An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Mary Immaculate Secondary School,
Roll number: 62000W
Date of inspection: 30 April 2008
the Quality of Learning and Teaching in english
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Mary Immaculate Secondary School, Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, 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.
Timetable provision for English for all year groups is in line with syllabus requirements, with five classes of English allocated to first, second, third, fifth and sixth years and a generous four classes allocated to Transition Year (TY) English. It is suggested that incorporating a double period into the school’s provision for sixth-year English would enable teachers to incorporate more time trial exercises into the preparation of those students for Leaving Certificate (LC) examinations in English.
Resource provision for the teaching of English is good. School management makes funds available on request for the purchase of resources. The school’s book rental scheme supports junior cycle students. The school has a small hall, equipped with a stage that serves as a performance space. Classrooms are student based, so the English teachers move between rooms. While the English department does not possess a common cupboard for resources, teaching aids are willingly lent across the department. If an inventory of all audio-visual (AV) and print resources in the possession of individual teachers of English were included in the subject-department plan, then that inventory would promote maximum use of available in-school resources and would also act as a useful aid to future planning.
The school has made good progress in relation to information and communications technologies (ICT) provision. All teaching spaces throughout the school are broadband enabled. Some English teachers use ICT to locate resources, to prepare lessons, and/or to encourage students to publish and edit their own compositions using word-processing software. Data projectors and DVD players are located in a number of the general classrooms where English is taught. Teachers can then use one of the school’s three laptops with those data projectors. While the school has two computer rooms, one of them is generally being used by its adult learner cohort. The fact that a number of subject classes where ICT is not generally used are timetabled for the second-level computer room throughout the year limits the availability of the room. Hence, it is advised that the timetabling of general subjects for the computer room where no request has been made for that room be avoided and that formal booking systems be established to facilitate the reservation of the school’s general use of laptops and of the second-level computer room.
There is a small school library that includes a selection of junior fiction and historical texts, some reference texts, and some high-interest low-reading-age books. The school library is operated by the home-school-community liaison co-ordinator, who organises prizes for reading achievements from time to time. In September 2007, first-year students were taken to the local public library and encouraged to apply for borrowing cards. To further motivate students’ personal reading, it is recommended that the English department work with the school library and with the local public library to interweave the promotion of personal reading into its schemes of work for junior cycle students in particular and also for TY students. It is also suggested that the English department dedicate occasional junior classes to personal reading, include the explicit teaching of dictionary skills and skimming and scanning techniques in the first-year scheme for English, and post a list of recommended books for particular age groups on classroom walls and/or have them included with booklists for parental reference. (See Circular M16/99 “Guidelines for reading at Second Level Schools”). Moreover, it is encouraged that the English department and the school library collectively review the publication Room for Reading: The Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) Demonstration Library Project (http://www.jcspliteracy.ie/library_demo_project.htm) to learn additional strategies that could be used to further strengthen whole-school literacy. Finally, to help guide the ongoing stocking of the library over the coming years, useful references can be found through the School Library Association of Ireland, Children’s Books Ireland, the UK School Library Association, and the in-school special education support team. (See http://www.libraryassociation.ie, http://www.childrensbooks.ie, and http://www.sla.org.uk/advice
All first years are placed into mixed-ability classes and remain in them until the end of first year, when they are set into examination-level classes. The fact that concurrent timetabling is provided in second and third year means that students can move between different examination levels as appropriate and this is commended. TY students are placed into a mixed-ability class group. Fifth-year students opt for the examination level in English they wish to prepare for, guided by teacher advice and by their Junior Certificate (JC) results. The fact that fifth-year and sixth-year English students can move between classes preparing for different examination levels through concurrent timetabling is highly commended. Given the concurrent timetabling of English classes for most year groups, the English department is encouraged to experiment with the greater use of this resource for inter-class activities and modular teaching approaches.
