An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of French
Griffith Avenue, Dublin 9
Roll number: 60420L
Date of inspection: 23 January 2007
Date of issue of report: 4 October 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in French
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Ardscoil Rís, conducted as part of a whole school evaluation. 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.
Ardscoil Rís is a voluntary secondary school for boys, situated on Griffith Avenue in Dublin. There are 507 boys attending the school and a good range of curricular programmes serves the needs of its students.
French is a compulsory subject in junior cycle. Spanish is offered as an optional subject and students may choose to study both languages up to Junior Certificate. German is taught ab initio to Transition Year students, giving them the opportunity to acquire partial competence in another European language. This provision for modern languages is very good. In senior cycle, French is offered in three option lines. As a result of this policy, uptake is high and class size is small with both a higher and ordinary level group available within each option pool. Such small class size allows for excellent individual attention and for experimentation with alternative seating arrangements to facilitate, for example, group discussion.
The school operates a system of mixed-ability classes in first year. Students are streamed into three discrete ability groups in second and third year. Placement in a particular class for all subjects is based on the results achieved in the summer examinations at the end of first year. Each student is awarded a mark that represents the average of his test scores across all subjects. Where French is concerned, it is suggested that such rigid streaming, on the basis of marks that may have been achieved in other subjects, be reviewed. A student’s attainment in a particular subject area may not necessarily be a reliable indicator of potential achievement in another. At present, the majority of students in the school take French at higher level in the Junior Certificate examination. The joint syllabus for ordinary and higher level Junior Certificate French is designed to facilitate and accommodate the learning of the language in a mixed-ability setting. In advance of making a decision to opt for mixed ability groups in French, teachers may wish to avail of the advice and support on planning, preparation, approaches and teaching methodologies suited to mixed ability classes which is offered by the Second Level Support Service (01-2365021) or www.slss.ie
In general, the allocation of teaching periods to French and the distribution of those periods throughout the week are appropriate. The assignment of single periods, in the main, ensures optimal regular contact with the target language. In Transition Year, two periods only are allocated to French and, given the fact that many students will continue their study of the language for Leaving Certificate, it is recommended that three periods per week be made available for the subject.
Eight teachers are engaged in the delivery of French in the school. All teachers have studied the language to degree level and many have availed of continuous professional development opportunities in France and in Ireland. The teachers of French are commended for their commitment to ongoing professional development which is such an important component of successful language teaching. In the current school year, two Higher Diploma in Education students teach French to two groups of first-year students and they work in close liaison with the French department.
Due to the design of the building, and the narrowness of the corridors, it is not possible, on health and safety grounds, to assign classrooms to individual teachers. Consequently, teachers of French work in student-based classrooms where it is very difficult to create a supportive, print-rich environment. While student-generated work was displayed in some classrooms, in general, the rooms visited were adequate but quite bare, lacking displays of good, authentic visual material such as a map of France, posters, photographs, colour charts and other relevant materials that create a stimulating learning environment for students. It would be worth investigating the possibility of designating an area in the student-based rooms as a French Corner where a map of France and language posters could be displayed.
Teachers of French have availed of training in information communications technology (ICT). It is possible to access ICT for French lessons by booking a slot on the computer-room timetable. It was reported however, that the quality of the Broadband connection in the school is so unreliable that students are rarely taken to the computer room for French class. In discussions with the inspector, teachers expressed an interest in downloading supplementary, up-to-date material for classroom use. The website www.french.ie which is specifically designed for teachers of French in Irish schools should prove a most useful resource. In addition, all students, and particularly those in senior cycle, should be enabled and encouraged to use ICT, in a personal capacity, to research authentic French websites in order to learn independently.
Co- and extra-curricular activities, facilitated by teachers, broaden and enhance the teaching of French in the school. Enjoyable activities help greatly to promote cultural awareness and to increase student interest in and enjoyment of the language. Senior students attend the French Film Festival which takes place in the Irish Film Institute. An annual trip to Paris, during the February mid-term break, is open to students from second year upwards. Students are accompanied by a number of teachers from the school and they avail of a Homestay Programme where they are hosted in a Parisian family, experiencing French food, culture and way of life at first hand. The generous time commitment of the teachers concerned is warmly acknowledged. Some table quizzes are held on occasion in the school for junior cycle students and a special French event, organised last year in conjunction with a local girls’ school, to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day, proved very popular.
