An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Buncrana, County Donegal
Roll number: 71140Q
Date of inspection: 26 February 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Crana College, carried out as part of a whole-school evaluation. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in English and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over two days during which the inspector visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with students and teachers, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and subject teachers.
The curricular programmes on offer in Crana College include the Junior Certificate, the established Leaving Certificate and the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP). Currently, there are 397 students enrolled. The Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) has been introduced in the school this year. A School Completion Programme (SCP) operates in the school and this provides a range of supports to students, including a homework club. The home-school-community liaison co-ordinator provides an important link with parents and with other groups in the area.
Junior cycle students of English are placed in mixed ability first year class groups. This allows them time to settle in to post-primary school before choosing the level at which they will study English. No distinct JCSP class group has been formed for English and students on this programme are drawn from each of the first year class groups. Students are banded in second and third years so that a higher level and an ordinary level class group are formed in both bands and lessons in English are timetabled concurrently within each band to facilitate students’ choice of course. In the senior cycle, students are set for English at the beginning of fourth year. Students are encouraged as appropriate to attempt higher level English and uptake of this course has been rising steadily, with one class group being formed for this course in each year of senior cycle.
Class groups are timetabled for English four times a week in each year of junior cycle and six times a week in each year of senior cycle. At junior cycle level, this is less than is available to students in most other schools. On the other hand, students in senior cycle are benefiting from at least thirty hours tuition per year in excess of the time allocation recommended by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). Given the school’s stated commitment to raising standards in the subject, it is recommended that a review should be conducted of how the time allocated to English can be best used. For example, consideration might be given to diverting time from senior cycle to junior cycle classes.
The school has a small English teaching team and, as has happened this year, relies on temporary teachers to deliver the subject across the school when teachers are absent on approved leave. With enrolment figures rising, it is suggested that consideration should be given to increasing the numbers of full-time teachers of English. Currently, teachers are generally assigned to higher or ordinary level courses based on teaching experience. Whilst this is an important consideration, the school should ensure that all teachers are given the opportunity to teach a variety of year groups and group levels in order to build and maintain the level of teaching expertise available. This would also provide teachers with opportunities to develop and maintain their familiarity with the subject at all levels.
The general school policy of having teachers based in their own rooms where possible is to be commended. As a result, a distinctly ‘English’ atmosphere has been created in one classroom through the display of students’ work and other learning materials. Shelves in this room are used to store the English textbooks available on the school’s book rental scheme and a small collection of library books. While students have limited access to these books at break and lunch times and have been brought to the local library, more should be done in the school to facilitate their access to good quality reading materials. A review of the titles available in the English room should take place to ensure their attractiveness to young readers. Using existing stock, class library boxes could then be assembled and teachers of English should set aside time for reading on a regular basis. Students should be encouraged to choose books or to bring their own choices from home for the library class. This will help to generate interest in reading for pleasure, for information and for improvement of language skills.
Teachers have access to TV and video/DVD equipment to support the teaching of film studies. Information and communication technology (ICT) is available in the school’s two computer rooms and terminals are networked for internet access. Teachers of English use the internet to download material for use in the classroom and students are encouraged to access the wide range of learning materials available. The school also makes funds available on request to enable teachers to purchase resources as needed and the commitment of the school to promoting and developing the subject in the school is evident in the range of supports available.
Overall, there is good whole-school support for English in this school. Management is supportive of continuing professional development (CPD) and has organised whole-staff training events on mixed ability teaching and on special educational needs.
Students are provided with opportunities for a range of co-curricular activities in English and this speaks well of the commitment of their teachers to their subject. Students have the opportunity to participate in a variety of competitions, including debating and public speaking. The production of a supplement for the local newspaper was a practical application of the skills they are learning in class. The commitment of teachers to providing students with practical experience of a range of valuable skills and the efforts made to encourage students to be involved are commended.
