An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Saint Michael’s College
Ballsbridge, Dublin 4
Roll number: 60561G
Date of inspection: 11 April 2008
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Michael’s College, 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 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.
Seven teachers form the English department in St Michael’s College, and four of these teach five or more class groups. This concentrated deployment of teachers is commended, as it fosters an awareness of the subject as a continuum of knowledge and skills development from first year to sixth year. Most teachers of English take both junior and senior cycle groups, and a pattern of rotation in the senior cycle gives teachers experience of teaching classes across a range of levels. This increases the pool of expertise available to the subject, and is good practice. Generally, teachers taking a second -year group will continue with them into third year, and there is also continuity from fifth year into sixth year. In order to ensure that first year is clearly viewed as the beginning of the three-year Junior Certificate English syllabus, it is suggested that those teaching first year carry their class groups into second and third year wherever possible. The majority of teachers of English are involved in the Transition Year (TY) English programme and this is commended.
English is timetabled every day in fifth and sixth year, and this is optimal, and the four lessons per week provided for TY English facilitate the delivery of a varied modular programme. Four English lessons per week in the junior cycle is adequate but not generous provision. Given this number, English should be timetabled on both Monday and Friday for all junior cycle classes in order to minimise the gap between lessons. First year offers the best opportunity to create a firm skills foundation in the areas of speaking, listening, reading and writing, and the possibility of adding a fifth lesson in first year was discussed during the inspection. The school’s senior management pointed out the difficulty of adding further to a timetable which has already been extended in recent years to comply with Department of Education and Science regulations. However, optimal provision is an English lesson per day, and further consideration of this issue is encouraged.
All junior cycle English class groups are of mixed ability, and this is commended. Literacy support is offered where necessary, and its provision is discussed in the Whole School Evaluation report in the context of support for students. TY English is also taught in a mixed-ability setting. Students in fifth and sixth year are placed in ability groups for English, based on both their Junior Certificate results and their assessed work in TY. The inclusion of students’ performance in TY for this purpose is good practice as it takes into account their continuing application and self-motivation. A very small class follows the ordinary-level course. Consideration could be given to the formation of a more evenly-balanced two-class band accommodating, by means of a careful selection of texts, both students taking ordinary level and those aspiring to higher level. The concurrent timetabling of English in fifth and sixth year is commended, as it not only allows for student movement between classes, but also creates opportunities for whole-year activities and for common assessment practices where desirable.
Most teachers of English have their own classrooms, and those who have not are timetabled to use the same classroom wherever possible. Teacher-based classrooms promote the development of the room itself as a resource, and there were exemplary instances of this in St Michael’s College. Many English classrooms contained lively displays of visual and print materials, including books, posters, photographs, themed displays pertaining to studied texts, word charts, and examples of students’ recent work. The displaying of students’ work is of particular benefit and this practice should be extended as it provides a valuable opportunity to encourage students to draft and edit work carefully so that it can be “published” in the classroom. Audiovisual equipment is available in all the English classrooms, and it is commendable that improved facilities for the study of film in particular are being put in place, as the combination TV/ VCRs in some rooms have very small screens.
The school has a fine library with a qualified librarian whose remuneration is sanctioned by the board. The stock is updated regularly and comprises a wide range of publications to facilitate students’ research and reading for pleasure. Students have daily access to the library to browse and borrow books, and stock control and borrowing records are computerised. The librarian offers induction to the library to all first-year class groups, and it is recommended that this be formally included in the first-year programme. The development of suitable reading lists for junior cycle is a commendable joint venture between the English department and the librarian, and all means of encouraging students to read widely and well should be explored to ensure that this very well-managed resource is used as fully as possible.
Recent in-service attended by members of the English teaching team includes a two-day course on co-operative learning and a film workshop. It is the practice that teachers share their experience of in-service with their colleagues and this is commended.
Co-curricular activities related to English include regular theatre visits, in-house and inter-schools debating, a drama production, and visits from writers arranged by the librarian through the “writers in schools” scheme and direct contact with publishers and authors. These activities are commended.
