An Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna
Department of Education and Skills
Subject Inspection of English
Swords, County Dublin
Roll number: 60383I
Date of inspection: 11 December 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Choilm. 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 principal. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
Coláiste Choilm is a voluntary secondary school for males. Its current enrolment is 617 students. The curricular programmes on offer are the Junior Certificate, an optional Transition Year (TY) programme and the established Leaving Certificate. The timetabled allocation to the subject is in keeping with syllabus guidelines and there is an even distribution of English lessons across the week for all class groups.
Junior-cycle students of English are placed in mixed-ability class groups within two bands for English for each of the three years of their course. This is very good practice. The policy of delaying the decision at which level students will sit the Junior Certificate examination in the subject until after the pre-certificate examinations in third year is particularly good. This is in keeping with the school policy to encourage as many students as possible to take the higher-level course. In the senior cycle, students are set for English at the beginning of fifth year so that separate class groups for higher and ordinary-level classes can be facilitated. Concurrency on the timetable allows for students to move class groups quite easily if they wish to change levels for English lessons.
All the teachers of English in the school are suitably qualified to teach the subject to the highest level. There was evidence that teachers are generally allocated to a class group for the duration of a course and of fair rotation of teachers across programmes and levels.
The resources available to support the teaching and learning of English in the school are very good. A budget is provided to the department annually by school management so that resources can be acquired as necessary. The general school policy is to have teachers based in their own rooms, thus facilitating resource storage and the creation of print-rich environments. Audio-visual equipment is located in all classrooms. Laptops and digital projectors are available on a booking system and there are three interactive whiteboards available in the school. It is recommended that the teachers of English should plan for more extensive integration of information and communications technology (ICT) into the teaching and learning of their subject. As a first step, they might explore the potential of the worldwide web as a source of teaching resources and compile a list of websites which support different aspects of the Junior and Leaving Certificate English courses.
The school does not have a functioning library. A classroom has been created from what was once the school library and there is some outdated book stock still shelved in this space. Students’ access to a range of good quality reading material is therefore limited. It is recommended that this should be addressed by the English department. To promote the habit of personal reading, library boxes should be created, including sufficient numbers of texts to cater for class groups within each year of junior cycle. Consideration should be given to including high-interest, low reading-age readers, Read-along packs, and abridged readers to support reluctant readers. Students might be consulted to identify popular books and some of the books remaining on the “library” shelves might also be included. Teachers of English should include time for personal reading in their curriculum plan for junior cycle. Other initiatives which would encourage reading include student participation in events such as World Book Day and the M.S. Readathon and ‘drop everything and read’ sessions to create occasions when the whole class, including the teacher, can engage in reading at the same time.
Currently, seven teachers are responsible for teaching English in Coláiste Choilm. There is a co-ordinator of English who is appointed on the basis of seniority and the contribution of that teacher to the development of the subject is acknowledged here. It is recommended that this position should be rotated among all English teachers so that different styles and perspectives are brought to the co-ordination of the subject. Department meetings are scheduled to coincide with staff meetings and development days. The principal reported that additional meeting time is made available to the department if such a need arises. All meetings are minuted and it is very good practice that copies of the minutes are forwarded to the principal. This ensures open communication between the subject teachers and school management. The minutes were not available to the inspector. The principal reported that the focus of discussions has mainly been on class arrangements, text choice and other organisational issues and that he is anxious to move beyond these to a focus on teaching and learning. This ambition is encouraged as subject department meetings provide an opportunity to share ideas and resources and to build collaborative work practices. A focus on teaching and learning can help teachers develop their knowledge about the purposes, aims and most appropriate pedagogies for the subject.
The principal reported that a subject department plan for English has been included in the school plan. However, the English plan was not given to the inspector and there was little evidence of collaborative subject planning. In that context, the following recommendations are made. The subject department plan should be written collaboratively. It should outline the curriculum to be followed by students in each year group. This should be expressed in terms of expected learning outcomes and should include a list of texts to be used and a description of how student progress will be assessed. In writing the plan, care should be taken to ensure the incremental development of students’ English language skills - reading, writing, listening and speaking - from first year to sixth year. Planning should also ensure that students are exposed to a wide range of texts and materials across a broad range of genres. The individual plans of English teachers should be based on the agreed subject curriculum plan and a copy of their schemes should be included in the subject folder.
Other information which could be included in the subject department folder includes the syllabuses for English, an inventory of English resources, minutes of meetings, the English homework policy, and the Inspectorate publication Looking at English: Teaching and Learning English in Post-Primary Schools.
