An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Baile Mhic Íre, Contae Chorcai
Date of inspection: 29 November 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Ghobnatan. 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 one day 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.
Coláiste Ghobnatan is a co-educational, all-Irish school. There are three lessons per week allocated for English in first-year classes. There are five lessons per week for English in second-year and third-year classes. While provision for English in second year and in third year is good, provision for English lessons in first year is not adequate. This finding is supported by the recent Department of Education and Science (DES) publication Looking at English: Teaching and Learning English in Post-Primary Schools. Beyond this, the all-Irish nature of the school ethos allows for fewer contact points between students and the target language than is the case for many of their peers in other schools. Therefore, it is recommended that the number of English lessons in first year should be increased. There are three English lessons per week provided for the Transition Year class. This is adequate. There are six English lessons per week for fifth-year and sixth-year classes. This is good provision. In all instances the timetable maximises the opportunities for students’ contact with the subject across the week and this is worthwhile. English classes retain their teacher from year to year, in junior and in senior cycle, as much as is possible. This is good practice.
English classes in first year are of mixed ability. Students are divided into ordinary and higher level classes in second year on the basis of standardised tests administered in first year, as well as their performance in the summer examinations and continuous assessment on the part of their teachers. The Transition Year (TY) class is of mixed ability. This is appropriate, given the aims and spirit of the programme. Students in fifth year are assigned to higher level or ordinary level classes on the basis of their performance in the Junior Certificate. It is suggested that students’ performance in Transition Year should also be taken into account in this process, following their participation in the programme. The agreement of parents and students is central to all of these processes in junior and senior cycle. The use of concurrent timetabling of classes in the majority of year groups in the junior and senior cycle is to be praised as a means of facilitating students’ movement between levels and cycles where it becomes necessary. The school has recently begun to rotate teachers between levels and cycles. This is very worthwhile and this approach should be continued with and widened. Such a strategy will ensure the maintenance of a wide skills base in the English department. Two English teachers have baserooms, which is very worthwhile.
There is a school library, which is an impressive resource. A postholder has recently been assigned the library as an area of responsibility. This is positive and the English department is strongly encouraged to view the library as a key tool in enhancing students’ literacy. The creation of a library policy as part of the subject plan for English should be pursued, alongside the possible creation of a reading programme for junior-cycle students. Areas which are worth exploring here include the appropriate use of DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) lessons for first-year classes, the use of book boxes to facilitate borrowing, the display of peer reviews in the library and the creation of a ‘cosy corner’, along with the adoption of high interest / low reading ability books and readalong texts to encourage reluctant readers. A useful resource where ideas for the further development of the library may be found is the publication, Room for Reading: The Junior Certificate School Programme Demonstration Library Project which is available at www.jcspliteracy.ie. The school is encouraged to support the English department’s efforts to further develop the library, particularly with regard to the updating of books and magazines to heighten students’ interest in reading.
There is very good provision of audio-visual resources for English teachers. This is very positive, given the importance of film in the Leaving Certificate syllabus, along with the capacity of visual and aural resources to further support learning in junior cycle classes. There is very good access to ICT for teachers. Classrooms are connected for broadband internet access and data projectors are available in English baserooms. Ultimately, there is a plan to place data projectors in all classrooms. Teachers have been provided with laptops by the school and it was evident during the course of the evaluation that these were being used for research purposes, as well as a resource to reinforce students’ learning. Beyond this, the use of ICT to facilitate the storage of the English subject plan is to be praised. There is limited access for English classes to the school’s computer room. Notwithstanding this fact, teachers are encouraged to explore opportunities for students to utilise ICT in their work as much as is possible. This might take the form of a laptop being used by a group of students during a lesson to research a particular area or the use of ICT in students’ homework assignments. Areas which English teachers might explore as a means of extending students’ work with ICT include the use of wordprocessing packages for particular written exercises and the adoption of webquests when assigning project work in English. The former approach, in particular, will serve to enhance students’ awareness of the drafting and redrafting process which is central to all writing. A further addition to the English department’s already sound practice in the area of ICT would be the creation of an English Favourites area on the school’s network, setting out useful websites for the English department’s use.
English teachers have availed of opportunities for continuing professional development (CPD) in the past and stated that the school is supportive of their attendance at inservice training courses. This is positive and the English department is encouraged to grasp opportunities for professional development or attendance at subject association meetings when they arise. It is also suggested that, where a member attends an inservice training course, either specific to the subject, English, or of a more generic nature connected to pedagogical practice, this experience should be formally shared with colleagues through the subject planning process.
There is a subject coordinator for English. The coordinator has been appointed on a rotational basis, which is good practice. There are three formal meetings of the English department per year, along with numerous informal meetings. There is good collaboration between members of the English team. Appropriate minutes are kept of formal meetings and these minutes are stored with the aid of ICT. This is good practice.
