An Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna
Department of Education and Skills
Subject Inspection of Irish
De la Salle College
Dundalk, County Louth
Roll number: 63891T
Date of inspection: 20 October 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Irish
This report has been written following a subject inspection in De la Salle College. 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, the deputy principal and to two of the subject teachers. The board of management 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.
In De la Salle College very good timetabled provision is made with regard to the amount of time allocated to teaching and learning Irish in every year group. The concurrent timetabling arrangements in second, third, fifth and sixth years are good and offer students opportunity to change levels in the subject. There is only one class group in Transition Year (TY) and consequently there is a very wide range of ability in the Irish class. A common course is taught in first year. Very good arrangements operate in sixth year as regards the allocation of weekly timetabled class periods which ensure that every class group has daily class contact with the subject. These same constructive arrangements obtain for the majority of first year classes. However, similar arrangements exist for only one of the five classes in second year and the same daily contact is not available for any other of the classes in the third, TY or fifth year groups. For example, in two of the three class groups in third year Irish is not timetabled on two days of the week and is timetabled twice on two other days. In TY Irish classes are timetabled on Mondays and Tuesdays only with no other class on the other days of the week. This allocation is not satisfactory. It is recommended that the daily allocation of Irish classes be reviewed in an effort to achieve a more balanced distribution.
In first year classes are established in all subjects within three bands based on general student ability. Proficiency in Irish is not taken into account when students are being allocated to classes within these bands, because Irish is not included in the entrance assessment tests. Within these three bands Irish is taught in mixed-ability classes, as are all other subjects and Irish classes are not timetabled concurrently. The establishment of mixed-ability classes in the subject is to be commended. All first year Irish classes are taught the same common course and sit the same common house examination at the end of the year. In the interests of enhancing the arrangements for allocating the same range of abilities to all first year Irish classes, the school could assess student proficiency in the subject by including an Irish test in the entrance assessment tests. These results could be included when students are being assigned to classes for all subjects. Another possible arrangement is to provide concurrent timetabling for all Irish classes in first year and to divide students equally between those classes according to assessed ability. Very broadly based mixed-ability classes in the subject would be helpful in raising expectations in the subject in first year, rather than the current arrangements where classes are established within ability bands and proficiency in Irish is not taken into account. This arrangement would enable every student to show fair promise in the subject before Irish classes are set from the beginning of second year onwards.
Under these arrangements Irish classes are established in the different levels of the subject and certain classes are timetabled concurrently in order to assign the greatest number of students to discrete higher level classes. For those who discontinue higher level at any time there is flexibility to move to concurrently timetabled classes either to a discrete ordinary level class or, to a mixed- ability class which provides for higher and ordinary levels. These arrangements are satisfactory nevertheless it would be worthwhile also to review the achievement rates of students who are weakest in the subject, in the interests of having the widest range of abilities in these classes as well. However, it is recommended that particular care be taken with TY where, because there is only one class group formed, the widest range of abilities in the three levels of higher, ordinary and foundation is currently accommodated.
The majority of the teachers of Irish now have their own designated classrooms. This is a recent arrangement and in some cases good efforts have been made to provide a stimulating environment for teaching the subject. Other notices in Irish are displayed throughout the school building. It is recommended that this practice be extended and that displays be kept fresh and attractive. A review should be carried out on the collection of Irish books in the school library. If books are not being read it is not worthwhile having them there. Reading of Irish outside of the textbooks or reading of prescribed texts should be encouraged on an agreed basis among teachers and students should be included in the project to do research on catalogues from book publishers. Researching the publishers’ websites would also add to the project. Work on the project should begin with a particular year group. Later on if resources allowed, it would be worthwhile to invite an Irish language author to the school as part of this project.
