plan their lessons carefully so that students remain focused. Varied language activities such as games, songs, crosswords and word puzzles can be used effectively to supplement or replace inadequate textbook material.
Pair work featured in some lessons and teachers are commended for including this active methodology. The development of oral skills is the principal objective of all pair work sessions and this objective needs be taken into consideration when designing the task. If pair work is to be effective, students must be directed to speak French to their fellow student and not be allowed to write down individual responses. Speaking French to a fellow student is less stressful than publicly answering questions asked by the teacher. Pair-work can, over time, help to foster students’ confidence and it allows the teacher to circulate freely in the classroom discreetly checking and correcting individual errors.
The commitment of some teachers to make full use of the target language for instruction, affirmation, and classroom management was impressive and is highly commended. In some lessons, the clever and natural use of synonyms gave students plenty of linguistic scaffolding and this tactic eliminated the need for explanations in English. The ongoing use of the target language, taking cognisance of the age and ability level of the class group, is at the heart of good language teaching practice. Teachers are urged therefore to sustain their effort to speak as much French as is practicable during the course of the lesson and not to fall back on translation of instructions into English, except in exceptional circumstances. Learning the alphabet in the target language and using it regularly for spelling would be an initial step in the development of students’ competence and confidence.
In all classrooms visited, the general atmosphere was very good. Teachers were supportive and affirming of students and they, in turn, were co-operative and courteous.
The teachers of French in Cnoc Mhuire use a combination of questioning in class, the assignment and correction of homework, regular class tests and formal school examinations to assess the progress of their students.
The French department has a documented homework policy. This commendable policy covers recommended suitable homework assignments and time allocation for each year group. A review of students’ copybooks indicated that productive homework had been assigned to most students. To ensure steady progress in modern language acquisition, it is essential that all students be assigned regular, productive homework exercises in the target language. Syllabus-based tasks such as the writing of postcards, messages, letters, diary entries and personal opinions enable students to practise and hopefully improve their writing skills. Supportive, formative comments from teachers in students’ copybooks affirm their efforts and can do much to help students by indicating how their written work can be improved. Teachers may find the Assessment for Learning (AfL) technique, which can be downloaded from www.ncca.ie, helpful in this regard.
Throughout the first term, students’ progress is monitored by continuous assessment. Reports are sent home to parents/guardians at regular intervals during the year and parent/teacher meetings for each year group take place annually. First, second and fifth years sit in-house formal examinations in summer, while third and sixth years sit “mock” examinations in spring. It is good to note that the French department engages in the setting of common tests, where feasible. Written and aural assessments are given to all year groups. However, the assessment of oral proficiency is confined to “mock” orals for Leaving Certificate students and to fifth-year students (higher level only) in summer. Considering the importance of developing oral competence over a long period of time, it is recommended that the testing of students’ oral competence take place in every year group. Such oral assessment, either formal or informal, would improve students’ proficiency and validate classroom use of the target language. The Chief Examiner’s report on the Leaving Certificate French, 2003 states: The benefits resulting from devoting considerable time to the development of students’ fluency at all stages of their secondary education are not limited to the mark achieved in the oral examination.
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 French and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published June 2008