An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Irish
Skerries Community College
Skerries, County Dublin
Roll number: 76078Q
Date of inspection: 25 September 2007
Date of issue of report: 22 May 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching of Irish
This report was written following a subject inspection of Irish in Skerries Community College as part of a whole-school evaluation. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning of Irish and makes recommendations for the 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 the teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with the students and teachers, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school-planning documentation and teachers’ written preparations. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the subject teachers and the principal.
There are seven teachers of Irish in the school and Irish is a significant part of the teaching programme of each. Five of those teachers have wide experience of teaching the subject in the school and two of the five also have experience as assistant examiners for the Leaving Certificate orals. One of the teachers has written second-level textbooks in Irish. One teacher is starting out on her fourth year teaching the subject in the school and another, without a teaching qualification, has just started as a substitute teacher. The principal’s comments about the ongoing difficulties encountered by schools in recruiting teachers qualified in Irish, were noted.
In general the teachers of Irish are very familiar with teaching the subject at all levels and it was understood that teachers setting out in teaching the subject are provided with guidance and advice. At the inspector’s meetings with the staff and with individual teachers, there was evidence of open, supportive co-operation among the teachers and one could sense a positive atmosphere among the personnel and in the activities of the department of Irish in the school. The principal was supportive of the teaching and promotion of the subject, as evidenced in his willingness to be interviewed in Irish by third-year students, as part of a programme of events to promote Irish in the school.
The inspector was given to understand by the teachers that they assume the role of co-ordinator for the subject in turn, for a period of a year each, so that everybody gains experience of the work. This is a good arrangement. In the timetabling for Irish, account is taken of teaching experience, the need to offer a balance in the timetable that will give teachers the opportunity of teaching various academic levels of the subject, and individual teachers’ requests. This approach is considered fair and reasonable. It is recommended, however, that the arrangements for allocating teachers to Transition Year Irish classes be reviewed. The ideal would be to achieve a better balance of experience in teaching that programme. It was noted that the two least-experienced teachers have been allocated to Transition Year Irish classes for the current year – an arrangement which poses a major challenge for the development of innovative teaching and learning methodologies.
The number of students with exemptions from Irish was noted and the inspector was assured that requests for exemptions had been granted strictly in accordance with the provisions of circular M10/94 in each case. The inspector was given to understand that students who have been granted an exemption are welcomed by the teachers of Irish to study the language, as proof of which, three senior-cycle students who have an exemption were studying Irish. The teachers are commended for offering these opportunities. At the meeting with the teachers, a certain concern was expressed about the arrangements in operation for providing alternative programmes for students with exemptions, simultaneously with Irish classes. It is recommended that these arrangements be reviewed, especially in the case of classes having a significant number of students with exemptions.
The school management has made a good provision of resources for teaching the subject and the majority of the teachers of Irish have their own classrooms. Most of these rooms have an excellent range of resources, including television sets, computers with internet links, data projectors, white boards and overhead projectors, as well as notices in Irish which help to create a stimulating learning-atmosphere. A software package, Let’s Talk Irish, is listed among the resources and attempts are being made to solve technical problems to allow for the use of another package, World Talk Irish. The teachers of Irish are familiar with Information and Communications Technology (ICT), thanks to training courses they have attended as part of the school’s ongoing professional development programme for the teaching-staff. The resource-list for Irish includes extra reading material – magazines, newspapers and books – as well as videotapes and the inspector was informed that the principal is always willing to provide funding for new resources for the subject.
A satisfactory amount of time is allocated to Irish on the timetable – five class-periods per week for all first-year, second-year and sixth-year classes, and for three of the fifth-year classes. The other three fifth-year classes have six class-periods each per week. All third-year and Transition-Year classes have four class-periods each per week. In the case of one-third of the classes, there is an excellent distribution of class-periods throughout the week, with a single class-period per day on the timetable. It is recommended, however, in the case of other classes, that the distribution be reviewed. That applies in particular to fifth-year classes, where no Irish class periods are scheduled on the timetable on two successive days – Wednesday and Thursday – while two periods are timetabled for other days, even two consecutive class-periods in some cases.
