An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Terence MacSwiney Community College
Knocknaheeny, Cork City
Roll number: 71123Q
Date of inspection: 30 April 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Terence Mac Swiney Community College. 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.
Terence McSwiney Community College is a co-educational school. Provision for English on the school timetable is good, with most classes in first year, second year, third year and fifth year receiving five English lessons per week. The sixth-year English class is in receipt of six English lessons per week, which is positive. Besides this, a small class in first year and a small class in third year receive six English lessons per week, while a small class group in second year is provided with nine English lessons per week. These latter arrangements are in place as a means of enhancing the literacy skills of students in these smaller class groups. In a significant number of instances it was evident that English lessons were not spread evenly through the school week, and consequently did not achieve the maximum number of contact points between the students and study of the language. This is not consistent with best practice and, consequently, it is recommended that the timetabling of English should be reviewed carefully, with a view towards achieving the maximum number of contact points with the subject, wherever practicable. The school is also encouraged to keep the current arrangements whereby literacy support class groups in first year and in second year encounter the subject through treble lessons under careful review with regard to the best use of resources and the success of this approach when set against other possible strategies.
Incoming first year students are streamed on the basis of standardised assessment tests, while students in senior cycle are assigned to levels on the basis of their performance and results in the junior cycle. Classes in fifth year are concurrently timetabled in English, facilitating student movement between levels and cycles where this is necessary. The concurrent timetabling of lessons in year groups is good practice and the use of this strategy is encouraged, particularly, where practicable, in junior cycle. Teachers are generally assigned to levels and cycles on a rotational basis. This is positive and, where there is an opportunity for teachers to expand their professional experiences in this manner, it is to be encouraged as a means of widening the skills base in the English department.
The school has an impressive library which is part of the JCSP demonstration library project. There is a committed librarian who, in conjunction with the English department and other members of the school community, has grasped the potential for the library to be used as a key tool in developing students’ literacy skills. A wide range of literacy initiatives are underway, including DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) afternoons, Wordmillionaire, Reading Challenge and Make-a-Book. Beyond this, the school has links with the wider community through the ‘one book / one Shandon’ scheme and a paired reading initiative for junior-cycle students. This paired reading initiative has been organised by the Home School Community Liaison Co-ordinator (HSCL). Graphic novels, hi-lo readers and literacy games have all been purchased. The library has been developed into an attractive area which incorporates a wide range of student displays, thus adding to a sense of audience for students and, as importantly, heightening their self-esteem in connection with achievements in the area of literacy. Regular celebrations at the end of various initiatives serve to further enhance students’ engagement with literacy skills. The role of the library in supporting students’ development in English is set out in the English subject folder and this is worthwhile. The efforts of the librarian, and of the English department, in developing the use of this impressive and powerful facility are to be strongly praised.
There is good access to audio-visual equipment, with a number of portable audio-visual units available, tape recorders and a unit in the library. The school is encouraged to explore any further possibilities with regard to the expansion of audio-visual facilities for English teachers, within the necessary constraints of available resources.
The school was previously involved in an initiative sponsored by the National Council for Technology in Education (NCTE) and has retained a class set of laptop computers associated with this endeavour. These are used in the library to support students’ literacy development. The school’s ICT room is also used to facilitate students’ written work, particularly in the LCA programme. The use of ICT as an aid to students’ literacy development is strongly encouraged. There was an annual budget assigned to the English department in the past. This has not been pursued by the department recently, but teachers were interested in re-engaging with this practice. It is suggested that an annual budget would be worthwhile as a means of focusing some elements of planning in English.
There is an informal induction process for new teachers and for student teachers. English teachers provide considerable support for new colleagues and this is to be praised. A staff member is currently engaged in professional development in the area of mentoring for new teachers. The English department is encouraged to access the new skills being acquired in this area in order to develop a brief, formal induction policy reflecting, consolidating and developing the good practice which is already in place.
The school is supportive of teachers’ continuing professional development (CPD). English teachers have availed of a wide range of professional development opportunities including training in the LCA programme, literacy and differentiation. In addition, a number of teachers have completed postgraduate courses. The department maintains links with the relevant subject association. One member of the English department has provided in-house professional development in the past. Given the expertise and experience present in the English team, it is suggested that this practice should be further developed, through inservice training being returned formally to the department by members who have taken part in courses, or provided to the department on the basis of its members’ own practice and experience.
A postholder has been appointed as subject co-ordinator. It is recommended that the position of co-ordinator should be decoupled from the post structure and a subject co-ordinator should be appointed on a rotational basis. This should be done in order to ensure a wide leadership skills base across the subject department. Details of the co-ordinator’s duties could also be included in a brief sheet in the subject plan. There are approximately two formal meetings of the department each term, along with regular informal discussions. Minutes are kept of formal meetings. This is good practice and it is suggested that the department should now move to use ICT as a means of storing these minutes. Topics recently examined in English departmental meetings have included the development of teachers’ schemes of work, a review of junior cycle novels and literacy tests.