Planning for the teaching and learning of English as part of the process of school development planning (SDP) is in progress, and there is a well-established culture of individual planning. Traditionally, the most senior teacher of English has acted as head of department, but the English teaching team is now moving towards a system of rotating co-ordinator. This is to be commended, as it allows all members of the team to experience this role, and is a good means of promoting greater collaboration and co-operative practices. It is suggested that a term of two years would provide an opportunity for each co-ordinator to develop the role while ensuring that rotation continues to occur. A useful exercise for the teaching team would be to discuss and agree on a description of the co-ordinator role, which could then be incorporated into the subject plan. The role should be seen not only as administrative but also as facilitating the development and sharing of good practice and helpful resources.
At least three formal meetings are held each year. These should be minuted so that there is a record of decisions taken and topics discussed. The final meeting of the year is used for both review and forward planning. This is a good approach and the meeting should be an opportunity not only to make decisions on text choices, but also to review existing teaching and learning practices and plan the introduction of new methods and resources, including information and communication technology (ICT). A comprehensive and regularly updated inventory of the department’s resources would be a very useful addition to the English plan. The subject department should consult the inspectorate composite report, Looking at English, in order to guide further collaborative planning.
A plan for the subject following the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) template was made available. It was first drawn up two years ago, with some amendment since. In addition to this, more detailed plans for junior cycle English have been written, and these follow the unit approach set out in the Junior Certificate English syllabus guidelines. These junior cycle plans are commended for the links they make between topics, teaching and learning methods and materials, and suggested assignments. Such an approach could be fruitfully applied to planning the senior cycle programme also, with a particular emphasis on the linking of the reading of texts and the development of writing skills in the various genres. In order to ensure that planning is a meaningful process, the emphasis should always be placed on the development of skills and on desired learning outcomes, and the significant adoption of this approach in the most recent planning for English is laudable.
The range of texts studied within the school’s English programme is impressive. In the course of the junior cycle, students read up to five novels, and are encouraged to read further. Drama is introduced as a genre through extracts, and two plays including a Shakespearean text are studied in third year. A wide range of poetry is also covered. Teachers agree on the choice of novels, and fresh selections are regularly made, in line with best practice. Stimulating choices are made from the prescribed lists of texts in the Leaving Certificate, and the useful approach of choosing texts from different genres for the comparative study is well established.
The TY English programme is organised on a modular basis, and the four teachers involved deliver the same module to each of the four class groups, thus allowing the students to experience a range of teaching and learning styles. The modules focus on drama, the short story, the novel, and poetry respectively. However, the planned programme, while stimulating and well conceived, tends towards the traditional literary approach in the modules as presently designed, and consideration should be given to developing other English-related skills in areas such as oracy and the reading of film, for example. There may also be the possibility of developing cross-curricular links, in keeping with the spirit of the TY guidelines.
Individual teacher planning was generally of a very high quality, incorporating the preparation of helpful resource material and a commendable focus on a structured approach to the topic. While the commitment shown to the subject and the students in the individual planning is acknowledged and commended, the increasing emphasis on collaborative planning is warmly welcomed, as it ensures sustainable and consistent practices.
Nine English lessons, five in the junior cycle and four in the senior cycle, were observed during the course of the evaluation. TY students were out of the school on work experience at the time. All the lessons observed were competently taught; the best were characterised by great flair and authority in their delivery. In general, the level of engagement and response from students was high, and the learning environment created was always supportive and often stimulating. Pacing was well managed in almost all cases, ensuring that a satisfactory amount of material was covered and creating a strong sense of momentum and purpose. The good practice of stating the lesson objective at the outset was a feature of all lessons, and in some cases it was phrased in terms of the desired learning outcome. This very good practice should be extended to all lessons, as it emphasises at the outset the students’ role in furthering their own learning. Where a slower pace is chosen as a means of allowing all students to keep up with the work, care should be taken to strike a balance between consolidation and forward momentum.
Resources prepared and used included copies of photographs, customised worksheets, transcripts of speeches and photocopies of poems. The photographs were very effectively used to develop students’ responses to a poem and to inspire a piece of descriptive writing. The value of the photocopied pieces lay in their accessibility, stimulating students to respond and to support their views confidently. Worksheets were effective in organising a junior cycle group’s response to a key moment in a novel. However, a graduated approach is advocated in this instance, so that the most easily managed questions are asked first, and the more testing ones can then be faced with greater confidence. This method also provides useful information for the teacher about particular areas of difficulty for certain students. Audiovisual material was handled very well, although the videotape used is less versatile than DVD, and better classroom equipment would allow the good selection of DVDs in the library to be more fully used.