It is also recommended that the time-tabling of sixth-year Irish classes be reviewed, to provide a greater facility for students to change the level they are studying – especially those students wishing to switch from higher to ordinary level, or from ordinary to foundation level. This would require banding and the provision of all Irish classes concurrently on the timetable.
An arrangement is in operation from the start of first year, under which higher-level and ordinary-level classes are set up from the outset, based on entrance assessments in various subjects, Irish among them, and following consultation with the feeder primary schools. Three of the six first-year classes are following the higher-level programme and the school’s efforts to steer as many students as possible towards higher level are praiseworthy indeed. However, it would be worth thinking about trying mixed-ability class-groups in first year – even for a test-period – and reviewing the situation after an agreed length of time. This recommendation is made to foster a more positive view of the subject among students placed in ordinary-level classes from the start, under the current arrangements.
The teachers of Irish mentioned the goodwill towards Irish among the teaching staff in general and the extra efforts made by teachers of other subjects to speak Irish to the students in connection with the whole-school events during Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish Week). The teachers of Irish are involved in other efforts to encourage enthusiasm for the language and a debating team is taking part in the Gael Linn debating competition. All of those efforts are commended.
The inspector was given to understand that formal development of a subject-plan was initiated in the school in the course of the school year 2005/06 and that a facilitator from the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) advised the whole teaching-staff in this regard. An illustration of this work in the case of Irish is written up in the subject-planning folder made available. This document accorded with the SDPI framework for drafting a subject-plan and it was explained that all the teachers of Irish participated in compiling the document. The document contains an account of the proceedings of the planning-meetings for the subject since the first was held in the school year 2005/06.
The plan for the subject is good and it offers valuable guidance on the aims and objectives of the teachers of Irish, on the work-schedules laid out for all the year-levels in the school, corresponding to the various levels of the subject, as well as on the resources available and the language skills to be developed. The inventory of resources includes a valuable list of websites as a guide. A further development of the basic plan involved the laying out of a term-by-term work plan for fifth and sixth years.
A class-period was made available once a week during the school year 2006/07 to help speed up the joint planning in the various subjects. During that same year, the teachers of Irish began discussing and defining teaching methods for the subject, under the guidance of the SDPI facilitator. The outcomes of that work are evident in the plan for effective teaching methodologies – references influenced by the syllabuses for Irish, copies of which are also bound into the folder. Among the main points in this account are: an emphasis on the use of the target language in class, on avoiding over-reliance on translation to English, on promoting active learning with the use of drama, debate, question-times, group work and the use of questioning-styles which accord with student ability. This work is commended.
In view of what is contained in the plan about the communicative approach, it would be worth considering the possibilities of further emphasising the practice of oral Irish in the junior cycle classes. This is mentioned in particular in the light of the comments to the inspector on the improvement observed in the standard of oral Irish among students coming from the primary schools in the past two years. The changes which will come into effect in the certificate exams within a few years, which will involve assessment of oral Irish being more central to those exams, should also be taken into account. Because of these considerations and the good standard of teaching in the classes observed, as well as the inspector’s discussion with almost all the teachers, it was evident that it would be beneficial to place this aspect of the work more prominently in the planning for teaching and for assessment.
There are references also in the subject-plan to the use of the television programme Spongebob from TG4 with first-years on a trial basis and to link stimulating material to Irish, to suit the students’ range of interests. Innovative work like this is commended and it would be worth including a brief account in the plan of the advantages of using that programme. It would be good, also, to share with teaching colleagues, a demonstration of the use of the programme in a first-year class, in order to hear suggestions for improvement and to spread the use of successful practice. Attention to the use of ICT as part of the teaching programme is also included in the plan and it was obvious that the teachers were anxious to develop this aspect of their work. It was noticed in some lessons observed that teachers are at ease in using ICT in class and an important element in this is the excellent range of resources available in many of the normal classrooms.