The school is commended for facilitating subject department planning through the allocation of time for four formal meetings annually for this purpose. As a result, very good progress has been made. The department folder presented during the evaluation provided a very clear description of how the teaching and learning of English is organised in the school together with an outline of the content taught at each stage of the junior and senior cycle programmes. A variety of differing templates has been used by teachers to present those outlines and it is suggested that the department should agree a common template for writing individual plans. It is recommended that, as teachers develop these plans further, they should augment the current programme descriptions by adding explicit learning objectives to be achieved by each class group. A stronger focus on the range of skills to be acquired by students across each of the four domains of language (Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking) will ensure that the objectives of the relevant syllabuses are achieved. Work has already begun on this in some teachers’ individual planning for particular classes and this is commended. It is suggested that this could be done on an incremental basis, beginning with first years, so that there is an opportunity to review the plans as they emerge.
The Junior Certificate School Programme is currently offered to a small group of first year students, all of whom are taught English with their ‘home’ class group. Whilst the commitment to inclusion of all students, evident in this arrangement, is highly commended, there was little evidence in the planning documents presented that teachers were making appropriate use of the JCSP subject statements for English. It was unclear, for example, whether this group of students received additional literacy development opportunities other than those provided in the English lesson. The English department plan contains reference to the interface between the learning support department and the teachers of English. It is recommended that this be elaborated to provide clear information about how the efforts of both departments to provide for the literacy development needs of JCSP students are being co-ordinated. A review of the department plan for English should also result in a clear description of how teachers will differentiate their teaching at each stage of the Junior Certificate English course to meet the needs of these students.
All classrooms visited were characterised by a warm and mutually respectful atmosphere. Discipline was well maintained and students were kept on task generally by the nature of the work planned. Lessons opened with a recap of previous lessons and/or correction of homework. This is good practice as it helps to reinforce prior learning and helps students to situate new material. It also worked to establish a good working atmosphere in classes from the outset and this was supported by clear expectations of students’ behaviour and effort. This ensured that there were few instances of inattention.
Lessons were well paced and directed and, in two cases, the teacher shared the aim of the lesson with the class group. This is very good practice as it contextualises classroom activity and encourages students to share responsibility for the lesson. The most successful lessons observed shared a number of characteristics, including the setting of clear, unambiguous, learning tasks and opportunities for students to actively engage in classroom activity. In a senior cycle lesson on poetry, for example, students were asked to work together in pairs to identify sounds in the poem which helped them form an impression of its mood. This was particularly successful as the teacher read through the poem twice and provided the class with clear directions about how to work together, but did not provide them with either explanation or interpretation of the text. The contributions made by students to the plenary discussion at the close of the lesson indicated that they had developed quite sophisticated responses to the poem and were articulate and assured in referencing the text to support their interpretations of it. In this way, they achieved authentic, personal, responses to the poem.
In a junior cycle class, students were clearly comfortable working in groups and they quickly organised themselves to work on a revision task set by their teacher on a novel they were studying. Here, the teacher acted as recorder of their observations and, through very gentle interjections, helped them refine the expression of their insights and ideas. As a result, very helpful revision notes were created using students’ input. This approach is commended as it provides a way of valuing students’ work and demonstrating that they can develop the skills of literary criticism. As the lesson drew to a close, students were encouraged to predict how the story would develop, thus generating interest and motivation to read further. This lesson succeeded because the pace of each activity planned was carefully managed throughout and there was sufficient time to reinforce the learning achieved through active student involvement in lessons.
In some classes, however, there was a disproportionate level of teacher talk and students were passive learners. In order to engage students and facilitate an authentic response to the texts being studied, it is recommended that all teachers include a wide range of teaching strategies in their teaching plans. Given the excellent practice in this regard observed in the school, it is suggested that a review of appropriate methodologies, conducted as part of subject planning, may provide a context within which teachers of English could work together to share their expertise and learn from one another.
The encouragement given to students to reach their full potential in the subject in the school means that, while students are set from second year to facilitate the teaching of English at different levels, ordinary level class groups include some students who are attempting the higher course. Generally, students were making good progress through their courses and any variations in achievement reflected their differing abilities in the subject. Students’ contributions to class discussions were well-focussed and purposeful. At the higher end of the ability range, these contributions were often sophisticated and evidenced the encouragement given to students to express and support their personal responses to the course work. Less able students were less fluent and often limited their responses to single words or very short phrases. These students would benefit from encouragement to develop their ideas, perhaps within the support of a learning group or pair.