A subject department plan has been created. The subject folder contains a range of material relevant to the teaching of English including teacher guidelines, syllabus documentation and resource material. It is suggested that the Department of Education and Science Inspectorate publication Looking at English: Teaching and Learning English in Post-Primary Schools could be usefully added to the folder. This document is available on the Department website at www.education.ie and is a useful resource to support the subject-planning process. Schemes of work have been developed which incorporate a learning-goal oriented, time-linked, skills-based approach, with clear links to the relevant syllabuses. The work and thought which has gone into these plans is most impressive. It is suggested that these plans should be as user-friendly as possible, and the graphic layout of some of the plans presented would facilitate such an approach. It is recommended that the plans which have been developed should continue to be advanced and incorporated as common plans across the department. The further development of the plans will provide a useful discussion point regarding teaching and learning in the English department. Another advantage of such common plans may be found in the increased focus they will bring to bear on material covered in each year group, thus avoiding the possibility of unintentional or unnecessary overlaps between year groups. A further suggestion is that the English department should adopt a clear teaching and learning focus for departmental meetings, to be explored in class, developed and discussed over the next number of years. A possibility in this regard is assessment for learning, and useful information on this topic is contained on the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) at www.ncca.ie. Such an approach would be particularly valuable, given the level of expertise with regard to teaching and learning, as well as the school’s own culture, which is present in the English department.
Teachers are involved in organising a range of co-curricular and extracurricular activities, a number of which are also facilitated by the school librarian. These include book-buying events, theatre visits, poetry workshops and a number of book publishing projects. Beyond these activities, the school has also been involved in a writer in residence scheme and visits by a storyteller are organised frequently. Teachers’ and the school libarian’s efforts in this area must be applauded.
Text choice is varied in junior cycle and in senior cycle. This is strongly encouraged as a means of acknowledging students’ interests and experiences, but also as a form of continuing professional development for teachers. The school’s book scheme has been very supportive with regard to the purchase of new sets of books for the English department. The websites www.literacytrust.org.uk and www.childrensbooksireland.com may be of use in helping teachers to explore further possibilities with regard to text choice, although the additional expertise available through the school librarian must also be strongly acknowledged. Three texts are studied for the comparative section of the ordinary level Leaving Certificate course, as is required by the syllabus. This is sound practice and this policy should be included in the English subject plan. The English department should also carefully consider the texts to be studied in the critical literacy element of the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme. Programme planning was in place for the LCA, which was of a good standard. Students’ key assignments were stored and it is suggested that this good practice should also be briefly set out as English departmental policy in the subject plan. The formal involvement of the LCA coordinator in this process may also be worth pursuing.
There are good links between the English department and the special-educational needs department. There is an overlap in personnel between the two departments and in-house in service training has, on occasion, been provided by a member of both departments to the wider staff. There is regular retesting of students’ literacy and English teachers are made aware of these results and students’ progress. Co-operative teaching has been used in the past and the English department is encouraged to maintain an awareness of opportunities where this approach could add to students’ learning experiences.
There was a good standard of teaching and learning in English lessons. Individual teacher planning was evident in all lessons. Objectives were clear and, in almost all lessons, the learning intention was outlined for students at the outset. This is good practice. The display of keywords in one lesson, as a scaffold for student learning, was positive. In another lesson, students were referred to material previously encountered as a means of supporting their acquisition of new knowledge and skills. Good practice was also observed where teachers had carefully prepared material in advance for students’ use, thus ensuring the smooth running of the lessons in question.
A wide range of resources was used during lessons. These included the whiteboard, writing frames, photocopied writing sheets, a DVD, an audio recording and the Irish Times. In particular, the use of a photograph album containing photographs taken by students in the school as an aid in advancing students’ visual literacy, was very worthwhile. Students’ interest was raised by the use of this resource, as also occurred where a class heard a poet’s explanation of the experiences behind her writing of a particular poem. The department is to be praised for seeking to engage students through a variety of means, rather than just through verbal presentations, as well as for the success of these efforts.
The use of a variety of differentiated methodologies was observed during the evaluation. Pair work was used on occassion. In one lesson this involved students listening to an audio recording and noting their reactions to the piece. This was worthwhile. Overall, it is suggested that the use of pair and group work could be adopted on a wider basis across the department. This should be done with a view towards the further development of the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. The assigning of roles to students with clearly specified duties should also form a key element in the use of pair and group work. Strategies such as placemat and jigsaw could be useful in implementing such an approach. Teachers frequently used DARTs (Directed Activities Related to Texts) to support students’ engagement in lessons and these included grids, graphic organisers and cloze tests. The use of writing frames by teachers as a means of supporting extended writing activities is particularly praised.