It was stated that the school buys the publications Dréimire, Céim, and Staighre for students in order to provide up to date reading and listening comprehension materials. In view of this it should be easier to entice students to read as recommended above. Use of information and communications technology (ICT) resources in the subject is quite limited as yet and these resources are used only by certain teachers. It is recommended that efforts to develop and increase the use of ICT resources be enhanced. It would be worthwhile to make a list of the most appropriate of these resources and this list should be reviewed regularly. These resources include television programmes, short films, websites and software products to support learning. A useful list of these resources was prominently displayed in one of the classrooms and in one lesson good use was made of a podcast made by one of the teachers of a radio programme. It is recommended that teacher and student experience of the online resource Vifax, accessible on the National University of Ireland, Maynooth website, be assessed in order to hone listening comprehension skills and to enrich vocabulary.
A total of 589 students are enrolled in the current school year 2009/10. The school is an all-boys school with the exception of fourteen female students in sixth year who have enrolled to repeat the Leaving Certificate in one year. The majority of students study Irish and approximately forty students, or less than six per cent of the total student population, have an exemption from the subject. This figure is positive. Students with an exemption are welcomed to study Irish and this year two of these students have accepted the invitation. The school is to be commended for motivating these students to experience the language.
At present there is a transitional period in the school as regards the provision of teachers of Irish. This is due to the fact that two teachers who were central in teaching the subject retired at the end of the 2008/09 school year. School management now faces a distinct challenge in making the best provision for teaching the subject, especially considering the good policy of school management up to now of sharing equally among all the teachers the experience of teaching higher level right up to Leaving Certificate. This year there are six teachers of Irish in the school. Two of these are newly appointed, in temporary posts and one does not have a teaching qualification as yet. Management stated that it was extremely difficult to recruit teachers of Irish this year because of how few qualified candidates apply for these posts.
One of the current six teachers of Irish, who was central in teaching the subject until now, has been appointed deputy principal. As a short term solution to the provision of teachers of Irish the deputy principal is taking on an exceedingly important part of the teaching of the subject at the highest level, for this school year. These duties are being fulfilled thoroughly and to the highest standard. However, in addition to having management duties, the existing arrangement is not viable in the long term. Another of the six teachers of Irish has returned to teaching Irish this year having spent a number of years with other responsibilities. In another case the number of Irish classes had to be increased very much over the usual number due to the scarcity of qualified teachers with experience in teaching the subject. It is recommended that during the current school year school management and the board focus, as a priority, on appointments to the Irish department for the school year 2010/11and thereafter in the interests of establishing a permanent team of teachers proficient in, and committed to, teaching the subject.
A subject co-ordinator is selected through agreement among teachers. Since the beginning of the current school year co-ordination of the subject has been undertaken by one of the teachers of Irish who has returned to teaching the subject. It is recommended that the responsibilities of subject co-ordinator be shared among all the teachers in the future. One of the advantages of rotating the subject co-ordinator is that every teacher gets a better insight into the status of the subject in the school and the co-ordinator can promote fresh thinking among teachers.
In the short term particular attention is being paid to professional development in the subject. Two of the six teachers have attended an in-service course in Irish organised early in the school year by the Second Level Support Service (SLSS) for Irish. An arrangement has been made for a regional officer from the SLSS to visit the school soon to give guidance to teachers on the optional oral examination in the Junior Certificate examination and the communicative approach.
A sizable number of reference documents have been accumulated as a guide for subject planning. These include the syllabuses, guidelines for teachers and a document from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) on Irish in primary school. It is very helpful that there is an understanding among teachers of the aims and objectives of the revised Irish primary school curriculum in order to identify the students’ starting point in learning the language and in the interests of ensuring continuity for students in advancing to the next level.
Collaborative planning has been ongoing for a number of years. Minutes of various planning meetings going back a number of years were made available however, these records were sparse with considerable time lags between the dates of meetings. Records of all the collaborative planning activities of the Irish department should be filed in chronological order. It would be worthwhile therefore to incorporate the minutes as part of the subject plan itself or, as part of the relevant accompanying documentation.
