An Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna
Department of Education and Skills
Subject Inspection of English
Dundalk Grammar School
Dundalk, County Louth
Roll number: 63920A
Date of inspection: 13 November 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Dundalk Grammar School. 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 the deputy principal. The board of management was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
Dundalk Grammar School is a co-educational, interdenominational, post-primary school under Protestant management. Its current enrolment of 506 students includes boarding and day students. All students follow a six-year cycle. The programmes taught in the school are the Junior Certificate, a compulsory Transition Year (TY) programme, the established Leaving Certificate and the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP).
There is very good whole-school support for English. The timetabled allocation to the subject is good and is particularly generous in senior cycle, where students encounter the subject for six lessons each week in both fifth year and sixth year. Class sizes are generally small, averaging twenty-two students in junior cycle. The mixed-ability setting for class groups in first year and second year contributes to the excellent take-up of the higher-level course in English for the Junior Certificate examination. A small minority of students who opt to take the ordinary-level course are further supported by the allocation of an additional teacher who takes them as a discrete group from the beginning of third year. The effectiveness of this support is evident in the very good achievements of students in certificate examinations at this level.
Students are set for English at the beginning of fifth year to facilitate the teaching of the higher-level and ordinary-level courses in separate class groups. English lessons are timetabled concurrently for all classes in order to facilitate students’ movement between levels. Again, class size is small and the majority of students take the higher-level course.
Eleven teachers, all but one of whom are subject specialists, are currently assigned to teach English. This is a large team relative to the size of the school. Of these teachers, four teach one class group each and two others teach two class groups each. Only two teachers teach English to four or more class groups. In order to support closer collaboration in the team, consideration should be given to forming a small core group of English teachers, each of whom should have significant contact with the subject.
Resources provided to support the teaching and learning of English are very good. The school has provided space for the storage of English resources, including sets of texts, audio books and DVDs. Much of the reference material stored here has been donated by the teachers themselves. A full sound recording suite is available in the school and students on the TY benefit from this. A school video camera and editing facilities are also available. The school information and communications technology (ICT) room is available on a booking system. In one of the classrooms visited, a data projector was available and good use was made of this technology to deliver the lesson observed.
Generally, teachers are assigned to their own classrooms and in three of the rooms visited teachers had created displays of students’ work and other learning materials. In this way students’ work is affirmed and supported and they are exposed to a print-rich environment. More use should be made of the visual environment by all teachers of English. As some teachers of English do not have their own base room, the subject team should explore how to facilitate colleagues who do not have their own classrooms to display students’ work, posters, wall charts and other learning aids.
There is a school library but it is currently being used as a classroom and students have access to the books during lunchtime two days a week and after school on two days. Boarding students can access the library between six and seven o’clock most evenings. It was reported that the library is currently not used to support teaching and learning in English, in that classes are not brought to the library and the books stocked there are not used in the English classrooms. However, activities to promote and encourage personal reading are organised by the English department. These include participation in the MS Readathon and reading in class. To support this work, it is suggested that all teachers of English should include time for reading in their plans for the year, particularly at junior-cycle level. It is recommended that library boxes should be assembled for each of the three years in junior cycle. These could draw on books already available either in the library or in the English resource store room and students should be encouraged to bring their own choices from home for the library class. As funding allows, additional purchases of age and ability-appropriate texts should be made to cater for the interests of the students.
Students are provided with excellent opportunities for co-curricular activities in English. They are encouraged to participate in literary competitions and to contribute to the school’s annual magazine. Two TY newsletters are produced each year, thus encouraging students to produce and edit their own work. Students are brought to see professional productions of plays being studied and classes in drama, debating, dance, film-making and desktop publishing are provided as part of the school’s extracurricular programme. Students’ understanding of what is being discussed within class is deepened and made relevant by active participation in all these activities and the commitment of staff and management in providing them is acknowledged here.
There is an established subject department structure in the school. The eleven teachers of English are provided with opportunities to meet formally as a subject department at least three times a year during staff planning days. It was reported that there are also frequent informal meetings throughout the school year. Commendably, agendas have been prepared and minutes recorded for meetings since the beginning of the 2008/09 school year. A teacher acts as co-ordinator in a voluntary capacity. It is suggested that this role should be rotated amongst the team members on a biennial basis. Such an arrangement would provide all the teachers of English, over time, with experience in managing a core department. It would allow the department and the students of English to benefit from the interests and expertise of the teachers.