The English subject plan is in the early stages of development, but already it is evident that English teachers have put considerable efforts into its formulation. Significant progress has been made in the creation of common plans for the English department. ICT has been utilised in the creation of the plan and this is worthwhile, allowing for ease of adjustment whenever the plan needs to be revisited. It is suggested that the plan might be further developed through the focusing of the current common plans on a skills-based, syllabus-based, monthly approach to the teaching of the Junior Certificate and the Leaving Certificate courses. This might be done utilising a grid-based structure which could also allow space for individual teachers to delineate the particular content they will utilise in achieving the skills-based learning goals set out for students in the plan. Other areas to be explored through the subject-planning process would typically include the analysis of state examination results and uptake (averaged out over a set number of years) with national norms, the adoption of common approaches to aid students experiencing literacy difficulties and the adoption of an assessment for learning strategy in the department. A useful resource for this latter endeavour can be accessed on the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) at www.ncca.ie.
There is some variation of texts in junior and senior cycle. English teachers report that the school’s book scheme has been supportive of their varying of texts and that a number of book sets have been ordered this year. This is to be commended and the school is encouraged to continue to support the English department in this important area of its practice. English teachers are encouraged to take opportunities which present themselves to vary text choice, within syllabus confines, not only to suit texts to class contexts and interests, but also in the interest of their own CPD. A useful resource to aid in the selection of books for junior cycle can be found at www.childrensbooksireland.ie. Beyond this, the English department should move to ensure the synchronisation of poetry studied in the higher and ordinary levels of the Leaving Certificate course. This should be done in order to ensure ease of student movement between levels, where this proves to be necessary.
There is a subject specific English programme for the TY programme. This is worthwhile. It is, however, some time since the programme was revised and it is recommended that the English department should move to revise it as part of the subject-planning process, with the involvement of all English teachers. A useful resource in advancing this project can be found on the website of the Transition Year Support Service at www.transitionyear.ie, which contains a template for the development of a subject-specific programme for TY.
English teachers are involved in organising a number of co-curricular and extracurricular activities. Among these are included theatre visits, visiting speakers and trips to English conferences. All of this is to be praised.
There are informal links between the English department and the special educational needs department. These are worthwhile and should continue to be developed. Opportunities for the occasional involvement of a member of the special educational needs department in English department meetings could also be explored. This would facilitate the sharing of ideas with regard to methodologies which might prove useful in mainstream English lessons, particularly with regard to the area of students’ literacy. Beyond this, and as a further element to be examined, the adoption of team-teaching as an additional support for particular students in some mainstream English classes may be worthwhile. English teachers’ own knowledge in the area of special educational needs can be advanced through professional development courses offered by the Special Education Support Service (SESS) which may be accessed through the website www.sess.ie.
A good standard of teaching and learning was observed in all lessons. Objectives were clear and this was most effective where the learning goal was explicitly stated for students at the beginning of the lesson. Planning was evident in all cases and records of students’ attendance and assessments were kept diligently by teachers. Teachers generally checked students’ homework or recapitulated work from the previous day as a means of easing students into the main areas to be covered over the course of the lesson. This is good practice.
A wide range of resources was used in the teaching of English. Among these were included photocopies, the whiteboard, different texts, television, DVD, laminated words and ICT. The use of ICT in introducing a poem to a senior cycle class was particularly praiseworthy as it allowed students to associate powerful visual images with a poem by Siegfried Sassoon. In another lesson, the use of film as an aid to students in accessing a Shakespearean play was sound practice. The film was used appropriately through the highlighting of excerpts and a particularly worthwhile feature of the teacher’s presentation was the comparing of the film in question to a theatrical version of the play recently visited by the class in question. This approach might have been further added to through the utilisation of other filmed versions of the play as a means of further enhancing students’ awareness of the dramatic nature of the text and the different choices which may be made in its presentation. In one lesson students were set dictionary work as homework. This was worthwhile, adding to students’ sense of responsibility for expanding their own vocabulary and it is recommended that all students should be expected to use a dictionary and thesaurus in English lessons. This practice is particularly relevant in the case of Coláiste Ghobnatan, given the school’s Irish-speaking ethos which decreases the contacts students have with the target language in comparison with peers in other schools.
Reading frequently featured in English lessons. The use of a prereading exercise was beneficial in one lesson where the teacher asked students for the names of famous cats as a means of introducing a poem dealing with a related topic. This was worthwhile and worked well as a means of gaining students’ attention and engaging them with the poem in question. A further extension of this good practice might have been the use of visual images to provide another gateway to the poem for students. Teacher and student readings of poems also featured in other lessons and were well managed.