There was good focus on language in a number of English lessons. Here, teachers referred to particular techniques and types of words used by the writers of different texts. In one lesson a mnemonic was used to support students in creating a written response to a text focused specifically on the features of language used in the piece. In another lesson the use of metaphor and adjectives in a song were explored. Both of these endeavours were done with considerable expertise on the part of the teachers involved, displaying clear and positive expectations of their students. In another lesson, a focus on students’ personal response to a piece of writing was worthwhile and this could have been further developed to incorporate a discussion regarding the language devices which appealed to the students.
Reading and writing featured frequently in English lessons. In one instance, the development of written work regarding an ‘unseen’ poem was managed expertly by the teacher in question. This was achieved in a very structured manner through the use of the blackboard. Students developed keywords they associated with the poem and these were recorded on the blackboard. They were then expanded into the points students wished to make. This, in turn led to students offering quotations from the poem to support their points. This approach worked very well and, in particular, the teacher elicited responses from the students in a highly effective manner. In another lesson the teacher used a grid on the blackboard to highlight students’ contributions to revision work undertaken. This was positive, and could have been further added to through the consolidation of this work, by the students themselves, on a photocopy of a similar grid structure. A guided reading approach was used during a viewing of a DVD in a lesson, where students were provided with questions they would be expected to answer following their viewing of the piece. This worked well. In another lesson, students read aloud from their novel. The use of occasional interjections and of teacher reading could be considered as a further addition to this good work in the future. In-class written work was facilitated well in all instances.
In all cases classroom management was good and in some instances considerable expertise was displayed in this area. A good relationship between teachers and students was evident and lessons were conducted in an orderly and productive manner. Teachers were affirming and supportive towards students, showing a very high level of care. Students were engaged in lessons and, when questioned by their teachers or the inspector, displayed knowledge of the topics they had studied during the year. Of particular note was the awareness students displayed regarding the use of a variety of language techniques in the texts they were studying.
In a majority of cases, lessons were conducted in classrooms where a print-rich environment had been created. Teachers had endeavoured to begin the development of a print-rich environment in all cases, although this was sometimes hampered due to situations where a teacher did not have a baseroom for English. There were examples of teachers creating a ‘poetry corner’ in their classroom, pen pal projects and the display of motivational posters and ‘top 10 reads’ for students. Teachers’ efforts to create an ‘English environment’ in their rooms are to be greatly praised.
Homework was regularly assigned and corrected. Teachers’ good practice in using some time at the end of lessons to encourage students to begin to engage with their homework was noted. Good practice in the marking of students’ work was seen where comment-based, formative assessment was in evidence. In particular, the use of the rubrics of the certificate examinations as part of the teacher’s assessment was very worthwhile. A further, positive, feature of assessment practice encountered during the course of the evaluation was the development of weekly progress reports on the part of one class. This was in some ways similar to the idea of a reflective journal where students discussed their performance over a period of time and how they might improve it. Their teacher contributed comments on the same topic as part of the report. This good practice could be further adapted to develop a self-assessment and peer-assessment approach in English classes. The ultimate development of such strategies to incorporate students’ assessment of their own work through the lens of the certificate examinations could also be considered. The use of JCSP stickers as feedback in some copies was also worthwhile.
There were limited instances of an integrated approach to the language and literature elements of the syllabuses in the homework assigned to students. Where this occurred, the use of the literature being studied as a model for students’ written work was praised. English teachers are encouraged to further explore integrated approaches to the setting of students’ homework in all areas of the course. Such a strategy will serve to reinforce students’ knowledge of particular texts while simultaneously developing their awareness of the requirements of various genres and the use of language techniques in their own writing. ‘Genre-transfer’ activities will be particularly useful in this regard, while also supporting engagement with particular texts. Such approaches will be more effective than an overreliance on summary or the rewriting of poetry, where this occasionally occurred. The acknowledgement of the importance of an integrated approach, which is contained in the current subject plan, is positive in this regard.
Formal house examinations are held at Christmas for all students and at the end of the academic year for students in first year, second year and fifth year. Students in third year and in sixth year participate in formal pre-examinations in February. Beyond this, key assignments are completed in LCA groups while students participating in the JCSP complete subject statements. Where appropriate, students participate in common examinations. Continual assessment is also used by teachers in lessons. A particularly positive feature of current provision is the retesting arrangements for literacy which are in place for students in junior cycle. These, in turn, are communicated to the principal.
Parents receive formal written reports regarding students’ progress a number of times each year. All students receive reports at Christmas and first-year, second-year and fifth-year students receive reports at the end of the academic year. Third-year and sixth-year students receive reports following the pre-examinations. Parent-teacher meetings are organised once a year for all year groups. Occasionally the parent-teacher meetings for third-year and sixth-year parents may be held on the same day. Beyond these commendable arrangements, the school also maintains contact with parents through a range of other strategies. These include JCSP postcards, the involvement of parents in paired reading activities, celebrations of students’ achievements, phone calls and letters home. There is a wide range of modes of communication between the school and students’ homes. All of this is most praiseworthy, as are the various literacy programs organised by the home-school-community liaison co-ordinator.
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, December 2009