An Roinn Oideachais agus EolaŪochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Saint Johnís College, De La Salle
Ballyfermot, Dublin 10
Roll number: 60510M
Date of inspection: 25 November 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Johnís College, Ballyfermot, conducted as part of a whole-school evaluation. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in English and English and Communications 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 studentsí work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachersí written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and subject teachers.
St Johnís College provides English in the Junior Certificate (JC) programme, the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP), the Leaving Certificate (LC) programme, and English and Communications in the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme.
Subject provision and whole-school support are good across a number of areas. Class numbers are generally small and this is of great benefit to students. Timetabling allocation is very good with five lessons in each year of the JC and LC programmes and an excellent five lessons in the LCA programme. While distribution of lessons is good in most cases, care should be taken to ensure that all students have contact with English on each day of the week.
At present there are four groups in each year of the junior cycle. In first year, two classes are placed in the JCSP while the remaining two are mixed ability. From second year onwards, the classes are streamed according to ability with students being allocated to discrete higher-level and ordinary-level classes. It is commendable that as many students as possible are encouraged to take higher-level English and it is reported that anyone who has potential is given every opportunity. Uptake is low however, but contextual factors should be taken into consideration. As a target for future development, it is recommended that the school and the English department focus on increasing the number of students taking higher-level English. To achieve increased uptake, a number of strategies should be implemented and the department is well placed to achieve this goal on a phased basis. One such strategy in the immediate term is to maintain the two current first-year mixed-ability groups with the same teachers throughout the three years of the cycle. Both should be targeted at higher-level, and common papers in all house examinations (with common marking schemes) should be set that reflect the appropriate stage of the higher-level course they have reached. Decisions with regard to taking the ordinary level should be deferred until as late as possible and preferably after the mock examination in third year. The JCSP groups already cater for those who take the ordinary and foundation level in the JC exam.
A significant minority of students present with learning-support needs and the school has put in place a range of supports. There is a good level of informal interaction between the English and learning-support departments. It is commendable that the English team has established, as one of its targets, the development of the interface between the two departments.
A professional team of teachers is appropriately deployed and is well balanced in terms of gender and experience. New teachers are adequately supported. It is commendable that there is a positive emphasis on continuous professional development (CPD). It is suggested that the team now carry out an audit of present CPD needs with a view to drawing up an action plan that would target professional development at key pedagogical areas. The team shares good practice and newer members of the team have the potential to make significant contributions, for example in the area of information and communications technology (ICT). Membership of professional associations is encouraged by management.
Resources are very good for the subject and classrooms have good access to audio-visual resources. Class sets of books are also available. Most classrooms either have or will be getting a computer with connectivity to the internet. Some also have digital projectors. Teachers are classroom based so that facilities for storage are possible. While most classrooms were appropriate for use, it was noted that one classroom had very poor lighting: this is a matter that should be remedied in the short term. A particularly positive development is the library project and a great deal of preparatory work has already take place with the objective of developing a modern interactive library for St Johnís College. Funding has been raised, contact established with the local library service and a commitment to help with stocking the library has been secured. Such initiative is highly commended. The school should consider joining the School Library Association of Ireland (SLARI) and should also access the report on the JCSP library project. The school library should be a focal point in school life and should therefore occupy a central position, be well resourced with ICT facilities and should be the linchpin in a school literacy policy.
Extra-curricular and co-curricular activities support the teaching of English. Students are brought to the theatre and cinema, have participated in workshops and LCA students have been involved in subject-related activities also. This is highly commended. Consideration should be given to developing areas such as debating and drama to develop studentís oral communication skills.
Formal structures support planning. The role of co-ordinator is voluntary and co-ordination is efficient, committed and conscientious. Consideration should be given to rotating the role. This would have the benefit of distributing both responsibility and leadership. The period of tenure should be of sufficient duration to achieve specific goals and gain useful experience. There are regular formal meetings of the department. Records are kept. Informal meetings take place on a regular basis and there is ongoing professional dialogue.
A very good start has been made to formal collaborative subject planning. The plan for English outlines the yearly schemes that are to be delivered within a specific timeframe. This is very useful in ensuring consistency of syllabus delivery. Programme planning for JCSP English and LCA English and Communications are also good. The team is now well positioned to progress planning. A priority target should be the raising of academic expectations with the specific goal of increasing uptake and achievement at higher level. It is recommended that the department align the JC plan with the draft rebalanced English syllabus that can now be accessed through the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) website at www.ncca.ie. The JC plan should clearly document the learning outcomes for each year of the programme across the three literacy areas and four skill sets, reading, writing, listening and speaking. Individual teacher planning should mirror the department plan and should consistently implement the subject departmentís key policies on assessment and homework. A specific focus for development in collaborative planning for English is the teaching of writing skills. The aim should be not only to develop mechanical competence but also to inculcate an appreciation of the craft of writing. Planning in this area should show how St Johnís College students will engage with writing as a creative process in both the senior and junior cycles.