While collaborative subject planning is still at a developmental stage in the school, a good ethos of co-operation and mutual support exists among the teachers of French. Formal, scheduled departmental meetings take place infrequently, i.e. once or twice a year, but teachers liaise regularly on an informal basis.
A plan to guide the teaching and learning of French in the school has been drawn up and was made available during the evaluation. The plan covers a wide range of subject–related areas such as student access to French, options lines, time allocation, an inventory of additional resources, homework and examination procedures. Some effective teaching methodologies are outlined in the plan in addition to schemes of work for each year group. Commendably, the work schemes specify the desired learning outcomes for different groups. It is advisable to review planning documents annually and to amend where necessary. The inclusion of some documented strategies for the promotion of ICT as an additional learning tool, for example, would be timely and helpful.
In order to further the planning process, it is recommended that a subject co-ordinator for French be appointed, perhaps on a rotational basis. Such a measure would afford each member of the team the opportunity to get a full insight into the issues involved in the operation of their subject department. In developing the role of co-ordinator, the French team should take into account the main tasks associated with the role, such as the organisation and arrangements for the keeping of records of departmental meetings, the distribution of relevant information from the Department of Education and Science and the State Examinations Commission or other groups to all teachers of French, the development of collaborative practices which would lessen the individual workload for teachers, especially in the preparation of additional teaching resources and in-house examinations. It is suggested that, at future departmental meetings, time could be devoted to the sharing of best practice as the teachers of French collectively have a considerable amount of experience and expertise.
At individual level, teachers demonstrated significant evidence of planning and preparation for class. Such personal readiness included the preparation of worksheets, handouts, pictures, audio-visual equipment and in some cases, yearly schemes of work.
Inspection work undertaken included the observation of teaching and learning in nine lessons, five at senior and four at junior level. There was also an opportunity for dialogue and interaction with the students.
Texts and topics chosen were in line with syllabus requirements and were well pitched to the ability of the various groups. A good work-pace was set from the beginning and class time was used efficiently to cover a substantial volume of material. In order to clarify the lesson objective and to focus students’ attention, it is suggested that the theme of the day’s lesson be written on the board at the start of class. In general, there was good continuity with previous learning. Lessons were most successful when a number of different learning activities were employed to teach a single topic during the class period. Teaching strategies observed included considerable teacher input, individual questioning, pair work, the completion of worksheets and oral practice.
Teachers made a significant effort to promote students’ engagement, both in junior and in senior-cycle groups. A variety of photographs and pictures were used in some junior cycle classes to stimulate imagination and to encourage good participation. For example, students were asked to devise an imaginary fiche d’identité for the person featured in the photograph. Students, working in pairs or small groups, approached this task with enthusiasm. They had previously learned some useful adjectives to describe physical and personality traits and were now able to apply them in a practical and imaginative way. In the context of oral skills development, it is suggested that it would be productive to invite each group to present their completed work to their peers. Another teaching strategy, where students were given clues and asked to guess a celebrity’s identity, worked very successfully. The focus on visual stimuli to promote students’ oral participation also worked very well in junior cycle where the students had drawn typical signs or notices seen in France. These were effectively employed to do both an individual and group revision exercise, ensuring the full involvement of the class group.
Particularly deserving of praise were those lessons in which authentic materials were used to engage students and where elements of cultural, awareness were seamlessly integrated into class work. In Transition Year, teaching centred on French food and the active teaching methodologies employed ensured a high level of interest. The teacher had brought the necessary ingredients and utensils to class to make a Salade de Riz. The proposed cooking method was explained to students entirely in French, accompanied by sketches on the board. Finally, the rice was actually cooked on a portable electric plate in the classroom. Students were given simple instructions on how to make a similar rice salad at home and arrangements were made for a follow-up lesson in which the students themselves would serve and then eat the fruits of their labour! The lesson, in which the target language was used throughout, was a very good example of innovative teaching and cross-curricular experiential learning as the students in Ardscoil Rís study cookery as part of their Transition Year programme.
