An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Gaeilge
Buncrana, County Donegal
Roll number: 62770C
Date of inspection: 13 March 2007
Date of issue of report: 12 March 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Irish
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Scoil Mhuire as part of a whole school evaluation. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Irish 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.
A special situation applies to Irish in Scoil Mhuire in that there is a significant number of students who have been granted exemptions from Irish. That amount is greater than twenty per cent of the overall total of students registered in the school. One fifth of those granted exemptions from Irish are students who received their primary education outside the State until they had reached eleven years of age or are students from abroad who had neither English nor Irish as mother tongue. The remainder are students with assessed learning difficulties.
It was confirmed that, in each case, those exemptions were granted in accordance with the provisions of Circular M10/94. It was reported that additional programmes – in English or Mathematics mostly – are organised for the students with exemptions from Irish for the periods when Irish is on the timetable. The Irish teachers confirmed that these students do not interfere with the Irish classes and the management is commended for making the alternative arrangements.
Significant changes have occurred in the Irish department staff in the past three years due to the departure of three Irish teachers – two who retired and another who resigned. These posts were initially filled by substitutes. There is a more permanent arrangement now with mostly qualified teachers in permanent posts. There are five teachers in the Irish department’s staff at present. Two of these are also modern languages teachers – this adds to the range of experience in the department in language teaching methodologies.
Irish has a central role in the teaching programmes of all the teachers except one who is occupied with the teaching of another language. Special arrangements applied when the subject inspection was done in the school in that there was a substitute teacher in charge of classes for a short period and another teacher was functioning temporarily as the Irish department co-ordinator.
In addition to this the principal had to re-assign certain Irish classes among the teachers in the middle of the current school year in response to unexpected immediate needs. The manner in which this re-assignment was implemented - an arrangement which greatly disturbed teachers’ programmes and the programmes of certain classes - was a measure of the Irish teachers’ co-operation with the school management. The teachers are to be commended for their co-operation with these emergency arrangements which had to be made unexpectedly in the middle of the year.
Within the past year a co-ordinator head has been appointed to promote collaborative planning in the subject. This work is still ongoing. One joint planning meeting is held per term and it was understood that minutes are kept of the proceedings of these meetings. Unfortunately a copy of these minutes was not available. It is recommended that a copy of the minutes of Irish teachers’ meetings should be kept in the departmental planning file and that this file should be available to all the Irish teachers and the management.
It was understood that the members of the department were in favour of sharing the duty of co-ordinator among all the departmental members so that each person would have this duty in turn for a certain period. Because of the unforeseen circumstances that arose in the subject in the current school year it is recommended that this approach be discussed again in the department, the decision recorded and submitted to the school management.
A satisfactory time allocation per week is made for Irish in all years. Five periods per week are provided to all junior cycle year groups – first year, second year and third year. Six periods are provided in fourth year (the first year of the Leaving Certificate course). Six periods are provided for the higher level class in fifth year (the second year of the Leaving Certificate course) with five periods provided to the ordinary level classes. These are single classes in each case. The students have good opportunities to change levels due to the timetable arrangements in place by which all classes are held simultaneously in various years.
It is recommended that an appropriate time allocation be made of the subject on the Transition Year programme also – this programme will be commencing in the school next year. Three of the Irish classes for the higher level class in fifth year this year are in the last period of the day and another is held in the second-last period. It is recommended that attempts should be made in future timetabling to achieve greater balance.
The principal decides the allocation of classes on the teachers’ timetables. That decision is based on the teachers’ experience and on the suitability of the teacher for the students involved. The teachers indicated that they all have opportunities to gain experience in teaching all levels in the subject but the authority of the principal to make decisions in this matter is acknowledged. It is recommended that a continuous review is made of all choices available – in the school itself and externally – in order to provide professional support for teachers to increase their skills in teaching the subject. As part of this work it would be worth using the Second Level Support Service which will be providing in-service courses for the teaching of Irish from the start of the 2007/08 school year.
Each of the Irish teachers has charge of a classroom – this eases the teachers’ access to resources. Good attempts were made to decorate these rooms with interesting material in Irish. In addition there were notices in Irish in all the classrooms as part of Seachtain na Gaeilge activities and there were various activities which enhanced awareness of the language culture. As part of these activities a group of local traditional musicians - including one of the students - played at break time for the whole school. This effort was commended.