The planning documentation presented to the inspector indicated that very good use has been made of planning templates available from the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI). An outline of the department structure and of the timetable arrangements for English is provided. Teaching resources available to the department have been catalogued and copies of the relevant syllabuses are also found in the folder. The section detailing suggested methodologies for teaching English is noted as particularly good. There are also some very helpful suggestions regarding cross-curricular possibilities which would link the work of the English department with other subject areas. This is a good first step towards work in this area and the teachers of English are encouraged to continue towards the implementation of some of these projects.
In developing subject department planning, attention should be paid to describing the programme for English to be taught to each year group, including TY. Currently, the texts for study are identified together with a very brief outline of content to be covered. This should be supplemented with a description of the learning outcomes for each term and a note on how students’ achievement of those outcomes is to be assessed and recorded. The organising principle should be the language skills at the heart of the syllabus rather than the structure of the certificate examinations. The department is encouraged to consult the draft rebalanced Jumior Certificate syllabus for English, available at www.ncca.ie and section four of the Leaving Certificate syllabus for English in doing this work. No individual teacher planning documents were available. Outline plans, detailing how the subject department plan is interpreted for each class group, should be developed by all members of the English teaching team. These should be included in the department folder.
Given the range of co-curricular activities which are facilitated by the teachers of English, it is suggested that a note outlining this provision should be included in the department folder in order to fully reflect the very good work done in this area.
Eight lessons were observed, four in junior cycle and four in senior cycle. Teachers were well prepared for lessons, as evidenced by the availability of a range of resource materials used to support teaching and learning. Very good use was made of technology in some of the lessons observed, for example, in a junior-cycle lesson on drama, ICT enabled the teacher both to present key ideas for consideration and to record students’ responses in preparation for a fuller note on the topic under discussion. In another lesson, a group of ordinary-level students was particularly well supported by the projection of images onto the whiteboard as they read through a poetry text. The images posed questions for them which directed them through a very close reading of the text. The very good management of the pace at which students moved through lesson activities ensured that these lessons were successful in achieving their aims.
In one lesson, it was noted that the teacher had provided students with the scheme of work for the term. In another, an outline of the lesson was given to students on a handout. These are very good practices. It is recommended that all teachers of English share the expected lesson outcomes with students. Revisiting the outcomes as the lesson progresses allows both teacher and students to measure their progress and to identify areas of difficulty.
A variety of teaching strategies was observed. These included whole-class teaching; using skilful questioning to direct class discussion; the setting of tasks which were completed by students working in pairs; and activities which required students to work independently completing worksheets and character grids, for example. The effect of these strategies was that students were engaged and active in their learning in the classrooms visited. This was evident in a lesson designed to introduce a novel. Excellent pre-reading activities were built into the lesson. These included a guided consideration of the cover illustration, brainstorming on what students already knew of the region in which the book was set and viewing of the opening scenes of a film version of the text. Throughout, the ideas and preconceptions of students were canvassed and an air of expectancy was achieved such that students were well motivated to engage in a reading exercise for homework.
There was a commendable emphasis in the lessons observed on relating the material being studied to students’ own experiences. This allowed students to enter into the world of the texts in an authentic way and led to some very stimulating classroom discussions. In all classes there was acceptance and clarification of students’ questions and students were encouraged to initiate questions and to express opinions. A particular strength of the teaching observed was the encouragement given to students to think through their own responses to texts in the first instance. Only later were support materials supplied and in all class discussions, teachers were respectful of the views expressed by students. The development of students’ critical literacy skills is a key aim of the English syllabuses at all levels and the approach adopted by the teachers in Dundalk Grammar School is successful in this regard.
Students’ copies and notebooks were examined. A very good range of writing tasks has been set for junior-cycle students. It was clear that they have the opportunity both to respond to texts through short-answer work and to consider themes and characters more thoroughly in more extended pieces of writing. The standard of answering was good, reflecting the full range of abilities in the school. All students demonstrated good familiarity with their studied texts. In the majority of cases, students were able to use that knowledge well to support their opinions or to argue a point. Less-able students write too briefly, however, and their answers were often under-developed. It was noted that in one class, the teacher had established a reward scheme to motivate this group of students. This recognised the attempt made by students and was designed to motivate continued efforts. It is likely that this scheme, coupled with the very encouraging demeanour of the teacher, will be successful. The use of writing frames, cloze exercises, outline notes, writing models and other scaffolded approaches may also be supportive. In their personal writing, students were creative and imaginative. The very best students write fluently and have a sophisticated awareness of audience and register. Where these students demonstrated weaknesses, these related to syntactical and phrasal errors. The guidance provided by teachers when correcting written work addresses these difficulties.