Evidence gathered during the course of the evaluation suggests that the number and quality of texts is insufficient in all cases to fully achieve syllabus aims and objectives in the JC programme. It is strongly recommended that the number of texts being studied in the junior cycle be increased and the texts chosen should be sufficiently challenging and appropriate to age and level. A specific learning outcome of the JC syllabus is that students read a wide variety of genres and have an understanding of genre. Short reading passages and excerpts from an anthology are not sufficient to make this objective achievable. Students in all ability ranges, including the weakest students, should be reading a variety of texts from the very outset of first year. ďReadalongĒ books can be used and a full range of activities generated around the text. At the very least, one class novel should be studied in each year of the junior cycle. At least one play should be studied in each year of the cycle. As many students as possible should experience a Shakespearean play with due cognisance being taken of those with specific learning needs who may not be able to access the standard text. Shakespeare can be mediated in a number of ways: editions are available that cater for the diversity of students; film and audio productions could also be used; there is a wide variety of on-line supports available. All junior cycle students should experience a range of quality short stories and non-fiction covering a range of topics, and they should read from collections of poems. A sufficient number of poems should be studied to ensure that syllabus learning outcomes are achieved. The titles of texts and of poems should be listed in the plan for each year group. It is recommended that the department contact the feeder primary schools to establish what novels and other texts have already been studied and therefore ensure that there is no overlap. It is also recommended that the department access the primary English curriculum at www.curriculumonline.ie to ensure that planning for first-year English builds on previous experience.
Given the English departmentís level of commitment to the library project and the imminent realisation of this objective, now is an opportune time to develop a comprehensive reading policy and reading plan for each year group in order to formalise existing good practice and to ensure the consistent implementation of the English departmentís strategic goal of improving literacy in general. Differentiation in content, teaching and assessment should be documented in the department plan for each programme. Other areas for development are assessment and homework policies (see below). It is recommended that the department document the ways in which ICT should be integrated into the teaching and learning of English in all year groups and there should be a clear emphasis on student use for a variety of purposes. In the course of review the department might find it helpful to consult Looking at English a composite report on the teaching and learning of English in post-primary schools published on the Departmentís website, www.education.ie.
Lesson themes were appropriate to syllabus and programmes taught. Lesson planning was very good and exemplary in some instances. Very good practice was observed in a lesson where students were told clearly what they would be covering in the lesson and the expected learning outcomes to be achieved by the end of the lesson. Explanations were clear and concise and learning was well structured. This is excellent practice. It is recommended that all teachers write the lesson intention and planned learning outcomes on the board to focus student learning. All lessons should end with a period of review to ensure that the learning intention has been achieved.
Resources were well chosen and included handouts, class texts, audio resources, posters with key words written on them and ICT. Worksheets supported learning through targeted practice. In general there was very good use of the board, for example, to record studentsí contributions, to write key points and to give focus to lessons. In almost all lessons, the board was used to assist vocabulary building and this is good practice. Exemplary practice was observed in a lesson where an excellent range of JCSP motivational resources and strategies was used to very good effect. Student achievement in specific tasks was celebrated and this created a very positive response and enthusiasm for learning. This good practice should be shared and emulated. Where tasks are set, early finishers should be provided with additional resources and in anticipation, differentiated work sheets should be used. It is suggested that all learning activities cater for a very wide variety of learning styles: while this was a consideration in some classes, and admirable practice was observed, it was not true in all cases.
Teaching methods in most lessons were varied and challenged students. A good balance was maintained between individual activity and class activity. Studentsí participation in group work was good in a lesson observed, however, some groups worked more effectively than others. It would be helpful if there were some exploratory discussion first to establish a clear purpose for the group work and if specific roles were assigned to each student to maximise participation. A good level of discussion was observed during feedback in whole-class activity. Questioning technique was generally good with best practice being observed where there was a balance between global questioning and the targeting of individuals and where there was an adequate emphasis on variety of questions for different purposes.
There was admirable emphasis on vocabulary building and on reinforcement of keywords, spelling and grammar in lessons observed. This is highly commended. To build on this good practice, there should be a clear emphasis on teaching language in context and on the integration of language and literature. In some groups, to prepare for reading and writing, more time needs to be spent on oral communication skills. Reading skills were taught. Good practice was observed where students were able to answer questions and provide evidence from the text. When reading in class, directed activities related to reading (DARTS) should be used in order to ensure active participation, to focus reading and to help students to access the meaning of, and analyse, texts. Examples are underlining key words and ideas, labelling (aided by colour coding), segmenting, and using diagrammatic representations such as mind and concept maps and flow charts. Where students are instructed to retrieve information from texts, it is important that sufficient time be given for the task.