The plan for Irish in Transition Year was examined; it contained a limited account of the content of the programme and of teaching and learning strategies. It would be worth drafting a more complete account, giving a clearer term-by-term analysis of the plan as an assurance that a different approach to teaching and learning the subject is used in Transition Year. That is not evident in the plan made available. Regarding the attendance of students at classes, a decision should be made to agree a schedule of events with the co-ordinator of the Transition-Year programme, at the start of the school year, to ensure that the absence of a not-inconsiderable number of students from Irish classes does not become normal practice, as is the case, the inspector was informed.
Plans prepared by individual teachers were made available in certain cases; these indicate that teachers aree taking cognisance of the subject-plan which serves as a guide for the work of the teachers of Irish and that the requirements of the certificate exam-papers are also taken into account. The planning-work in general illustrates that the teachers are concerned with increasing student interest in the subject, with teaching the subject effectively and with achieving the best outcomes for the students according to their linguistic ability.
During the inspection visit, six classes in junior and senior cycles, including Transition Year, were observed. All of the various levels of language were involved. The approach taken by the teachers to their classes indicated that, in their planning, they paid appropriate attention to the students’ language level. Teachers ensured that the language they used in their instruction methodology was adapted to the class-level, that the lesson content was intelligibly communicated and that the questions asked and homework set were suitably challenging to the students. In the majority of the classes, copybooks and folders were examined which showed that appropriate homework was being set and noted during lessons, as well as due recognition being given to students’ efforts.
All the lessons were well ordered, each having a precise objective which was communicated to the students at the outset. Those objectives concerned developing language skills by studying poetry and prose texts, and listening-comprehension texts, as well as developing conversational and writing skills. It was evident that there was continuity from the work done in previous lessons to that involved in the current lesson. The teachers spoke Irish all the time and the language of communication was simplified as much as possible for students whose grasp of the language was very limited. Those strategies are commended.
In one case, a valiant effort was made with the help of a diagram to convey the essence of a poem to students who could not understand the text of the poem. The subject-matter of the poem was described in language which was considerably simplified for the students, but no English was used in the explanation. The explanation was repeated and simple questions were later used to ensure that students had a basic understanding of the poem. Students were afforded the opportunity of using their understanding of the poem among themselves by practising active pair-work for short periods. That strategy was praiseworthy, because although it was clear that the students had only a limited ability to express themselves in Irish, they were afforded the opportunity of using that limited command of the language and they were encouraged and helped in doing so.
Later on, the teacher tried posing questions to certain students, at a more challenging level than straightforward comprehension, questions which encouraged them to consider the feelings which inspired the writing of the poem. This work was repeated and practised patiently with lively questioning to ensure students’ understanding of the subject-matter of the poem at various levels and those efforts succeeded. That was an illustration of a strategy of differentiated teaching being effectively used to develop the various ranges of ability among the students in a class.
In other cases the various language skills were integrated, to develop listening-comprehension, oral language and writing in partnership. Specially noted in one lesson was the excellence of the sound-system in the room, where a compact disc of listening-comprehension material was being used, to ensure students’ understanding of the subject matter, and as reference-matter for the students when writing a conversation on a related topic as homework. Handouts had been prepared as a guide for the students in showing their understanding of the listening-comprehension material – and these were distributed to the students without any attention being drawn to the distinction that was evident in the questions between those suited to ordinary level students and those suited to foundation level, both groups in the one class. Both levels were catered for in a way which did not draw attention to the difference in standard between them and which challenged the two groups appropriately. This effective approach was admirable.
All the teachers used the same approach to praising answers given, especially oral replies. The teachers succeeded in implementing the programmes laid out for lessons within the time available and homework was set to reinforce the subject-matter of the lessons. The teachers set a good example for the students in the fluency of their Irish and the accuracy of their pronunciation. It would be beneficial, however, to provide other models of Irish well spoken for the students, where possible. A recording of a poem being read by the poet or by an actor would be ideal for this purpose.
