An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Tullow Community School
Tullow, County Carlow
Roll number: 91356F
Dates of inspection: 23 September 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Tullow Community School, 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.
The school offers a commendable range of programmes. Within these, the allocation for English on the school timetable varies considerably, with instances of generous provision for Leaving Certificate and less good provision for other programmes. For example, six lessons per week including a double lesson are allocated in sixth year, while only four lessons are allocated to all years in the junior cycle. Optimal provision is a lesson per day, and it is therefore recommended that the junior cycle provision for the subject be reviewed and, where possible, increased. Particular consideration should be given to improving provision in first year and in the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP). It is strongly recommended that a daily English lesson be provided in first year to establish a firm skills foundation in the areas of speaking, listening, reading and writing. JCSP students would also benefit from a lesson every day, to reinforce essential language skills. English is allocated just three lessons per week in the school’s Transition Year (TY) and Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programmes. Provision in TY could be enhanced through planned links between English and complementary modules such as drama, which is also timetabled in TY. This cross-curricular approach is recommended in the TY guidelines. The timetabling guidelines for LCA recommend four lessons per week (see www.lca.ie).
Eight teachers, some of long standing and some recently appointed, form the English teaching team. All but one teaches English to two or more class groups, and four teach English in both the junior and senior cycle. Deployment that enables teachers to have regular contact with the subject across a range of programmes, years and levels is to be commended. Changes in teaching personnel this year have created greater discontinuity than is usual, but it was reported that classes generally retain the same teacher within a cycle, and this is good practice. It was reported that the assigning of teachers to programmes such as LCA has become more flexible in recent years. To continue this trend, consideration should be given to a two-year rotation of teachers of English in LCA in order to promote collaborative practice between new and experienced teachers and to build capacity within the team. Care should also be taken to rotate the teaching of English in TY. An increase in the number of TY class groups would provide an opportunity for modular delivery, involving a number of teachers.
First-year class groups are of mixed ability and each group is intended to reflect the gender balance in the year as a whole. These groups differ in size to accommodate the formation of science classes. Since the variations in size are considerable, it is suggested that this arrangement be reviewed. At the end of first year, a common test in English is administered and students are set in ability groups in second year. Class groups are paired, and the pairs are timetabled concurrently and designated higher and ordinary. While the efforts to accommodate students at the levels deemed to be appropriate are acknowledged, serious consideration should be given to deferring the creation of higher and ordinary classes to the end of second year. This would allow students more time to attain and demonstrate the required skills, and would provide them and their teachers with firmer grounds for decisions on levels. It is also suggested that fully concurrent timetabling of English in third year be considered to facilitate flexibility in placing students in the appropriate class. In fifth year, students are set in higher and ordinary groups, largely on the basis of Junior Certificate results. At present, there are three higher-level classes and one ordinary-level class in both fifth and sixth year, although some in the higher-level classes will sit ordinary level English. It may be timely to look at the possibility of forming five class groups in these years, given the rising enrolment and the desirability of facilitating students’ choice of the appropriate level.
Four members of the English teaching team have their own classrooms, and some teachers without base rooms are timetabled for the same room where possible. Many of the classrooms have been developed as rich and stimulating resources for the teaching and learning of English, with striking posters, photographs, themed displays based on studied texts, word charts and other illustrative material. Current students’ work was displayed in a number of rooms, and this affirms students’ efforts and encourages them to work on editing and presentation in order that their work can be “published” in this way. It is commendable that good progress has been made in what was noted as an area for development in a previous subject inspection report on English, and the teaching team is encouraged to develop this good practice further.
The school library is open at lunchtime for students to browse and borrow books. It is also used as a space for visiting speakers, and first-year classes are given a tour of the library as part of their induction. Class groups have also been brought to the newly-housed town library, a very fine amenity close to the school. Both the Schools Library Association (www.slari.ie) and the JCSP Demonstration Library Project (www.jcsp.ie) are a stimulating source of ideas on the development and use of a school library.
Information and communications technology (ICT) and audiovisual equipment is available to the English department, either fixed in classrooms or movable. A storage space for materials and resources for English is housed in the staff area, and all teachers of English have access to it. It is recommended that the teaching team consider the development of an electronic folder for English. This would facilitate the creation, storage and adaptation of a very wide range of resources, including writing frames, downloaded materials, and in-house assessments.