The film Amélie is a firm favourite with students and the decision to use it as a stimulus for senior cycle teaching and learning was a good one. In advance of watching the film, students, working in pairs, completed a teacher-generated worksheet on French film in general. They also discussed their own favourite films. Having watched the extract from Amélie twice, the students again worked industriously in pairs to discuss and complete a questionnaire on the film. Students made a very good effort to express their opinions, and even greater input would be assured if useful key phrases were written on the board as an aide-mémoire.
During the course of all lessons observed, the extensive and sustained use of French as the language of communication and instruction in the classroom was, without exception, outstanding. Teachers were fully at ease with the spoken language, displaying a very high level of accuracy and proficiency. Such ongoing exposure to the spoken target language does much to improve both the aural and oral skills of students and it enables them to view French as a means of real, meaningful communication. In Ardscoil Rís, it was heartening to note that students seemed fully accustomed to and comfortable with the use of the target language. Many were able to respond to and to interact with their teacher and with the inspector in French. A commendable emphasis was placed on correct pronunciation and intonation, and when errors occurred they were corrected with skill and sensitivity.
In all lessons observed, there was evidence of excellent classroom management skills. It was clear that the teachers of French set high expectations of behaviour and work ethic. Students were courteous and co-operative. They participated actively in the lessons and made a very good effort to respond to teacher questioning. The atmosphere was positive and productive in all classes, due in no small part to the very good rapport between the teachers and their students
Assessment is an inherent part of teaching and learning in Ardscoil Rís, and is effected through a number of strategies, formative and summative.
All students sit house examinations at Christmas and third- and sixth-year students take mock examinations in the spring. There is an oral component to the sixth-year mock examination and this test is administered by an external examiner. This strategy is commended. Indeed, in view of the importance of the oral element of language learning, it is recommended that all students sit an informal oral test, possibly within class time. This approach would validate the excellent use of the target language observed in the classrooms. It is noted that all students sit an aural examination. This is a productive policy particularly as over 40% of the marks are allocated to the listening section in the Junior Certificate. The above-mentioned formal assessment procedures are supported by regular class-based tests. All teachers maintain records of students’ achievement and parents are kept informed of their sons’ progress through the school reports, the school journal and annual parent-teacher meetings.
The regular assignment of homework and the checking of students’ copybooks is an important element of the formative assessment process. It was noted that students had a commendable amount of vocabulary and other helpful notes in their copybooks. This good work would be further enhanced if copybooks had a specific vocabulary section, laid out in themes to facilitate revision. In some lessons observed, students were given a manageable number of new words to look up in their dictionaries as part of a homework exercise. This is good practice as students develop independent learning skills while adding to their range of vocabulary. Notwithstanding the importance of building up a good vocabulary store, it is essential that all students be given regular, productive written exercises in the target language as homework assignments, in order to consolidate classroom learning. The monitoring of such work, together with the inclusion of positive, formative comments in copybooks, is a helpful means of guiding students on how to improve their written work. In addition, Junior and Leaving Certificate examination candidates require ample practice on past examination papers in order to familiarise themselves with the requirements and general layout of the paper.
During the evaluation period, teachers distributed a considerable number of useful handouts to students. Ideally, students should have an indexed folder to store such handouts. This is particularly necessary in classes where a textbook is not commonly used. It is also important to ensure that materials used in place of a textbook fully cover the syllabus content and that students have ready access to such material for revision. To this end, it is recommended that the French department discuss and agree on an effective system for the use and maintenance of copybooks and folders.
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:
· The streaming of second-year and third-year groups in French should be reviewed.
· The provision of three periods for French in Transition Year would be beneficial to students.
· The good collaborative planning work accomplished to date should be extended to include the sharing of best teaching practice.
· Class seating, in small senior-cycle classes, could be changed to create more cohesive, interactive groups.
· The potential of ICT in language teaching and learning needs to be further explored and exploited.
· The assignment and monitoring of productive homework exercises is essential to underpin the very good work being done in class.
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.