An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of French
Maynooth Post-Primary School
Maynooth, Co. Kildare
Roll number: 70700A
Date of inspection: September 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 February 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in French
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Maynooth Post-Primary School. 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 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 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.
Modern languages are well served in Maynooth Post-Primary School with the provision of French, German, Spanish and Japanese. French is offered to students in all the curricular programmes in the school, namely the Junior Certificate Programme (JCP), the Transition Year Programme (TYP), the Leaving Certificate Established (LCE) and the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP). The study of a modern European language is mandatory in junior cycle and is strongly recommended in senior cycle. Uptake of languages is high in senior cycle with over sixty percent of students choosing to study French up to Leaving Certificate level. The school is to be commended for its appreciation and active promotion of languages. Students select their preferred language prior to entering the school. The option of studying more than one modern language is only available to students outside of school hours apart from the ab initio course in Japanese that has been provided as a modular component of the school’s TYP. A small number of students, who wished to study a second modern language, are catered for in this way.
Seven teachers are involved in the delivery of French in the school. All teachers are members of the subject association, the French Teachers Association (FTA), and they have recently attended an information evening in the local Education Centre. Many will also be attending the national conference on October 13/14. This commitment to ongoing professional contact and training is praiseworthy. A number of years ago, one member of the department participated in a Comenius three-way teacher exchange with colleagues in Sweden and in Orléans, France. However, most teachers, have, up to now, not availed of continuous professional development opportunities in France.
Timetabling arrangements for French are satisfactory both in terms of the number of periods allocated and the distribution of time slots. All junior-cycle classes have single periods, four in first and second year and five in third year. This provision of teaching time is very satisfactory as single periods are most favourable to language learning, affording students regular contact with the target language. Transition Year French has been allocated three periods per week while senior cycle classes have one double and three single periods per week. Students are taught in groups of mixed ability in junior cycle and in Transition Year while in senior cycle, ordinary level and higher level classes run concurrently where possible.
During the evaluation, a major building project was underway involving the construction of ten new classrooms. As an interim measure, a number of pre-fabricated buildings are being used as classrooms. Three of the seven teachers of French have been allocated their own base room, (one of which is in a pre-fabricated structure), while the remaining teachers are required to move around the building to various classrooms. This situation is particularly demanding of language teachers as, in addition to the usual textbooks and copybooks, they have to carry audio equipment to various locations. Furthermore, the teachers in question are unable to create a supportive language-learning environment for their students, through the display of maps of France, posters, language charts and authentic materials similar to those seen in the teacher-based rooms. It is suggested that, once the building work has been completed, one classroom be designated as a shared French room where teachers can store equipment and resources and where an authentic and enriching environment can be provided for as many students as possible.
All teachers have individual tape-recorders or CD players, with ready access to television and DVD players when required. The French department has built up a bank of shared resources to supplement and support the teaching and learning of the language. It was reported that Information Communications Technology (ICT) has been and is being used to a certain extent in the teaching of French. Some teachers download suitable materials for classroom use. This is commendable as the internet is an important resource for language teachers in accessing up-to-date material and methodologies. Students, especially those in senior cycle, could be encouraged and given guidance on how to use computers at home to learn independently and to access suitable language-learning sites. It is hoped that the use of ICT can be further extended in the school as broadband access in now available and there is one fully equipped computer room with another due to come on stream following the completion of building work.
The teaching and learning of French is enhanced through a range of co-curricular activities. Individual teachers have organised a typical French breakfast for their students. A French theatre group visits the school annually and senior cycle students have seen the French film Les Choristes in the Irish Film Institute. The teachers of French, together with their colleagues from the German and Spanish departments are planning to hold a Modern Languages Day in the school in May, 2007. In addition to focusing on the languages taught in the school, it is hoped to include information on the heritage language of the international students in the school. Such activities are invaluable in raising the profile of French and other languages in the school and the teachers concerned are to be complimented for their commitment to organising these initiatives.
Subject planning is well established in Maynooth Post-Primary School, as the school has engaged with the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) over a number of years. A co-ordinator of European Languages has been appointed. This position forms part of the duties of an assistant principal post of responsibility. The co-ordinator convenes a formal meeting four or five times during the school year, a record of decisions taken at the meetings is kept and a copy is submitted to the principal. This is good practice. It is commendable that such good co-operation and teamwork exists between the teachers of all three modern languages in the school. Although all language teachers meet to discuss common issues, it was decided that each language department would draw up a separate plan for their subject.
Good collaborative planning work has been carried out by the French department. A comprehensive plan that refers to all year groups in the school has been agreed and documented. The subject plan outlines the options structure operating in the school, timetabling arrangements, student access to French as well as homework, assessment and record-keeping procedures. The chapters of the textbook to be studied by each year group in each term are listed, as are the resources to be used.
The inclusion of the heading Effective Teaching Methodologies in the subject plan is to be commended. Some sound general suggestions have already been documented and it is recommended that this particular section of the planning document serve as the core element of future French/modern language meetings. Discussion, collaboration and the sharing of best practice relating to effective teaching strategies and their implementation would be of benefit to all as similar issues, methodologies and approaches apply to the three languages. When time permits, it would also be useful to review the existing plan for French in the context of the targets the department will set for itself and for its students. The potential and development of ICT for the teaching and learning of French might also be usefully explored.
Individual teacher preparation was evident through the preparation of audio equipment, relevant worksheets, flash cards and, in some instances, individual class plans or schemes of work.
A number of lessons over a range of programmes were observed. All lessons were delivered in an encouraging, supportive manner and the classroom atmosphere in all cases was positive and orderly. A good rapport between students and teachers and clearly established behavioural expectations were evident in all classrooms visited. Teachers maintained discipline in a competent and sensitive manner. The students were polite, co-operative and hardworking.