There is a subject plan which is set out in the form of teaching programmes for all year groups and all levels. It contains details of the content to be taught in every year group for the different levels. Useful guidelines are given to the teacher in relation to what has to be achieved in the subject within the three terms of the school year. This helps to ensure that a common course is taught and to organise a common assessment system. This is particularly important where a student moves class or where another teacher is assigned to the class for the next year of the course. The aims and objectives laid down from year to year show structured continuity and ever-incremental challenges. The best developed section of the plan deals with the Leaving Certificate where teaching objectives are set out in relation to receptive and productive language skills.
It is recommended that the school builds on the planning work. It would be useful to have a contents page at the beginning of the plan. Guidelines on planning and a planning template are available on the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) website. The aims and objectives should be set out more clearly for all year groups, as has been done for Leaving Certificate, and the four language skills should be incorporated. It would be worthwhile setting out more clearly the learning outcomes in those four skills, year on year, for the different levels in the subject. A worthwhile general guide to these matters is contained in the various plans that refer to the topics and the language functions listed in the syllabuses. It would be beneficial, in the case of all years, to include exemplars of the standard of those learning outcomes in the plan. The subject plan should be regarded as a guide for learners as well. Learning objectives should be linked to teaching methodologies because it is through these methods that the learning objectives will be achieved. It would be worthwhile incorporating into the plan this link with the teaching methods.
Freshness in content and in learning should be evident in the Irish plan for TY. In addition, clear guidance should be set down for differentiated learning, especially since there are students taking the three levels - higher, ordinary and foundation, in the same class group. Other than general reference to self-directed learning none of these factors are evident in the current TY plan. The account of the course content should be better laid out and include a credible timeframe. A realistic timeframe should be added to the TY plan especially since the subject is timetabled on only two days a week. It would be a positive move to share the Irish plan for TY with the students with explicit details of the course written down in the plan as a clear guide to the year’s work.
Even though the use of ICT resources was implicit in the work in a TY lesson, no reference is made in the plan to the use of ICT resources. This is an obvious omission. References to television and the internet are made in the Irish plans for other year groups. It would be worthwhile to clarify these references as regards the use that is made of ICT resources in the lessons. It is recommended also that priorities for initiating improvement in the subject be agreed among teachers and that an action plan for achieving this be developed. It would be worthwhile to state these priorities in the subject plan in the short term, for example for the current school year or, for an agreed period of time and evidence of the review of these priorities inserted in the plan.
In the course of the evaluation visit seven lessons were observed involving all six Irish teachers. Lessons were evenly divided between junior and senior levels. Particular strengths were evident in the teaching and learning in one of those lessons, a senior cycle lesson. The teacher’s approach and presentation were fresh and confident. The standard of Irish used in teaching throughout the lesson was excellent. Resources, which included a very good sound recording, were well chosen. The four language skills were practised consecutively and also integrated together. Students demonstrated a good understanding of what was going on and were able to express themselves about the lesson content. The target language was in use throughout the lesson. From the way in which students engaged with the lesson activities it was clear that this was normal practice in lessons. There was a good written account in the planning work in this case as well as a self-evaluation note on the standard of the lesson and recommendations for improvements. It would be very worthwhile for all the teachers to see a lesson such as this as an exemplar of good practice. It would also be an illustration of the reward a teacher can receive from dedicated work with students. Such reward consists of students being proficient and eager to express themselves confidently, corresponding to their ability in the subject, about the content chosen for the lesson.