Planning for students with learning support needs begins prior to enrolment. Pre-entry assessments, using standardised, norm-referenced, tests are administered and these, together with information provided by the feeder primary schools and parents, are used to identify students who may need support. As noted earlier, students are placed in mixed-ability class groups within two bands in first year. The school operates a sampling programme until the mid-term break in October to support students’ choice of option subjects. Following this, support in English and Mathematics is timetabled as an optional subject four times weekly and students may choose to avail of support then. Other than resource teaching for students with recognised special educational needs (SEN), no support is provided to students prior to November in first year. This system is constantly monitored for effectiveness in the school and since the commencement of this academic year an additional teacher has been deployed to teach English in second year, allowing the formation of a small support class group within one band.
Individual teacher planning for the lessons observed was thorough and well organised. Lessons and teaching resources were generally well chosen and prepared leading to well-structured and appropriately paced lessons. Good planning was also evident in the preparatory tasks set for homework.
A very good standard of teaching and learning was observed in the six classes visited, three in junior cycle and three in senior cycle. This was a consequence of very well planned lessons, each of which was logically structured and well paced. Lessons opened with roll call and recall of work completed both in the previous lesson and for homework. This revision was particularly appropriate for class groups who had not had lessons in English for almost a week, as they had commenced their Christmas examinations prior to the inspection visit. The expected learning outcomes for the lessons were expressed as success criteria in a lesson on character analysis and as general aims in another lesson on a similar topic. This is excellent practice, particularly as reference was made to the outcomes as the lessons developed thus “marking” students’ learning and rewarding their progress. More extensive use of this practice is recommended.
A significant strength of teaching in Coláiste Choilm was the extent to which students’ personal engagement in learning is planned for and encouraged. In a senior-cycle lesson introducing a novel, students’ experiences of reading were elicited. Their concerns about the challenges posed by their Leaving Certificate texts were recognised and respected. This group of reluctant readers was reassured by the teacher’s encouraging manner that the text chosen for study would be both accessible and interesting. As the group began reading the novel, good questioning by the teacher helped them establish links with their own experience and, as they grew confident, they shared some very perceptive insights into the emerging characters and themes.
Pair work and group work were also used effectively to engage students. In a senior-cycle lesson, students worked in groups of three to address questions set on vision and viewpoint in one of their comparative texts. They were supported by a DVD presentation of an episode in the text and by teacher direction. In the plenary phase of the lesson, students’ contributions indicated that, while they had a good knowledge of their text, they were less confident offering a critical commentary. However, skilful questioning by the teacher supported them well. Students were quite successful in completing a written exercise in which they discussed vision and viewpoint in the particular scene.
In other lessons observed, whole-group instruction was used. This was successful in a junior-cycle lesson where students were engaged in a review of their own work, guided by the teacher. As a result, two weaknesses in their examination skills were quickly identified and students themselves suggested strategies for dealing with these. In a second junior-cycle lesson, whole-class analysis of a character in a text worked particularly well because the first phase of the lesson prepared students well for the discussion. They were prompted to identify character traits and similes to describe them. They were also encouraged to identify “feeling” words to describe how they responded to the character. The teacher circulated to offer help and encouragement. This preliminary work was recorded in students’ copies. The plenary phase was very well managed so that the teacher modelled an approach to recording key ideas in preparation for setting a writing task for homework. A third lesson which relied on whole-group instruction was less successful. Here, students’ initial responses were too overtly directed by the teacher to aspects within the text. Whilst the intention was to support students, care should be taken not to intervene too soon between the student and the text. A strong focus on what each lesson is designed to achieve is laudable, but it should allow for an emerging of student awareness of the techniques employed by a writer.
In all classrooms visited, teachers used questions to both assess students’ understanding and to prompt their thinking. Generally, the questions asked engaged students in the learning activity and the teachers allowed adequate time for students to formulate answers. In all cases, questioning was specific, relevant and clear. In some instances, however, the potential of this technique to drive learning was not sufficiently realised. In these cases, questions were directed to the whole class, so that a small number of vocal students were heard whilst their peers remained passive. More extensive use of questions directed to named students is recommended, particularly where there is a range of ability in the class. It is also recommended that the better-able students be pushed to develop their critical skills by asking them higher-order questions from time to time so that the management of class discussion provides students with good opportunities to articulate and extend their understanding of and response to texts.