Co-curricular and extracurricular activities support the teaching and learning of English in Mary Immaculate Secondary School. Poetry-writing activities have been organised in the school to raise students’ awareness of whole-school issues. Readings by poets and writers have been organised for class groups over the years. Senior students have been prepared to participate in public speaking events. English teachers and students participated in a recent Comenius project that focused on the representation of minorities through texts, film, and active research. Trips to theatrical productions are organised annually, including taking senior cycle students to prestigious Shakespearean productions in London. Finally, a school musical is produced every few years involving TY students. It is suggested that formal links between the English department and the teacher who directs that show be established to facilitate the delivery of lessons demonstrating the use of stagecraft effects using the dressed stage for the school show. Also, the inclusion of film-making workshops into the TY English programme would help equip students with an insight into the mechanics of film-making, thus supporting their academic study of film. School management, the English teachers, and other teachers who organise English-related activities are highly commended for their commitment to providing such stimulating activities for their students.
English teachers wishing to engage in continuing professional development are encouraged and supported by school management. Sources of professional development that have been accessed by individual members of the department include courses on co-operative learning, on mixed-ability teaching, and on the teaching of poetry, creative writing, and film. Some members of the English department were able to avail of the Teaching English Support Service (TESS) in-service provided with the introduction of the new Leaving Certificate English syllabus a few years ago. To help those members who were not in a position to avail of that in-service, it is suggested that in-house discussions on the main methodological and assessment innovations contained in that syllabus be organised by the department. A collaborative examination of the LC English syllabus and of the associated Draft Guidelines for Teachers of English and Resource Materials for Teaching Language could be one method of facilitating that in-house professional development. In addition, it is recommended that the English department continue its professional development in the use of ICT by seeking in-house peer support from confident ICT users in the English and other subject departments. Finally, the department is encouraged to consult the TESS and Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) websites and associated resources, the Inspectorate publication Looking at English: Teaching and Learning English in Post-Primary Schools, and the various guideline documents and websites referred to in this report.
The teachers of English have begun the formal process of subject-department planning. Subject department meetings are generally held once per term. In addition, teachers of the same year group meet informally from time to time to discuss issues of common concern. Since September 2007, minutes of formal-subject-department meetings have been recorded and this is commended. It is recommended that the tasks associated with subject planning be formally shared across the department and rotated from year to year (such as co-ordinating the planning, keeping minutes of meetings, developing ICT resources for the department, preparing and photocopying common assessments for first-year students).
By the time of the evaluation, the English teachers had documented their practices under the headings of the relevant School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) subject-planning template and had prepared curriculum content plans for each year group. In particular, two aspects of their electronically-prepared plan are highly commended. As recorded in meeting minutes, the sharing of handouts and knowledge in relation to co-operative learning by one English teacher with the entire department is good practice. Also, the department is commended for starting to include teaching method suggestions for particular aspects of the junior cycle course in its subject department plan. To help develop the English department’s planning even further, two recommendations are offered.
First, it is recommended that time be specifically allocated for a “show and tell” input at the beginning of each subject-department meeting. Individual members of the department would be asked to present an effective resource or strategy they use in their practice and/or to share insights they gained from a professional development course, from practices they observed in the English departments of other schools, and/or from further study. (A precedent has already been established by the department in this regard). Documenting these shared strategies will help further develop the teaching methodologies section of the existing plan.
Secondly, it is recommended that over the coming years the department turn its curriculum content plans into termly schemes of work. At the outset, the department should identify what it considers the most appropriate learning outcomes (knowledge, skills, and attitudes) for students in each year group. (See the LC English syllabus and JCSP statement materials for exemplars of such learning outcomes). Schemes should outline the amount of content to be taught to each year group (such as the minimum number of poems and short stories). Also, they should set about honing students’ writing skills (by developing their pre-writing, drafting, proofing, editing, and modelling strategies; by widening their vocabularies; and by developing their spelling, punctuation, and paragraphing competencies), reading skills (by teaching word and text-attack techniques, library layout and usage, and dictionary and thesaurus usage), and oral communication skills. Also, when planning to teach the various sections of courses examined in State Examination Commission examinations, teachers are reminded to refer to the mark allocations for those sections when planning the amount of time to be spent teaching them. Outlining strategies for working with students studying at different levels in the one class group and for stand-alone ordinary level class groups will also be necessary. Individual teachers’ existing plans will be an important foundation for, and aid to, this work. The benefits of such year-group schemes will include more incremental, consistently-reinforced learning experiences for students and the creation of reference documents for new teachers. Of course, for students to have the full benefit of this work coherence between teachers’ individual plans and the collective department plan will be essential. Ultimately, what is envisaged is a planning process guided by the advice outlined in chapter three of Looking at English and customised to the needs of the students of Mary Immaculate Secondary School.