All lessons began with roll call followed by the good practice of writing up the day and date in French. In some cases this exercise was extended to include some discussion on the day’s weather and on weather in general. This was an effective method of quickly revising previously learned vocabulary and student participation was good.
The choice of lesson topic was, in most instances, syllabus-guided and suited to the linguistic ability and interests of the students. In some cases, where the topic failed to engage student interest, their participation in the learning process was below optimal level. Care needs to be taken to ensure that a particular topic is of relevance to the age group in question. Textbooks need to be used judiciously, with teachers selecting material from them to suit the learning needs and capabilities of specific class groups. As all textbooks date, it may be necessary at times to use some supplementary updated material, which can be easily downloaded from a wide variety of websites. The use of colourful, authentic materials, such as holiday brochures, postcards, advertising leaflets, food labels and French menus also helps to bring the language to life for younger students. The cultural awareness aspect of a language plays an important role in interesting and motivating students and, whenever possible, it should be included and integrated into lessons.
Best teaching practice was evident where lessons were built around a particular theme as recommended in the syllabuses and NCCA guidelines for the teaching of modern languages. In some lessons observed, however, too much new material was introduced during the lesson. When a single lesson period contains a number of different topics or elements with no obvious connection between them, students can easily become confused. Best practice suggests that a range of learning activities, based on a single topic, should be used to integrate and develop the four language skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. A number of lesson periods may need to be devoted to a specific topic in order to ensure that students satisfactorily acquire new vocabulary and structures. The employment of varied and active teaching methodologies will help to maintain students’ interest and to raise their level of engagement with a topic. Songs, raps, language games, word searches, crosswords and puzzles are a very effective and enjoyable way of teaching and reinforcing vocabulary. When students are actively involved in the learning process, it is easier for them to absorb and remember information. Learning is more effective as a result. The NCCA guidelines for teachers of modern languages state: Second language learning in the formal context of the classroom necessitates a judicious mixture of activities aimed at providing learners with knowledge about the target language and activities involving use of the language for communicative purposes.
Where lessons were conducted in a participatory style, student involvement was very good. In a senior cycle class, for example, a lively discussion took place on sport, with opinion divided on the benefits and the perceived enjoyment or boredom factor inherent in various sports. Student views were encouraged and noted and key phrases were written quickly on the board. This brainstorming exercise was followed by a reading comprehension on the recent FIFA World Cup and the controversy surrounding a head-butting incident involving the French player, Zinedine Zidane. As all students were familiar with the incident in question, both the topic and the text (accompanied by a photograph) were accessible and of interest to the students. Stimulated by a lively, energetic style of teaching, the level of students’ participation and engagement in the learning process was high and their linguistic competence was impressive.
A further example of good promotion of student participation through activity was seen in a junior cycle class. The classroom itself became a useful teaching resource as familiar objects and furniture were used effectively as visual stimuli to teach new vocabulary. Students enjoyed naming and identifying the various pieces of furniture and equipment around them and their level of involvement in this particular exercise was very high.
Many teachers included an aural component in their lesson. This is good practice especially when, as observed in one class, students were challenged to listen carefully and then repeat the French phrases they had heard on tape. This teaching strategy worked very well to develop the students’ aural and oral skills simultaneously and their level of concentration on the task was very good.
The target language was used wisely and extensively in all lessons observed. All teachers spoke French at a level that was appropriate to the needs and the linguistic ability of their students. Good use was made of gestures and synonyms in a number of classes in order to avoid translation to English. Teachers are encouraged to continue to develop this good practice, particularly in relation to giving instructions and affirmation. The ongoing use of the target language in the classroom is a central feature of successful language learning. It gives students of all ability levels the opportunity, in the first instance, to develop their listening skills. They can then be gradually encouraged to develop their oral skills through interaction with their teachers in French. Some students were able to communicate in French with their teacher and were at ease doing so. Due attention was paid to accurate pronunciation in all lessons. The ongoing use of the French alphabet with every year group is strongly recommended and it will pay dividends in terms of good pronunciation. All teachers corrected student pronunciation errors with skill and sensitivity and their efforts to use the target language are warmly affirmed. The teachers of French in Maynooth Post-Primary School are to be commended for their informed approach to the use of the target language in the classroom.
A broad range of assessment modes is used by teachers of French to monitor student competence and progress. They include oral questioning, homework, regular grammar and vocabulary tests in class, and in Transition Year, project work. Formal written examinations are held at the end of October for third- and sixth-year students, while all other year groups sit formal examinations at Christmas and prior to the summer holidays. All groups sit common assessment tests in French. This is commendable practice. Parents receive written reports and feedback on student progress, effort, behaviour and examination results. Annual parent-teacher meetings are held for each year group.
The school has developed and documented a homework policy. Examination of student copybooks showed that, in most classes, a good deal of homework had been assigned and corrected. Due attention was paid to correcting and to focusing student attention on common spelling and grammatical mistakes. The commendable practice of writing positive, encouraging comments was noted in a number of copybooks as was the good layout and logical organisation of some vocabulary/verb notebooks.
Short written exercises in the target language are most beneficial as homework tasks for students. The translation of passages from French to English is best avoided as a homework assignment, in favour of relevant, syllabus-guided productive work in the target language only. Past State Examination papers are best used thematically to dovetail with and to support the themes on the syllabus and in the textbook.
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.
School Response to the Report
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1 Observations on the content of the inspection report
In general the French Department are happy with the report and accept the recommendations as presented by the Inspector