A range of exercises has been set to help develop students’ writing skills. In many of the students’ folders, it was evident that teachers created links between texts studied and personal writing so that, for example, in one class students were asked to write a diary entry for a character in a text they were studying. This thematic approach to English, linking themes across genre, is good practice. It works well to deepen students’ understanding of the themes and concepts explored in their texts while simultaneously reinforcing the language lessons learned. Student folders also provided ample evidence of the efforts made by teachers in Crana College to access and provide a wide range of notes for their students. Material is drawn from a number of sources to supplement work done in class and students are encouraged to keep this information in folders. Many students produce their written work on loose-leaf pages. Particular encouragement should be given to ensure that this work once corrected, is kept neatly in their folders. Care should also be taken to find a balance between student-generated material and teacher-distributed notes in the folder, in order to reflect a commitment to develop a student-centred programme which allows students to engage with texts directly, forming their own responses rather than simply developing a familiarity with another person’s interpretation of the texts.
In the written work reviewed, students demonstrated their understanding of the features of different text types, including reports, reviews, narratives and more discursive essays. There is scope for further development of their awareness of the purpose and audience for their writing. Better able students were able to extract and use relevant detail when writing about their studied texts and the fluency with which many higher level students used technical vocabulary correctly and appropriately was impressive. Their written work was generally well-focussed and it was clear that the writing tasks set were appropriately challenging. Less able students struggled to articulate their ideas in writing and were less likely to maintain folders of their work. It is recommended that all lessons with students on the ordinary level course should include some written element in order to build their confidence and skills. This might take the form of a simple record of work completed in class, a statement of what was learned in each lesson, or some very simply written notes, which the teacher has generated using students’ own contributions to class. This, together with more frequent use of models and writing ‘skeletons’, for example, will support students as they develop and rehearse their writing skills.
Teachers used questions to measure students’ understanding of work done in class and in most instances were skilful in eliciting thoughtful responses not just from volunteers but from the more reticent. Homework was set regularly, in accordance with the school’s homework policy and in most instances was carefully annotated by the teachers. Students were provided with feedback on how they might improve on their work and their attention was drawn to their strengths also. This is very helpful as it provides students and parents with clear information about how they are progressing in the subject and can be very motivating. It was unclear, however, that all students taking the ordinary level courses are regularly assigned homework and their written work was often checked only by ‘tick’ marking. Whilst it is acknowledged that some students are very reluctant writers and are slow to tackle homework assignments, work should be set to provide them with opportunities to practise and refine the writing skills necessary for success in the subject. It is recommended that the homework done by students should be used to generate a profile of each student’s progress and, as a necessary precursor to this, that accurate records of work set and marks or grades achieved, should be maintained. This was done in the majority of classes but was not consistent practice among the teachers of English.
Students’ progress is assessed by Christmas and summer term examinations and, for examination classes, by ‘mock’ examinations. The setting of common papers where possible is good practice as it allows for comparison of students’ progress across the mixed-ability class and provides a strong basis for recommendations regarding choice of course for examination.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· There is good whole-school support for English in this school. Teachers have access to TV and video/DVD equipment to support the teaching of film studies. Information and communication technology (ICT) is
available and is used by teachers to prepare resources and notes for students.
· Management is supportive of continuing professional development and has organised whole-staff training events.
· A stimulating ‘English’ learning atmosphere has been created in the English room.
· Students are provided with practical experience of a range of valuable skills through the co-curricular activities in English available in the school.
· Very good progress has been made in subject department planning and a very good department folder was available for inspection.
· Students were making good progress through their courses and generally variations in achievement reflected their differing abilities in the subject.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· A review should be conducted of how the time allocated to English can be best used across both junior and senior cycle.
· Clear information should be supplied about how the efforts of the learning support department and the teachers of English to provide for the literacy development needs of JCSP students are being co-ordinated.
· A clear description of how teachers will differentiate their teaching at each stage of the Junior Certificate English course to meet the needs of JCSP students should be included in the subject department plan.
· Homework should be set and used to generate a profile of each student’s progress. Accurate records of work set and marks or grades achieved, should be maintained by all teachers of English.
A post-evaluation meeting was held with the teachers of English and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published November 2008