Students’ written work was examined in all classes. All students have been provided with opportunities to tackle a range of writing tasks, from simple, short-answer work to check recall and comprehension of texts to more creative writing tasks. Students in senior cycle are supported in their writing by sample answers, writing frames and the teaching of pre-writing strategies. The effectiveness of this support was evident in the standard of their work. When writing about studied texts, a tight focus on the task set and good use of supporting reference and quotation were evident. In many instances the quality of students’ work was enhanced by their discussion of their personal responses to the texts studied. Less-able students in senior cycle clearly struggled to integrate critical commentary with description or summary. Attention to this and to spelling and careless errors of syntax will further improve their work.
Some very good work was produced by students in junior cycle. Again, the particular strengths were that students addressed questions directly and grounded their ideas and opinions firmly in their studied texts. Areas of weakness evident in their work related to language management skills, for example, a failure to construct paragraphs properly or an inability to retain sense in longer, more complex, sentences. These difficulties can be addressed through direct instruction and continued practice.
It was clear that teachers have established good expectations of how students should maintain and present their work. In some classes, students used loose-leaf binders to store handouts and notes, in others, students had a notes copy and a separate homework copy. In all classes visited, work was neat and well-organised, so that its potential to serve as a helpful aid to revision is maximised.
In general, there is a range of assessment modes used to assess student competence and progress. These include in-class questioning and the setting of regular homework exercises in order to check achievement of understanding and provide students with opportunities to practise newly acquired skills. As noted earlier, a good range of writing tasks is set and it was noted that, in junior cycle, many of these reflect the integration of language and literature in syllabus documents. Students were asked to write from the point-of-view of a character in a text studied, for example, so that links were established between the text and their personal writing. This is very good practice as it develops students’ critical understanding and expressive skills.
The school has a homework policy which was under review at the time of this evaluation. Currently, the teachers of English set homework on a regular basis. A variety of practices was evident regarding the feedback given to students on their work. In one class, for example, it was clear that a marking scheme is agreed with students at the time an assignment is set and they are required to self-assess. In another class, students engage in peer review, annotating each other’s work, according to clear criteria. A ‘traffic-lighting’ system is used to draw students’ attention to their strengths and areas requiring improvement. These are examples of very good teaching as they help students to shape their work, practise targeted skills and monitor their own progress. In most instances, teachers’ written feedback on students’ work was encouraging. It affirmed students’ efforts and offered clear suggestions for improvement. In a minority of cases, tick-marking was used to acknowledge completion of work and there was very limited feedback. It is recommended that the members of the English department should work collaboratively to develop their current practice in relation to providing feedback on homework assignments. Consideration of the benefits of criteria-based marking and comment-based feedback to students should be central to this work. It is noted that management has arranged for an input on assessment for learning practices by the Second-Level Support Services for the school’s teaching staff. This will support the English department in progressing this recommendation.
As no teacher notes were made available, it is not clear whether records of students’ achievements are appropriately maintained.
Formal examinations are held for all classes at Christmas and the non-examination year groups also have summer examinations. Third-year and sixth-year students are assessed by pre-certificate examinations early in the spring term. Prior to this year, sixth-year students did not take the Christmas examinations but were assessed in class in October. It is proposed in the school that all year groups would, in future, have in-class tests in October and at Easter. This would result in summative assessment at four points in the school year as a means of motivating students. Currently, reports on students’ progress are sent home twice a year following formal in-house examinations.
Parents are also kept informed of their son’s progress through a variety of means, including the homework journal, which is used as a mode of communication between home and school. Teachers are available at parent-teacher meetings or by appointment to discuss a student’s progress.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· There is very good support for the teaching and learning of English in the school.
· Junior-cycle students of English are placed in mixed-ability class groups for English for each of the three years of their course.
· The resources available to support the teaching and learning of English in the school are very good.
· Subject department meetings are held regularly. Copies of the minutes are forwarded to the principal.
· Individual teacher planning for the lessons observed was thorough and well organised.
· A very good standard of teaching and learning was observed in the six classes visited. A significant strength of teaching in Coláiste Choilm was
the extent to which students’ personal engagement in learning is planned for and encouraged.
· A good range of writing tasks is set for students and many of these tasks reflect the integration of language and literature in syllabus documents.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· Library boxes, including sufficient numbers of texts to cater for class groups within each year of junior cycle, should be created. Teachers of English should
implement a range of strategies to promote the habit of personal reading.
· A subject department plan should be written collaboratively. This should outline the curriculum to be followed by students in each year group. It should include
expected learning outcomes, a list of texts to be used and a description of how student progress will be assessed.
· More extensive use should be made of questions directed to named students. It is also recommended that the better-able students be pushed to develop their critical skills
by asking them higher-order questions.
· Teachers should develop their current practice in relation to homework to make more use of more use of criteria-based marking and to provide fuller feedback to students following
correction of homework.
A post-evaluation meeting was held with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published June 2010