The standard of written work was very good in some classes. The quality of presentation was very good in many classes. Challenging homework tasks were set in a minority and in these classes, high expectations of student achievement were set. In some classes, short comprehension type answers and lists of words were observed in copies examined. These types of exercises are useful in restricted contexts but do not give adequate writing practice. All students should practise a variety of modes and genres to include poetry and dialogue, in line with syllabus requirements. No written homework was given in some classes. In some, lesson time was used for practice tasks. This is of benefit to reinforce the dayís learning intention and check understanding. Lesson time should not be used for extended writing tasks that should be set for homework. Notwithstanding the schoolís context, it is strongly recommended that written homework be routinely assigned to all students to reinforce learning. Writing tasks should be appropriate to the syllabus and should challenge students, affording them adequate opportunity to practice a good range of skills. Writing frames can be used to support the teaching and learning of writing skills according to need. ICT should be fully integrated into the teaching of writing skills. It is reported that a JCSP class group has a special project class in which they participate in the ďMake a BookĒ project. This is very commendable. Folders of work were available for inspection in some cases. However, while the quality of some was quite good, there was very little work in others and some students did not have any folder available for inspection. All class groups in all programmes should maintain portfolios of writing. It is recommended that all students keep a personal response diary with the aim of developing an aesthetic sense. This could be completed in class (for a few minutes) and always after a first encounter with a new text. The journal can be kept in the classroom and monitored on an occasional basis but should not be assessed.
The quality of learning was good in most cases and very good in some. Reinforcement is needed in a minority. Best practice was observed where appropriately high expectations were set and this contributed to a very positive learning atmosphere: it was evident that students were adequately challenged. Journals are kept but many students are not recording homework assignments. This is a whole-school issue and the school should review its policy in this regard: if the journal is to be used as an organisational tool and a medium of communication with parents, then its use should be insisted upon in every lesson and in all subjects: all students should have their journal on the desk at the start of class and the schoolís policy in this regard should be implemented by all teachers in all classes.
Classroom management was generally good. Students are supported in their learning in a sympathetic manner and in general there was a very good rapport between students and teachers. In most classrooms visited, there was a positive learning atmosphere. Student achievement is in line with the schoolís expectations.
Summative assessment of learning takes place through formal in-house examinations and through the certificate examinations. The school does not have a whole-school assessment policy and this is an area for development. A whole-school policy is needed in the area also of homework and use and maintenance of the journal and of student folders.
In English, ongoing monitoring of students takes place through classroom observation (questioning and checking writing tasks), short tests (for example, spelling) and homework assessment. Assessment for level placement takes place at the end of first year and in fifth year when common papers are set in English. It is essential that common marking schemes be applied in such cases and that marking be moderated. Common papers for common levels are set in sixth year. JCSP statements are completed appropriately. LCA assignments are managed appropriately also. The quality of assessment feedback on written assignments varied according to individual teachers. Practice was exemplary in some cases with detailed information being provided to students. This can only take place where assignments are regularly set and copybooks are regularly gathered up for assessment and for individual commentary by the teachers. In some cases, there was very little assessment information provided to students that would guide learning. Particularly commended in one instance was the setting of personal targets for students arising out of the assessment process. The good practice observed in some classes should become standard for all and all homework assessment should be dated. Records of assessment and attendance are maintained.
It is recommended that the English department develop a comprehensive assessment policy for all programmes as an integral element of the plan for English and this should be underpinned by the principle of assessment for learning. Information is available at www.ncca.ie. Assessment policy should cover all four skills. There should be clear guidelines on the number of substantial written homework assignments to be set appropriate to each year group. The discrete assessment criteria applied in the state examinations should be used in assessment throughout sixth year for all practice tasks at both levels to familiarise students with assessment techniques and to give them valuable information. The discrete criteria can be used also in fifth year if deemed appropriate. The department and the school should consider organising a workshop for the English teachers on marking for certificate examinations. Teachers and students should find it helpful to read the chief advising examinerís reports on English. The most recent JC report on the 2006 examination is available at www.examinations.ie. A report on the 2008 LC English examination is due to be published in the near future but earlier reports are already available for download at the address above. The exemplars of standard should be of particular interest to students and teachers in both programmes. Analysis of certificate examination results should be carried out each year with the purpose of gathering information and this should be used to identify trends and to target interventions where deemed necessary.
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 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, June 2009