All of the teachers of Irish were diligent in their teaching. The majority of lessons were well prepared and handouts were provided as a guide to the work of the lessons. However, in general, limited learning outcomes were evident. It was apparent that this result was linked to teaching methods as well as to the limited proficiency demonstrated by students in the lessons. A significant difference was evident in the standard of teaching and learning between the best lesson observed and the lesson with the least successful outcome. One of the biggest differences was the continuous use of the target language on one hand, and in other cases, even taking the different levels of classes into account, the overuse of translation to English to explain instructions and vocabulary and to confirm understanding. There was excessive use of English in other lessons also and the vocabulary in one of the handouts distributed was completely bilingual. This is a fundamental component of teaching practice and teachers must have a common approach. The subject plan states that it is left to the individual teacher to decide the appropriate teaching methodologies in each case. However, the overuse of English and translation should not be among the methods chosen. This issue is cited in all the Irish syllabuses. It is now time for the overuse of translation as a method of teaching and learning, as was observed in the majority of lessons, to be reviewed and guidelines on the matter written in the subject plan.
In some cases not enough variety was incorporated into lessons and the content itself was too limited. This is linked to the level of individual planning undertaken and teachers should reflect carefully on student proficiency and students needs in the specific class involved. For example, in a junior cycle lesson all the lesson time was spent discussing school subjects as a theme. A good handout on the subject matter was prepared however students were too taken up the whole time with the handout as a writing task. The oral questions put to the students were too limited and, for the most part, the answers required only a single word, to give or to recognise the name of the subject. There was no differentiation or additional challenge in the questions, as should be the case. There was no context within which to practise, or, build on vocabulary, other than the blank timetable in the handout.
In another lesson in the same year, which dealt with a similar topic, better efforts were made to ask students oral questions for a few moments at the beginning of the lesson. However, in each case questions were directed to students named in advance. It is recommended that questions are posed first and students afforded an opportunity to engage with the question and try to compose an answer. In each case answers which were very limited were accepted. For example, when a student failed to give a reason why he liked or disliked a particular subject the teacher proffered a reason and the student concurred. The result of this was that ’yes’ was the predominant answer and it was not obvious whether students did or did not understood the questions asked.
In another junior cycle class group work was attempted too early in the lesson as a stimulus for a discussion on pastimes. However, in this case the lesson objective was not stated clearly enough for students at the beginning. A comprehensive vocabulary was written in a handout and it was obvious that it was too great a challenge for certain students to understand some of these words. It was not clear what was to be done in the case where students did not understand the meaning of these words, even when a student asked direction on this. In the summary of the relevant vocabulary, completed later in the lesson, student attention was drawn to a rich vocabulary which was very challenging for them for example, ‘from generation to generation’ and ‘common pastimes’. Efforts were made to explain these words without resorting to an English translation however it had not been evident beforehand that such a vocabulary was involved in the lesson objective. No summary was done towards the end of the lesson on the lesson objective given at the beginning. Group work should have a clear objective and use should be made of feedback to recall the lesson objective.
The TY lesson involved students working in groups to develop ideas for making a radio programme. This class comprised students from higher, ordinary and foundation levels. The lesson objective was not made sufficiently clear for the students. It was not clear if students understood a lot of what the teacher said about the types of radio programmes because they did not have to reply to the instructions given other than to explain the odd word, often by giving the English equivalent. There was no differentiation involved in the task set later for students where they had to note down ideas for a radio programme on a blank sheet they were given. It would be much better to play a segment of a programme, made by other students and which has already won the same competition, as an exemplar for students. This lesson did not have a proper structure. Teacher talk was too predominant throughout. The students hardly spoke before beginning their task and it was not evident that they were making progress with the task when they were asked to note down fresh ideas for a programme.
A deficit noted in lessons was the fact that teachers did not foster communication with students on everyday events as standard practice. Oral questioning of students related to lesson content. For the most part these questions were limited as were student answers. Students must be given opportunities to experience Irish as a language of communication moving beyond answering questions that are too closely linked to the local environment of the individual student. This objective is too restricted and there is little satisfaction to be gained by learners or teachers from this practice. ICT resources should also be included to encourage communication inside and outside class.