Strengths of the current TY programme for English include its use of film texts the themes of which are of relevance to students’ lives, its comparative use of film texts to illuminate similar themes and to help prepare students for senior cycle comparative studies, and its incorporation of student evaluations as an assessment mode for the course. Further development of three aspects of the programme will make it an even more educative experience. First, it is suggested that the department consider incorporating a key assignment approach to assessing students’ progress (as is used in the LCA programme) into its TY English programme. Providing students with an outline of the TY English programme and of their key assignments (including criteria and dates for completion) would help them take responsibility for their own learning. Secondly, it is recommended that part of the programme involve the analysis of individual students’ language needs and regular remediation work focused on those needs, to help improve their general life skills and preparedness for senior cycle study. (See the TYP Guidelines, page 2). Thirdly, it is recommended that the TY programme expose students to a wider range of genres. The department may find the TY Support Service’s suggestions for TY English programmes (http://ty.slss.ie/areas_study.html) and the article “The Teaching of English in Transition Year: Some Thoughts” helpful in this regard (Teaching English magazine, Spring 2006, pgs. 11-12).
In terms of individual teacher planning, weekly and monthly plans and some accompanying resource folders were presented for inspection. Very good practice was seen where teachers were planning for the incremental development of students’ descriptive, functional, and creative writing skills; were recording the names of students not turning in homework assignments and following up notes in students’ homework journals in this regard; and where teachers were choosing accessible texts for junior cycle study to support the teaching of specific senior cycle texts. (For instance, teaching third-year students an example of a Petrarchan and a Shakespearean sonnet and reading a novella on the Iliad with them, as preparation for the study of Michael Longley’s poetry). Where weaknesses were noted, no specific exercises or time had been planned for teaching students how to strategically investigate unseen texts.
All lessons were structured and there was evidence of short-term planning. Very good practice was observed when the intended learning outcome was shared with learners at the outset of a lesson, thus helping students connect new learning with previous work and also inviting them to share responsibility for the lesson.
All teachers acted as strong oral-language role models for students. Teachers’ instructions and explanations were precise in almost all classes observed. Where guiding prompts or questions were set for students before the examination of texts, this was good practice. However, group work was sometimes an area where precise instructions were not communicated. It is encouraged that students’ understanding of the roles they are required to perform within a group, of the end-product that the group is expected to produce, and of the timeframe assigned for task completion be checked through questioning before groups commence working.
A variety of resources was used in the teaching of English, including some good graphic organisers (a “ladder” for sequencing stages in a character’s downfall, an inverted pyramid for highlighting the required elements of newspaper reports, and a grid for recording key aspects of a film sequence). Furthermore, whiteboards were used effectively to provide written reinforcement of new vocabulary, to record students’ feedback, and to model the organisation of key points in preparation for substantial writing tasks. Other structured uses of the board that the department is advised to consider include dedicated vocabulary and homework columns, different coloured markers to help students discriminate between headings and sub points, and occasionally inviting students to record class feedback on the whiteboard. Lastly, the requirement that students transcribe board work into their copies (a practice already established in some classes) will provide them with an invaluable revision aid. The observed uses of ICT were the preparation of handouts for use in lessons, the downloading of materials for class use, and the use of a data projector and DVD player to screen a film sequence. Building on this foundation and given the variety of learning styles and of students’ abilities in the school, it is recommended that concrete artefacts (such as relevant props and models), more audio recordings, and more uses of ICT be incorporated into the teaching of English. Initially, handouts listing websites supporting the teaching of particular texts or topics could be compiled and saved on the shared English folder on the school network, to broaden the departmental repertoire of resources for supporting all cohorts.