A variety of teaching and learning methods was observed, including teacher exposition, whole-class discussion, co-operative learning, and group work. The teaching team has a commendable interest in extending their repertoire. The expository approach was used judiciously with senior cycle groups, and students were clearly engaged as listeners and responded readily with comments and questions. There was a good balance between teacher and student talk, and whole-class discussion was well managed to allow the expression and affirmation of a range of opinions. Students were notably attentive to each other. Co-operative learning involving group work with different roles assigned to each member was also observed. The students were clearly accustomed to this strategy, and it enabled them to engage effectively with a complex text. However, it is suggested that some change to the conventional classroom seating would increase the level of interaction within each group. Pair and group work without differentiated roles was most effective where students had clear instructions as to how to proceed, and where the task lent itself to interaction. Where the class group is very small, students should be seated in a way that promotes interaction and creates a more engaged learning environment.
A commendable emphasis on extending students’ vocabulary and expression was evident in the encouragement given to students to use richer and more precise language, to consult the dictionary and to deduce from the context the meaning of new words encountered. In many cases, teachers modelled more sophisticated expression themselves, and challenged students to be more attentive to the power of figurative language. In this regard, some very good approaches to the teaching of poetry were observed, in which careful reading elicited insights into patterns of imagery and sound. A key element of the effective methods observed was the central place of the text itself; background and context were given where they shed light on the poet’s work, but the poems themselves were the focus of the lesson. In a junior cycle lesson, students showed a very good grasp of extended metaphor and could have been challenged even further in their reading of the poem. However, the emphasis placed on exploring the emotions in the poem and the students’ response to these was noteworthy and is commended.
A variety of questioning strategies was used. Named students were asked specific questions to involve them in class discussion and keep them on task. More speculative questions were also posed, and best practice was observed where students were encouraged to take time to respond to these. In all cases, a range of responses was sought and affirmed. Where controversial political issues were involved, students were cautioned to make reasoned and relevant arguments. This is sound advice, although students should engage critically with the power of language in real-life situations, particularly in the area of persuasive language. Prompt questions and leading questions were also used to enable students to respond more fully and make connections for themselves. These kinds of questions should be used carefully, however, as they can often suggest that there is a ‘right’ answer which the teacher is seeking. It is generally preferable to put a debatable point directly to students and encourage open discussion of it. Students themselves posed some challenging questions and these were acknowledged and affirmed in most cases.
Students were very articulate and willing to engage in classroom activities and discussion. All the lessons observed were well managed and interactions between teachers and students were friendly, respectful and not without humour. Appropriately high expectations were communicated to students through the level of classroom discussion and the assignments set. The high levels of attainment expected are supported by the very good achievement of students in the state examinations in English. Almost all students take English at higher level.
The level of students’ participation in class was monitored by teacher observation and questioning, and where students were working individually or in groups, the teacher circulated to check on the work being done and to give direction where necessary. Some differentiation in questioning was observed, particularly in the mixed-ability junior cycle classes, so that students were asked questions they were likely to deal with successfully. This is good practice as it builds confidence and assists progress. The practice of asking some students to read their homework assignments for the class was observed in some lessons, and the class listened and responded appreciatively. Teachers keep records of students’ progress and were able to give the inspector a brief profile of the students in the classes visited.
A review of students’ copies and folders revealed a good volume of work including substantial assignments and extended compositions, and this is highly commended. Some exemplary instances of developmental feedback were noted, comprising affirming comment and clearly described suggestions for improvement. This is optimal practice in the formative assessment of students and should be followed in the case of all substantial written work. In many instances, students presented their work well, although greater attention to handwriting, dating and layout of work was indicated in some of the copies reviewed. In the interests of establishing consistent and helpful practice, it is recommended that the department develop a homework policy, and share it with all students.
While junior cycle classes follow a common course in each year, common in-house assessments are not yet established practice. It is recommended that they be introduced as soon as possible, in the interests of consistency of assessment and the furthering of collaborative practice. It should be borne in mind that variations in particular sections can be accommodated, and that open questions, following the Junior Certificate model, can facilitate the examination of different texts where 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 October 2008