The school offers teaching experience to student teachers, and shared teaching of some junior cycle classes has taken place already this year. Members of the English teaching team have availed of continuing professional development (CPD), which has included postgraduate studies and in-service courses.
Subject departments meet formally at the beginning and towards the end of the school year, and it was reported that members of the English teaching team meet informally throughout the year. It is recommended that at least one other formal meeting be held, perhaps while house examinations are taking place in December. The very considerable benefits to be derived from working collaboratively, including effective division of labour and the sharing of good practice, should encourage the team to maximise all opportunities to meet on a regular basis. The English teaching team operates a system of rotating co-ordinator, generally with a two-year period of rotation. This is good practice as it allows all members of the team to experience and contribute to the role. In further developing existing practice, it is recommended that the teaching team prepare a description of the role of co-ordinator, following discussion and consultation of the relevant section of the inspectorate report Looking at English.
Planning documents for English were made available in advance of the inspection. One of the templates devised by the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) has been followed to provide broad statements of aims and objectives, to list text choices and timetabling arrangements and to outline briefly procedures in relation to areas such as special educational needs. The bulk of the planning documents consisted of individual handwritten schemes of work for the various years and programmes, with some evidence of collaboration with regard to choice of texts. For example, the recently introduced practice of selecting the same novel for all first-year groups was noted and is commended, given that greater collaboration in this area was recommended in the previous report on English. There remains a considerable variation in the texts chosen for the comparative study element of the Leaving Certificate syllabus. While some variation may be required in order to accommodate students’ interests and aptitudes, a greater level of agreement would assist thorough discussion of the many possibilities on each year’s prescribed list and ensure a good balance between the challenging and the accessible. It would also facilitate the shared preparation of teaching materials. It is also recommended that the planned programme include some element of the comparative study in fifth year, rather than deferring it entirely to sixth year, as is current practice.
To assist in the productive development of subject planning practices, the following suggestions should be considered by the teaching team. The redrafted junior cycle English syllabus, available on the NCCA web site, should be consulted in order to identify the learning outcomes for each year. These learning outcomes can then form the basis of the year plan, and this will place a helpful emphasis on the methods appropriate to delivering the learning outcomes and also the most effective ways of assessing students’ learning. As discussed during the inspection, learning outcomes should be expressed in the clearest and most concrete terms: for example, “The student is able to write three linked, coherent paragraphs” as an outcome appropriate to a first-year plan. Planning templates which facilitate the linking of specific content, methods, materials and forms of assessments should be developed, and further consultation of the SDPI web site will be helpful in this regard (www.sdpi.ie). The inspectorate’s composite report, Looking at English, should also be consulted.
The plans made available for TY and LCA were in line with programme requirements and were adequately detailed. Consultation with the programme web sites and input from all members of the teaching team would help to ensure that the plans are regularly reviewed and kept in line with best practice.
Individual teacher planning was thorough and well organised. Lessons and teaching resources were generally well chosen and prepared. The preparation of materials to promote more active and independent learning is especially commended, and this good practice should be extended.
Nine lessons were observed during the course of the evaluation, covering all years, levels and programmes and involving all members of the English teaching team. The quality of teaching and learning observed was generally of a good standard. Teachers knew students well, even at this early stage of the school year, and referred to them by name. While the prevailing classroom atmosphere was friendly and respectful, instances of unco-operative behaviour were observed in some class groups. These were dealt with effectively for the most part. Where certain students are consistently disruptive, a whole-school approach is required to address it. The disciplinary referral system in place was described by teachers and should be fully utilised when necessary to support the teaching and learning of all students.
Lesson pacing was good in most cases and a balance was struck between forward movement and reinforcement of prior learning. In some instances, however, too much class time was spent on checking and going over work already done and this decreased momentum. The good practice of stating the objective of the lesson at the outset was observed in some instances, and should be followed in all lessons as it helps to increase student focus and involvement. Good links with prior learning were explicitly made in a number of lessons, and this is good practice as it contributes to students’ sense of progression. A rapid review of the lesson topic concluded a number of lessons, and this is a useful practice especially where homework on the topic has been set.