A very limited use is made of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and it was confirmed that this is still only being developed from the point of view of teaching Irish. It was recommended that an ICT item be designed for teaching Irish and added to by degrees.
The teachers had commenced long-term planning – work which had been interrupted by staffing changes in the department in the current school year. It was confirmed that teachers mostly do their own planning at present but that a collaborative planning scheme was agreed in the case of first, second and fourth years to the extent that the same material in the textbooks is focussed on.
A planning document in the name of the Irish department was provided which contained a certain amount of discussion under the following headings – mission statement, planning for students with special needs, the subject objectives, the programme and levels, classification of students, class organisation, number of classes and time allocation for Irish, homework routines, assessment, information technology, department resources, analysis of certificate examinations. As a draft document, this had worthwhile content.
It is recommended that the planning document be redrafted in order to clarify the content. For example, the table of contents should be placed at the start of the booklet, the pages numbered, and the latest date the document was reviewed should be included as a footnote. It would be worth including an account of teaching methodologies also. The two sentences in the section ‘Class organisation’ were not sufficient. Copies of the various syllabi and teachers’ guidebooks should be affixed to this document – in particular as the planning document contained references to the syllabi.
It would also be worth affixing a copy of the ‘European Portfolio of Languages’ to this document as an additional guide to planning – especially as this document was prepared according to the learning targets detailed in the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate Irish syllabi. There would also be valuable material for the modern languages teachers – two of whom are on the staff of the Irish department.
As well as the planning document handwritten ‘Schemes of Work 2006-2007’ for Irish were presented for all years in the school. These were summaries of the material to be covered with all classes, all levels included. There was some worth to these accounts – which mostly related to the textbooks which would be used and the material from these books which would be implemented. There was a description of the challenges associated with teaching various classes because of the unforeseen change which had to be implemented in the timetable. For example, an account in one of the schemes was observed which indicated that the teacher would have to go through the students’ copybooks to find out what work had already been done.
An essential part of coordinated planning is keeping and providing an account of the work implemented with classes as well as planning work. It would be worth agreeing such an approach at a departmental meeting and recording an account of the work done in the planning document at the end of each half-term or at the end of a term. In this way all members of the department would be informed about progress in the various classes and in the event of unforeseen absence an account would be available for a substitute or for another teacher who would have to commence teaching a new class in the middle of the year.
The above recommendation regarding agreement on methodologies is particularly important given the variety of practices to be seen in the ‘Schemes of Work’. It was understood from one account that no preparation was made for the oral examination in one year while there was speech and conversation for five to ten minutes every day as part of another scheme, in order to develop fluency. This latter integrated practice is to be commended. In the same manner, in the case of mixed-ability classes in first year differentiated teaching should be included. It would be worth agreeing and recording these best practices in the planning work.
Seven classes were observed during the inspection. The same approach was taken to managing all these classes in that the roll was called at the start, that homework was examined and that homework was assigned at the end of the class. In most of these classes an information sheet was prepared as an aid to the students in acquiring the material. All classes had clear objectives and the Irish teachers had precise Irish for the most part.
All the teachers spoke Irish throughout the classes – a commendable approach. Translations to English were being provided regularly in certain cases. It was understood that this was done to help students who were weak in the language to understand – especially in a mixed ability class.
This is a matter which the Irish department should discuss among themselves and agree a policy. Translating is a language skill in itself and there is an appropriate place for development of this skill in the learning of the language. However, another matter altogether is the regular use of the students’ mother tongue – English in this case – in order to explain the new vocabulary in Irish or as an illustration of the students’ understanding of new vocabulary acquisition in Irish. There is always the danger that the students will pay little attention to the teacher speaking the target language when a guide in English is provided as a normal practice.
The teachers had encouraging personalities and they had a nice easy manner with the students – something to which most of the students responded. The teaching was enthusiastic in each case. At the same time the work was mostly focussed on the teacher as the disseminator of information and students were given little opportunity to work independently. Only rarely were the students given the opportunity, for example, to express themselves and to show an opinion except to give a direct answer to a question which asked for information or a word as an answer.