In various cases, the teacher veered away from the theme of the text in use, to ask questions which afforded certain students an opportunity of relating the theme under discussion to their own life-experience. These strategies were admirable and the questions succeeded in encouraging the students to conduct a natural conversation; it would be worth using this approach as much as possible. Replying to such questions, which crop up unexpectedly indicates that students have attained the linguistic competence to express personal opinions.
Two different lessons observed involved practice of free-flowing conversation. The same approach was in use in both, which sought to encourage the students to talk about everyday topics. Despite equal commitment from the two teachers involved, in one case the teacher got the co-operation of all the students, but, in the other, only limited co-operation. It is recommended that the teachers consider sharing professional support with one another as part of the open discussion among themselves at professional meetings, on the management of classes. There was plenty of evidence of experience of effective class-management in the classes observed. It would be invaluable to offer that experience, already available in the school, as a guide to other teachers. The best way to avail oneself of that guidance is to see the good practice in operation in the class-room.
The suggestion above is made mainly because of the importance of the work being done in those two classes – that is, the promotion of oral Irish among the students. That work requires particular ability in managing the progression of the lesson and the students themselves, as well as focusing on fluency in the language. It is recommended that the management of free-flowing conversation lessons in Irish be promoted as part of the professional development that could be undertaken among the teachers of Irish themselves, with special attention being focused on newly-qualified and less-experienced teachers.
There was a positive learning atmosphere in the vast majority of the classes observed, with the teachers getting great co-operation from the students all the while. That good atmosphere derived to a large extent from how well-organised the teachers were for the classes and from their presentation of the lessons, which indicated confidence in their own abilities and concern for the students’ learning needs.
Incoming first-year students take a test of competence in Irish. This is exclusively a written exam. The results of that exam and of other tests are taken into account in allocating students to classes catering for the various levels of the subject. The inspector was informed that those classes are regularly reviewed, to ensure that students are in classes suited to their ability in Irish. It would be worth trying to avoid placing students with poor competence in the language together in separate classes so early in their second-level experience. Mixed-ability classes would provide those students with a greater incentive and encouragement to succeed.
References to spoken Irish are central to the planning-work for both junior and senior cycles. Oral Irish is not included in the assessment of the junior cycle students for the house exams, so that no credit is given for achievement in that aspect of the curriculum until students are in senior cycle. It is recommended that spoken Irish be taken into account as an aspect of assessment work in both cycles and as an encouragement for junior cycle students to achieve a good standard of oral Irish.
Such an approach would match the reported marked improvement in the ability in oral Irish among students arriving from the primary schools in the past two years. It would illustrate a clear link between the approach recommended in the revised primary-school curriculum and the approach suggested in the second-level syllabuses for Irish, regarding the development of conversational Irish. The house exams need not necessarily entail individual oral exams. A judgement could be made of students’ efforts to speak Irish in class, once a record of those efforts is kept from the outset. Besides, concurrent class-times on the timetable could be occasionally utilised by teachers of identical class-levels, to exchange classes and conduct conversations with a different class and get a second opinion on the students’ ability in oral Irish.
Formal house-exams are conducted in February and in June and at Christmas, a report is written giving the average mark achieved in continuous assessments of class-work. The inspector was informed that monitoring is done on a continuous basis on student-achievements in all subjects. Two holders of posts of responsibility are in charge of that monitoring – which is undertaken in collaboration with the subject-teachers, with the aim of achieving high standards, and, in the case of Irish, to ensure that every student is focused on the subject at the level most suited to his or her ability. It was evident from the teachers’ planning-work and class-work that they are conscious of maximising students’ achievements in the subject at the certificate exams and preparing them accordingly.
The inspector was given to understand by the teachers that there has been quite an improvement in the status of the subject among the students in recent years, with a corresponding improvement in achievements in the certificate examinations. Among the reasons for this, the teachers mentioned the improvement in resources available since the building was extended. A full account was available of students’ achievements in Irish in the certificate exams. It would be advisable to include this information with the subject-plan, to make an overview of the current status of the subject in the school readily available and as a guide to launching plans for further improvement.
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 Irish and with the principal, at the conclusion of the evaluation, meetings at which the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.