In the interests of initiating improvement in teaching and learning in Irish, it is recommended that more discussion on classroom practice takes place among the subject teachers. It would be worthwhile considering the further promotion of good practice through working together collaboratively, for example, in the same year group. It would also be worthwhile to provide opportunity from time to time during the year to visit colleagues teaching their classes. One lesson in this report is cited as an effective exemplar of good practice. It would be worthwhile also incorporating the experience and expertise of other language teachers as another valuable source.
Oral questioning of students is used regularly in lessons. This is an effective means of ensuring that students understand the content of what is being taught. The form of questioning which requires students to translate should be curtailed and in fact in two of the lessons observed this translation method was not used. In addition to questioning, written homework is regularly assigned to reinforce work completed in class. Class examinations are set based on units of work or on certain elements such as listening comprehension, essay writing or reading comprehension. Teachers maintain an ongoing account of the results achieved by students and these records are available at the parent-teacher meetings. Teachers are very diligent in carrying out this assessment work and consideration is given to all the language skills.
Student oral proficiency is included in the house examinations for Leaving Certificate classes. This practice should be extended and acknowledgment of this central aspect of language skills should be incorporated into all the house examinations. Teachers are discussing this issue currently on how best to provide this evaluation and are being given direction and information regarding the optional oral examination in Irish in the Junior Certificate. Whichever decision is made in this matter a common approach should be agreed for awarding students credit for oral proficiency in the house examinations. A new allocation of marks for speaking Irish, similar to that allocated in the certificate examination under circular letter 0042/2007, should be included. However, focus should be on speaking the language as a skill, rather than focusing on the oral examination as a goal in itself. It is recommended therefore that it should not be the norm to carry out individual oral examinations, focusing on a series of questions based on the student’s immediate environment, from first year onwards. This does nothing to promote authentic communication and there is a danger that such a practice would be both dull and tedious for students. It would be much better to attempt to foster conversation based on everyday activities and events with students as a regular lesson component. If this approach is taken students will be fully prepared for the challenge of the oral examination. Student participation in these activities must be observed and encouraged and a general mark given regularly for effort. Students should be made aware of these marks, in advance and periodically. Teachers of the same year groups could exchange classes to get a second opinion of student progress in meeting this challenge and such an arrangement would serve as a good starting point for promoting collaborative practice among teachers.
A selection of student copybooks from four classes in junior cycle and one senior cycle class was examined. These copybooks contained comprehensive work. The work was very neat and tidy in a good number of copybooks and teacher comments were noted regularly in a significant number. There was a particularly high standard of work evident in the copybooks from the senior cycle class and favourable reference about this class was made earlier, in the section dealing with teaching and learning. The written work of these students showed that they were able to engage with the course at the highest level. Constructive corrections on essay work were written in by the teacher. There was effective guidance in written notes on grammar appropriate to higher level Leaving Certificate. A good range of vocabulary was being noted down regularly with frequently the English translation alongside. This is acceptable practice as it utilises the same means of enriching vocabulary as is used in the Ó Dónaill Irish-English dictionary.
In the majority of copybooks however there was too great a tendency to overuse translation to, and from, English. In certain cases there were complete sentences of essay work in English alongside the sentences in Irish. This would suggest that the English version was the original and the starting point of essay work. Students should be guided and encouraged to think in the target language.
At present comparisons are not made between student participation and achievement rates in the different levels in the subject in the certificate examinations and the national norms. It would be worthwhile to include this information in the subject plan as a reference point for all teachers on the status of Irish. Benefits could be derived from this information to achieve improvement objectives as part of the subject development plan in the short and long terms. An examination of these two aspects of the status of the subject in the school for the period 2007 to 2009 shows that these statistics should be focus points.
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 two of the teachers of Irish and 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 May 2010
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1: Observations on the content of the inspection report
Area 2: Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection
1. A review of Subject Plans in Gaeilge has commenced
2. A programme of school-based Inservice has commenced
3. A pilot Irish component is included in the Assessment Test for incoming First Years. An Irish component will be a permanent feature of the Test from 2011.