In various cases in the junior cycle, for example, the opportunity was not taken to set the students talking amongst themselves or with the class – an approach that was not in keeping with what was contained in the work schemes, in first year especially, about promoting the spoken language among the students so that they would be able to “talk about themselves, about their families, and about life around them.” This objective is highly commendable but the students should be given a certain amount of freedom in the class work to practise this.
In one case great effort was made in discussing a map of the town – suitable work for the class in question. A lot of the time was spent in teaching specific vocabulary, such as ‘the Post Office’, ‘the Garda Station’, ‘Health Centre’ and so on as well as essential phrases such as ‘beside’ and ‘in front of’ and the like. It would be worth extending this work into conversation – especially as a challenge to those students who would be well able to talk and ask questions about what happens in those places or to produce a small play based on activities in one of those places. It would be easy to try this in that specific lesson – in particular since the students had total respect for the teacher and that the teacher was fluent in Irish.
In another case, at the start of the lesson there was good revision of vocabulary about personal characteristics which had already been practised. An account was given of personal characteristics and then the word was sought which matched that account. This approach was commended – especially as the explanation was given in Irish only and English was not used. It would be worth setting the students an additional challenge for variety by giving the word itself and then asking the students for an explanation in Irish. This would give the students an opportunity to express themselves in the language and to compose a sentence instead of saying one word.
A new poem was presented effectively to the students in the same class without resorting to translation to English. There was no problem with this approach except that the teacher did too much to explain the poem and answer every question. There were certain students in this class who would be able to express an opinion about the subject of the poem or to give a summary of the poem’s subject matter. This challenge was not set for them though the teacher had done all the preparatory work for this.
This lesson was highlighted for another reason, though – the manner in which the teacher succeeded in implementing everything set out at the start of the class effectively within the thirty five minutes available. This was done capably and it would be worth the department’s while considering visiting each other’s classes from time to time during the year to observe good practice such as this.
In another lesson in the junior cycle vocabulary relating to St Patrick’s Day activities was practised – a topical subject. This work was presented energetically and the teacher spoke Irish throughout. All the effort was directed towards writing, however – writing a postcard about St. Patrick’s Day activities. It was the teacher who was speaking at all times, practically, with the students quietly writing – based on the new vocabulary presented to them on the whiteboard. A short television item on the festival events would be a great stimulus to promote conversation. It would be a good practice to set the students working together practising conversation.
Another lesson illustrated the need to give substitute teachers guidance on implementing class management effectively. In addition the teacher had done great work in guiding the students on how to write a letter by preparing a sample letter and distributing it among the students. An English translation was provided beside the Irish version. It would be very helpful – especially for a new teacher – if guidance about such an approach – the use of translation – were provided in planning documents.
Class work in the senior cycle focussed on the literature course. It was clear that this had been prepared appropriately. There was a big difference in the approach being used in two different classes relating to the same level. In one case the teacher gave an explanation in English regularly on what had been explained beforehand in Irish. In the other case the teacher spoke in Irish only. In one case the variety of work was increased by playing a version of the poem being performed by a recognised musician. In another class there was a recording of a poem being recited by the poem’s author. The use of these resources is commended to bring variety to the work and as a guide to the correct pronunciation of the words – as was the case in the second of these situations. The teachers had prepared additional material in certain cases as an aid to understanding these poems.
The same approach was to be noted in classes in both cycles – that is, most of the speaking fell to the teacher during the class and it was the teacher who mostly made the efforts to provide answers as a guide to the students. The students had a passive role as opposed to an active role in most of the classes. It was understood from the discussion with the teachers that the students’ limited ability in speech was the basis for this approach and that they wanted to help the students as much as possible. This concern for the students is understandable and commendable.
The Irish department is advised to fundamentally reconsider the most effective way to promote spoken Irish with the students. The department is advised to consider promoting spoken Irish greatly from first year onwards. Careful co-operation would be needed for this as well as the support of the school management to lay the emphasis on speech in first year – especially in the first term – and to ensure that there is continuity with the practice in primary schools. Therefore, this change of direction would have to be shared with the feeder primary schools.
Well-chosen items from TG4 should be used as a stimulus for conversation and to promote Irish as a sustainable language in contemporary life as well as an examination subject. Every opportunity should be taken to place an Information and Communications Technology item on the learning programme in first year as an illustration to the students of Irish in use in contemporary life also. It would be good to practise e-mails in Irish in partnership with students in another school and to write phone text messages in Irish under the teacher’s guidance from time to time as another variation.