Resources and learning materials used included the overhead projector, television and video, photocopies of poems and worksheets, as well as textbooks and the board. Most teachers showed an awareness of the importance of visual reinforcement of new vocabulary and the mechanics of language, and the effective use of the board for this purpose is commended. The students’ own work was used as a teaching tool, although mainly in the context of addressing errors. Where possible, the use of students’ work to affirm creative and insightful writing should also be incorporated into classroom practice.
The emphasis on the development of accurate writing skills is commended but spelling and grammar drills should not be overused. Instead, new words and constructions should be given a context so that students acquire them in a meaningful way. The use of models of good and accurate language was observed in some lessons. Their purpose should be clearly explained so that they assist students to develop their own writing skills through creative imitation; this is especially pertinent to the teaching of writing in specific genres, such as diary and letter writing. The greater use of writing frames and templates is also encouraged. These provide a helpful framework for students who have difficulty with structure and sequencing when attempting extended writing tasks. The production of these writing frames also provides an opportunity for collaborative work and for the sharing of materials that teachers have found effective.
Varied approaches to the study of poetry were observed. In a junior cycle lesson, students and then the teacher read the poem aloud. The board was then used to gather ideas about the theme and form of the poem. Very good links were made with poems on a similar theme and, commendably, with an episode in a novel being read by the class. It is suggested that, to aid students’ initial grasp of the poem, teachers speak the poem first and then ask students to read, perhaps allowing them some time to work on a pair or group reading. In another junior cycle lesson, the class had learned some of a poem by heart, and then students volunteered to improvise a scene based on the poem. This was lively and engaging. Further work might include choral or dramatised readings of poems that assist learning while not focusing on individual performance. In a senior cycle lesson, the teacher read one of Rich’s poems twice and then began to elicit a response from the class, gradually focusing on an exploration of the poem’s central metaphors which were then explicitly identified. It is suggested that, where students are encountering complex poems, they be asked to identify what strikes them about the poem and to trace the patterns of words creating this impression. This serves to emphasise the words on the page and gives students an opportunity to explore and identify layers of meaning and metaphor themselves.
Students encounter a good range of texts throughout the junior cycle, and this is commended. One class had recently begun a novel, and were getting to grips with character, plot and social setting. They showed a reasonable but not complete grasp of these and it is recommended that, rather than going back over the early chapters, a forward momentum be established to enable greater understanding to grow as the relationships and plot twists unfold. Greater pace promotes a more engaged reading, and prediction exercises and response journals are writing tasks appropriate to this approach.
Students demonstrated satisfactory recall of prior learning in their responses to questions. Their engagement in class activities, while it varied, demonstrated for the most part a willingness to work diligently and an interest in learning. Teachers had appropriately high expectations of students for the most part. However, it is important on a whole-school basis to ensure that expectations for the whole range of students, from the exceptionally able to the less able, are set and maintained at an appropriately high level.
Monitoring of students’ work and progress in class through teacher questioning was widespread, and teachers also used questions to keep students on task and to check their understanding of the work. Short class tests are given from time to time, especially as part of examination preparation. During the evaluation, a class test was returned to a senior cycle class, and common errors and wrong approaches were identified and corrected in class, thus ensuring that assessment was informing learning. This is good practice.
A review of students’ copies identified some exemplary practice in giving developmental feedback to students. This consisted of written comment in which students’ efforts were affirmed and suggestions for improvement were constructively made. It is recommended that this be done for all substantial written assignments so that homework is clearly linked to progress. A correction drill had been placed inside the front cover of some of the copies inspected, requiring students to check their work, to write out corrections and to ensure they understood them. This is good practice as it emphasises to students their responsibility for and ownership of their own work. Standards of presentation varied; some copies and folders were very well maintained and work was clearly dated and headed, while in other cases homework was carelessly written and of a poorer standard than the work done by the same students in class. It is recommended that a consistent whole-school policy on the required standards for all written assignments be included in the homework policy, and that its rationale be clearly explained to students.
Teachers maintain records of students’ attendance and performance in classwork and homework assignments, and in-school tests. It was reported that a common summer test in English was set for all first year classes but no copy of it was available in the school during the evaluation. It is recommended that all in-school tests be stored in electronic or hard copy, for reference in planning future work and to ensure consistency of practice. Mock examinations for certificate examination classes take place and are marked internally in the junior cycle but may be marked externally in the senior cycle. Teachers reported that students may seek external marking but may then want it verified or reviewed internally, and this suggests the need for a more streamlined system.
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 May 2009