Students in senior cycle are making very good progress. TY students’ work was generally good. In some instances, their personal writing was particularly good. Here, the students had successfully created atmosphere and character and they demonstrated a very good command of their plotlines. A tendency to cliché and poor use of the personal pronoun ‘you’ marred their work in other cases. Students on the Leaving Certificate programme generally demonstrated good knowledge of their texts, which they were able to use effectively to construct cogent, well-supported arguments in support of their opinions. They made excellent comparative links when discussing two or more texts and maintained a strong focus on the questions asked. Attention should be paid to improving the ease with which they discuss techniques employed by other writers, however. Whilst they could comfortably identify the techniques employed by writers on their courses, some students were less able to exploit that knowledge to discuss the particular effects achieved. Ordinary-level students wrote purposive answers, demonstrating the ability to incorporate relevant supporting references. Clumsy phrasing and weak expression limited the coherence of some of their work and the narrative line or argument was sometimes unsustained. Continued practice in writing, as planned by the teachers of English, may do much to improve their confidence.
Students’ progress through the English courses is measured in a variety of ways. In class, teachers’ questioning strategies were effective in identifying students’ understanding and retention of new concepts and information. Homework assignments are set regularly which extend the work done in class. These both provide students with opportunities to practise the skills taught and teachers with an opportunity to address the difficulties experienced by individual students. The quality of work in students’ copies was generally good, although in a number of instances, written work was poorly presented and incomplete. It is noted that some teachers have communicated clear expectations regarding organisation and presentation of work to their students. In some of the classes visited, students had folders and a hardback copy; in others, students maintained two or more copies. Their attention had been drawn to the importance of organising their copies by, for example, dating and titling their work and to using a pen rather than a pencil to complete homework. As a result, their copies and folders will serve them well when it comes to revision. This will not be the case for those students whose work is sparse and poorly organised. It is recommended that the teachers of English should agree common expectations in regard to the standards of organisation presentation expected of students and those standards should be applied consistently. The very good standards applied in some classes should be universal throughout all classes.
Students are provided with good quality feedback on their completed homework. Teachers correct it promptly and their comments in students’ copies included constructive advice and encouragement, as well as the identification of errors. The use of the PCLM (Purpose, Coherence, Language use, Mechanics) criteria by teachers to comment on and/or mark substantial assignments produced by senior-cycle students will give those students more specific insights into strengths and areas for development in their writing. To support this work, teachers can make students aware of the grid explaining the criteria and of the “Assessment Advice for Students” document available on www.slss.ie/resource_category/view/450.
Formal house examinations are organised for first-year, second-year and fifth-year students in November and May. Students in third year and in sixth year sit a formal test in November and participate in “mock” examinations in February each year. A programme of continuous assessment is in place for TY students. Reports issue three times a year for first-year students. The first of these in October is designed to provide parents with information on how their children are settling into the school. Two reports are sent home annually for all other students. Parents are also informed of their children’s progress at annual parent-teacher meetings.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Provision for the subject on the timetable is very good and is particularly generous in senior cycle.
· Resources provided to support the teaching and learning of English are very good.
· Students are provided with excellent opportunities for co-curricular activities in English.
· There is an established subject department structure in the school and a subject department plan has been developed.
· A very good standard of teaching and learning was observed in the classes visited. A particular strength of the teaching observed was the encouragement given to students to
think through their own responses to texts in the first instance.
· Students are making very good progress in the subject. There is excellent take-up of the higher-level course in English for the certificate examinations and students achieve well.
· Homework assignments are set regularly which extend the work done in class. Teachers correct it promptly and their comments in students’ copies included constructive advice and encouragement.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· Consideration should be given to forming a small core group of English teachers each of whom should have significant contact with the subject.
· The subject department plan for English should be supplemented with a description of the learning outcomes for each term and a note on how students’ achievement of those outcomes
is to be assessed and recorded.
· Outline plans, detailing how the subject department plan is interpreted for each class group, should be developed by all members of the English teaching team. These should be included in the
· Teachers of English should agree common expectations in regard to the standards of organisation presentation expected of students and those standards should be applied consistently.
A post-evaluation meeting was held with the principal and the deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published June 2010