Activities such as the use of the internet (to help students further develop their understanding of particular biographical and cultural contexts) and of general word processing and specialised software programmes (to reinforce a process approach to writing) can then be incorporated into departmental practice over time.
Teachers used questioning to good effect to stimulate and interact with students and to structure the learning activity. Where they posed questions to students that were carefully sequenced, leading them to higher-order thinking and encouraging them to make personal aesthetic responses, this was laudable. However, they generally interspersed a few targeted questions (directed to a named student) with questions mostly posed to the entire class for response. Best practice is where a more even blend of targeted and open questions is posed.
In all of the classes visited, some active learning strategies were in use and this is highly commended. Among the varied teaching strategies observed were question and answer, teacher reading, student reading (individuals and class chorus), group work, directed listening to and viewing of texts, creative intervention (a newspaper report based on a studied poem), and flashcard games for revising media studies terms. Evidence was also gathered of the use of a thematic junior cycle unit (using a related novel, poem and essay topic), of the explicit development of students’ vocabularies and understanding of English language conventions, and of the use of a teacher-designed question booklet on a studied novel to guide students’ reading of the text and to act as a revision aid for examination preparation. In most classes observed, teachers awakened students’ relevant prior knowledge and experiences before commencing the study of new material and then recapped on material at the end of the lesson, checking for new words and/or concepts that students still found difficult to comprehend. English teachers now need to formally share and document these commendable methodologies to ensure that all students get the benefit of them.
Two recommendations are offered with regard to pedagogical areas for development. First, further development across the department of its resources and strategies for teaching the process and sub skills of writing is recommended. Some examples of good practice already taking place in individual classrooms include the use of writing frames to model the organisation of specific writing tasks and equipping students with “banks” of keywords to draw on for describing characters, places, things, and actions. Further areas for development include incorporating vocabulary copies and spelling tests into junior cycle classes; teaching students the department’s agreed presentation and editing routines from first year onward; greater integration of creative interventions into the teaching of texts; Make a Book projects; and the use of ICT to reinforce the process approach to writing. Among the professional development resources the department may wish to browse in this regard are those described on the websites http://www.jcspliteracy.ie/school_wide.htm and http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/.
Secondly, the depth of media studies coverage and the selection of texts being taught to ordinary-level and foundation-level cohorts need to be reviewed by the department. For instance, the third-year students due to sit State Examination Commission examinations in June 2008 will all answer on the same play and novel. Given the open nature of the JC English syllabus and the range of choices available to teachers within the list of prescribed texts for LC English study, it is advised that the interests and learning needs of student cohorts be more carefully considered when selecting texts. For ideas on alternative junior cycle text selections, see Appendix 1 of the 2005 Chief Examiners’ report on Junior Certificate English (http://www.examinations.ie/archive/examiners_reports/cer_2006/JC_English_2006.pdf) and suggestions from TESS (http://english.slss.ie/FAQ.html and http://english.slss.ie/Links.html). Lastly, the department is advised to pool and then extend as necessary its range of supports for the teaching of literary texts to different student cohorts. For instance, the model of a teacher-designed question booklet already in use with a few classes to support the study of particular texts could be adopted by other members of the department. Also, high-interest low-reading-age, abridged and audio versions of texts along with key moment approaches can be used to help students with literacy difficulties to access texts.
The school environment is a vibrant one, incorporating colourful murals by TY students and varied co-curricular notices, posters and information leaflets. The English-related resources displayed in rooms included students’ poetic compositions and visualisations of similes produced using ICT, a collective project where students wrote copy relevant to the Merchant of Venice for the front-page of a fictional newspaper called The Venetian Times, key quotations from a studied novel selected and written by students, student-labelled elements of a newspaper, and posters of films studied by students as part of their TY English programme. The fact that classrooms are student-based places limits on teachers’ capacities to develop print-rich environments for students. The establishment of a whole-school notice board for English would be one possible response to this situation. The teachers of English are commended for their efforts to create a print-rich environment for their students.