Above all a written plan must be drafted as preparation for this in order to give priority to spoken Irish from first year onwards. Excellent work was being done in the classes observed as preparation for written examinations, for the most part. It was not evident that the students were comfortable in speaking Irish. It would be worth trying a change of direction and reviewing progress.
An integral part of school policies is the assignment of appropriate homework in the various subjects – something which was recorded in the departmental planning document. Homework was an integral part of all the classes observed. The Irish department’s planning documents showed an understanding of assessment for learning. The copybook work observed was neat and tidy and the teacher’s acknowledgement of that work could be seen.
The assessment activities registered in the planning document for Irish included questions, written work, class examinations, written homework and in-house examinations. Arising from the emphasis on doing homework it would be worth considering allocating some of the marks in the in-house examinations to the quality of the homework. A comprehensive analysis was made of certificate examination results.
In-house examinations are organised twice a year – at Christmas and in the summer – for first, second and fourth years, and mock certificate examinations for the other classes in the spring. Common examinations are organised in the subject in first, second and fourth years. This is a desirable arrangement which facilitates a valid comparison between the various classes at the same level.
A comprehensive analysis was made of the certificate examination results which illustrated the challenge facing the Irish department in attracting students to higher level. Apart from the Leaving Certificate classes spoken Irish is not assessed as part of the in-house examinations. It is recommended that assessment of this aspect be included in the assessment henceforth – starting from first year. This need not entail individual oral examinations. A common approach could be agreed in which the teachers could keep a sharp eye from the start on the students’ oral ability and on the attempts made in class to participate in talk.
It would be worth considering the significant increase in marks recently announced by the Minister for Education and Science for the optional oral examination in the Junior Certificate Irish examination – forty per cent of the marks available for oral Irish, and the same amount for the Leaving Certificate Irish examination. It is hoped that this figure will encourage the members of the Irish department to reconsider the approach to teaching the subject – as recommended above in the ‘Teaching and Learning’ section. There will be significant recognition of those efforts to promote spoken Irish in the Junior Certificate Irish examination from now on.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Exemptions from Irish are granted only in accordance with the provisions of Circular M10/94.
· Other arrangements are made for students with exemptions when Irish is on the timetable.
· There are modern languages teachers among the Irish teachers – this extends the range of experience in second language teaching.
· The principal received great co-operation from the Irish teachers to serve unforeseen timetable needs that arose in the middle of the current school year.
· Irish is granted a satisfactory allocation of time on the school timetable.
· All the teachers are given the opportunity to gain experience in teaching the various levels in keeping with the principal’s decision in any given year.
· All the Irish teachers have a classroom.
· There were various activities during Seachtain na Gaeilge to support cultural awareness.
· Collaborative planning has commenced in the subject and the planning document shows ongoing work.
· The copybook work observed was neat and tidy and the teachers’ acknowledgement of that work was seen.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· Copies of the minutes of Irish teachers’ meetings should be placed in the departmental planning file.
· The Irish department’s co-ordinator duty should be discussed as regards every member of the department sharing that duty in turn for a certain period.
· The number of Irish classes for fifth year which fall in the last period should be reviewed.
· The opportunities for continued professional development for teachers in the subject should be reviewed with particular attention to the new Support Service for Irish.
· An account of teaching methodologies should be registered in the planning schemes and a copy of the ‘European Languages Portfolio’ should be affixed to it as a guide to learning targets.
· An account of the work implemented should be recorded in the planning document at the end of each half-term or at term end.
· A policy should be agreed in the Irish department about the use of translation in the Irish class.
· The teachers should consider visiting each other’s classes from time to time during the year to observe good practice.
· The Irish department should fundamentally reconsider the promotion of Irish from first year onwards.
· Well-chosen television items from TG4 should be used as a stimulus for conversation and an ICT item should be placed on the teaching programme.
· Assessment of spoken Irish should be included in the assessment system henceforth – starting from first year onwards.
· Consideration should be given to the significant increase in marks recently announced by the Minister for Education and Science regarding the optional oral examination in the Junior Certificate Irish examination.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Irish and with the Principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.