A positive feature of another lesson was the call by one teacher for students to take notes during a showing of a film excerpt, thus ensuring student engagement and practice in the skill of notetaking. A further addition to this might have been teacher modelling of notetaking at the same time as students, leading to a comparison of notes at the end of the excerpt. There was some evidence of an integrated approach to the teaching of the language and literature elements of the syllabuses in students’ homework. This was positive. It is recommended that the adoption of an integrated strategy where literature acts as a ‘springboard’ for students’ study of language, and vice versa, should be included as a part of the English subject plan. This approach should be utilised as a key element in the teaching and learning of the subject. Alongside this, the setting out of a wide range of genres to be explored through this approach would be worthwhile, alongside other potential supports for students’ written work such as creative modelling and scaffolded exercises.
A clear focus on language was a genuine strength in most lessons. In one instance there was a consistent emphasis placed on enhancing students’ familiarity with key terms. Students were asked to choose different stylistic devices used by a poet and, alongside this, the reshaping of student answers to explore the concept of ‘metaphor’ was expertly achieved. In another case, students brought out the notion of ‘contrast’ in a poem by focusing on imagery used by the poet to foreshadow a coming tragedy, which had been placed alongside more positive images of life. This work was then consolidated in students’ copies. In another lesson the language of a play was explained to and by students. This strategy could have been further developed to incorporate higher order questions for students regarding the reasons why particular language techniques were used and how successfully they had achieved their aim. A very positive feature of this lesson was the expectation that students would supply quotations in support of their claims regarding how a particular character felt. This was worthwhile and might have been further enhanced through the integration of these quotations in a written exercises that students could develop.
There was some use of group work in the teaching of English. An example of this was where students were put in groups to find words they would associate with war and the words were then written on the whiteboard. This was worthwhile, focusing students on their own responsibilities in the learning process. This activity was also engaged in when students were exhorted to look for interesting adjectives in a particular piece. In this instance it is suggested that the use of pair work might have been more appropriate as a means of ensuring the active engagement of all students in the class. In general, group or pair work was not a feature of English lessons however, and the English department is encouraged to explore this and other differentiated methodologies in its future classroom practice. Such strategies will serve as an aid to pacing and to student engagement.
Classroom management was good in all cases and a particularly noteworthy element in lessons was the excellent relationship and atmosphere which permeated interactions between students and teachers. Students were engaged by lessons, particularly where modes of presentation were varied as an aid to pacing. Students responded readily to questions posed by teachers and displayed good knowledge of work done up to that point in the year. Teacher questioning was generally effectively handled, particularly where care was taken with regard to the distribution of questions across the class group.
A print-rich environment was evident in all English baserooms and this was positive. Among the examples of good practice in this area, observed during the inspection, were included displays of students’ genre exercises, key quotations connected to texts being studied, spelling corners, displays of students’ projects and poetry, newspaper displays and keywords associated with a novel being studied. All of this is most worthwhile and the English department is encouraged to set down the creation and maintenance of a print-rich environment as a key aspiration in the English subject plan, while remaining cognisant and respectful of the particular ethos of Coláiste Ghobnatan.
Homework was regularly assigned and corrected. In one instance an increase in the amount of written homework would be of benefit as ‘students learn to write by writing.’ The use of A4 copies for major genre exercises could be of benefit in achieving this aim. Such an approach could add to the status of such exercises for students and the possibility of excellent work being ‘published’, through the use of ICT by students, on a classroom wall display or in a class compendium would further aid student motivation. It would also increase their sense of the importance of drafting and redrafting their written work.
The use of comment-based, formative assessment was evident in all cases and this is praiseworthy as this encapsulates some of the principles behind assessment for learning. Teachers are encouraged to continue with this practice, particularly in the area of comment-only marking, as much as practicable, within time constraints. As has been suggested earlier in this report, further investigation of other assessment for learning strategies might prove beneficial in advancing the work of the English department in the future.
Students participating in the state examinations at the end of the academic year are provided with formal house examinations at Christmas and mock examinations. Students in other year groups participate in formal, house examinations at Christmas and summer. Other, informal tests may be set by teachers at midterm breaks or at other times during the school year. The English department sets common examinations in first year and this is good practice. The occasional use of some common components of examinations in other year groups might also be worth investigating, as such an approach could serve the purpose of allowing for the comparison of student performance across a year group. However, the inevitable divergence in material explored by ordinary and higher level classes must be recognised in making this suggestion. A further area worth exploring here is that of teachers’ moderating the marking of each others’ class examinations on occasion.
Parent-teacher meetings are organised once a year for second-year, TY and fifth-year students. There are two parent-teacher meetings per year for first-year and third-year students, while there are three such meetings per year for sixth-year students. These contacts are commendable.
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, November 2008