Very good rapport between teachers and students was evident in all classrooms visited. Teachers consistently affirmed students’ responses and integrated them into lessons. Discipline was maintained in all classes and almost all students observed were engaged in their learning. Oral questioning by teachers and by the inspector demonstrated students’ good levels of knowledge of studied texts. Some students were engaging in higher-order thinking about those texts, spontaneously asking their teacher perceptive questions about them. Finally, it was noted that where graphic organisers, active learning methods, and keyword approaches were in use, students’ levels of engagement were particularly raised.
A number of the classes observed began with a review of homework or of work done in a previous class, thus maximising the chances that students would retain their new learning. Where good practice was observed, homework assignments were written on the whiteboard; students were given specific instructions on how homework was to be presented and on the criteria that work should meet (page length, number of points and quotations required); and sufficient time was allocated for students to note down their assignments.
From a review of student copies, it was evident that homework was being set and monitored in all classes. In some cases, students’ work was acknowledged by a tick and/or short comment (good/good effort). In other cases, the teacher comment offered formative feedback that affirmed specific strengths in the piece of writing and gave specific ideas for improvement and this is commended. The department is encouraged to discuss this issue and to arrive at a consensus on it, so that teachers’ responses to students’ writing are consistent from first to sixth year. In arriving at a common policy on the correction of mechanical errors and on the provision of formative feedback on substantial pieces of writing, the department may find materials such as the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA)’s “Assessment for Learning” web pages and the JCSP publication Between the Lines useful.
Three other aspects of students’ assessment need to be developed by the department. First, it is recommended that the department consider awarding some marks toward end-of-term results for tasks linked to collaboratively-planned learning outcomes for different year groups. (One teacher has already commendably begun this practice, awarding some marks for students’ essays towards end-of-term results). Other elements for aggregation could include spelling and vocabulary tests, folder maintenance, oral presentations, and project work. Such student-centred assessment approaches would help all students. Secondly, it is recommended that teachers further develop their diagnostic use of assessments. For instance, teachers are advised to assign class time early in the first term of every year for students to produce a substantial personal writing sample. Analysing and recording the recurring errors in each student’s work will give teachers a good benchmark for skill development programme planning. Thirdly, it is encouraged that more self-assessment by students of syllabus areas where they scored well and where they had difficulties during mock examinations be drawn upon by teachers planning revision programmes for third and sixth years.
The English department prepares and administers a common end-of-year examination to all first years to facilitate the comparison of achievement across the year group. School management produces an annual analysis of students’ State examination results in all subjects in relation to national norms for the uptake of levels and for the spread of grades as an aid to departmental self-evaluation and planning and this is good practice. Some teachers use State examination chief examiners’ reports and marking schemes to inform their work and this is commended. A good level of contact is maintained between the school and parents. In addition to four-yearly reports, ongoing information regarding students’ progress is also communicated to parents through students’ homework journals and through annual parent-teacher meetings.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Timetable provision for English is in line with syllabus requirements for all year groups.
· School management is commended for its concurrent timetabling arrangements for the subject, for making funds available on request for the purchase of resources, and for supporting the continuing professional development of the department and of individual English teachers.
· School management, the English teachers, and other teachers who organise English-related activities are highly commended for their commitment to providing such stimulating activities for their students.
· By the time of evaluation, the English department had documented its practices in a subject-department-planning template, had prepared curriculum content plans for each year group, and had begun taking minutes of its formal meetings.
· In all classes evaluated, lessons were structured, there was evidence of short-term planning, and a variety of resources was used.
· In all of the classes visited, some active learning strategies were in use and this is highly commended.
· Very good rapport between teachers and students was evident in all classrooms visited. Teachers consistently affirmed students’ responses and integrated them into lessons. Discipline was maintained in all classes and almost all students observed were engaged in their learning.
· The teachers of English are commended for their efforts to create a print-rich environment for their students.
· From a review of student copies, it was evident that homework was being set and monitored in all classes.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· Subject department planning should be further developed in line with the advice in this report.
· Over the coming years, the English department should formally pool its teaching strategies and resources. In particular, the department should further develop its questioning practices and its capacity to teach the process and subskills of writing.
· The English department should further develop its common approach to assessment, as advised in this report.
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 November 2008