An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Mountmellick Community School
Mountmellick, County Laois
Roll number: 91426A
Date of inspection: 25 April 2007
Date of issue of report: 8 November 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Mountmellick Community School. 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, deputy principal and subject teachers.
Seven teachers are involved in the delivery of English in Mountmellick Community School and five of these teach English to a number of class groups. This consolidated delivery is commended and should continue so that all those involved in teaching English have a substantial timetabled commitment to the subject. The practice of deploying teachers across all years, levels and programmes should also be adhered to as far as possible to give all members of the English teaching team the opportunity to extend their experience and expertise. Should the school decide in future to offer other programmes such as Transition Year or the Leaving Certificate Applied, the current pattern of deployment of teachers should extend to these programmes also and ensure that all teachers have an input into their development and delivery.
During the inspection, the current provision for junior-cycle English was discussed with senior management and the teaching team. It was recommended that they consider increasing the number of lessons from four to five so that students could have daily contact with the subject and the opportunity to build and reinforce their language skills on a regular basis. In the meantime, it is suggested that care should be taken to ensure that students are timetabled for the subject at least four days a week and that Monday and Friday should be included in order to minimise the gap between lessons. Provision in the senior cycle is satisfactory. In some cases, there are double lessons and, while these may suit certain areas of the syllabus very well, the point about regular reinforcement also applies in the senior cycle.
The term ‘banding’ was used to describe the method of class formation in the school. Typically in the junior cycle there are two classes in the upper band and two in the lower. Given the manageable size of the yearly intake to the school and the relatively small number of students with significant literacy difficulties, it is strongly recommended that English be taught in a mixed- ability context in first and second years, with extra supports in place for students with identified needs. In this regard, the effective use of special-needs assistants for students with behavioural and learning needs was observed during the course of the inspection. In order to avoid a situation where identified students are withdrawn from mainstream English for literacy support, senior management, learning support and the English teaching teams could investigate the possibility of co-operative teaching whereby two teachers would work with the same-class group. The terms higher and ordinary should only be used in third year where they have a specific meaning in relation to the state examination. Concurrent timetabling of English would have practical benefits in third year and would help to deal with the current situation where, despite the banding system, students in the same class are taking different levels in Junior Certificate English. The provision of concurrent timetabling of English in the senior cycle was noted and is commended.
Some very good audio-visual resources (AV) were observed in use during the inspection and the teaching team make arrangements to use them as the need arises. The evident co-operation shown in the practice of moving rooms where necessary to use AV equipment is laudable. However, it is suggested that a more structured booking system be put in place to assist all teachers in planning the use of this equipment. The school has a spacious library containing a good range of fiction and non-fiction, a reference section and a number of class sets and multiple copies of certain titles. The position of librarian is a post of responsibility and there are commendable plans for developing the library as a more inviting area for private reading, and for increasing and renewing the stock. Books recently ordered cover a wide range of interests and some are specifically designed to be accessible to students with reading difficulties. The School Library Association (www.sla.org.uk) might have useful advice and suggestions to offer. It has an Irish branch which may be contacted at email@example.com .
Co-curricular activities that extend the students’ experience of English include theatre outings, visits to the school by theatre companies, and participation in the Writers in Schools scheme. Management and teaching staff are commended for facilitating students’ participation in these activities.
In the context of school development planning, the teachers of English have agreed that the task of subject co-ordination is to be done on a voluntary basis and is to be rotated annually. This is commendable as it gives all members of the team an opportunity to experience the co-ordinator’s role. Consideration could be given to extending the term of office to two years if the teaching team feel that this would assist continuity. Formal meetings are held a number of times a year, as part of general staff meetings or planning days. A pro forma is given to each subject department on which to record the topics discussed at each meeting, for example text choices, comments on results in state examinations and so on. The tradition of drawing up individual schemes of work is strongly established within the school, and it is clear from the records of meetings that a move towards greater collaboration and commonality in drawing up these schemes is under way. This is to be welcomed. Senior management and the teaching team are also commended on inviting the Second Level Support Service (SLSS) to give assistance to the teachers of English in further developing an effective subject department.
The move to more collaborative planning noted above paves the way towards a greater emphasis on the skills to be taught and not simply the content to be covered. A number of the schemes of work inspected contained clear links between the reading of prescribed texts and the development of the students’ writing skills, and this is the direction to pursue in developing the plan for English. In all cases, there should be an emphasis on desired learning outcomes connected to each topic or aspect of the course. This emphasis will then focus attention on the teaching methods and learning tasks best suited to these outcomes and this in turn will lead to a consideration of the most appropriate means to assess students’ learning.
The teaching team should now aim to produce an agreed plan for English covering all years, which should clearly show the cumulative building of skills and knowledge from year to year. Each member of the team should have a copy of the plan and it should inform the more detailed planning contained within the individual schemes of work. It is suggested that ways of using Information Communications Technology (ICT) to assist in collaborative planning be explored, in particular the creation of an electronic folder for English containing the year plan, a bank of the materials and resources created or sourced by the team, official documents such as syllabuses, guidelines and chief examiner’s reports, and links to other useful resources. Plans and templates can be easily accessed and adapted when stored in this way.
The timetabled subject department meetings should be viewed as an opportunity to share existing good practice, to develop a collective bank of resources and to agree on common methods of assessment wherever possible. Regular meetings also allow the team to review the success or otherwise of decisions made and to manage forward planning accordingly. The reflective practice and self-evaluation evident in many of the individual schemes of work are equally valuable in collaborative planning and should be facilitated and encouraged within the subject department structure. In particular, the involvement of two members of the English team in the Teaching and Learning 21(TL21) initiative is a valuable resource which the whole team should be assisted to access.
A high level of individual planning was evident within the English teaching team. Schemes of work giving details of content, timeframes, links between different areas of the syllabus and materials to be used were made available to the inspector who commended the structured and conscientious approach to planning the year’s work.
Eight lessons were observed during the course of the inspection, covering all years, programmes and levels. They were delivered competently and with assurance, and teachers elicited an engaged and purposeful response from students. Lessons were paced effectively to encourage a good sense of progress through the topic while allowing students time to form and articulate a response to the material. In some junior-cycle lessons in particular, very good practice was seen where the topic was introduced to students in a way that aroused their curiosity and focused their attention. At a more prosaic level, a statement of the objective of the lesson at the outset is very helpful to students, especially when expressed in terms of the desired learning outcomes. It should be noted that this type of introductory statement is particularly useful in revision lessons. In all cases, lessons were well planned, the lesson time was used effectively and a substantial amount of material was covered.
Classroom resources were generally used effectively. Particularly imaginative was the use of the overhead projector in a junior-cycle poetry lesson so as to give students the opportunity to respond firstly to the poem’s title and then to the opening verses, at which point they were well positioned to engage in a prediction exercise about the central character and his situation. The board was used constantly to gather points made in class discussion, to record homework and to note spellings and new words. For the latter, the creation of a spelling margin on the board is recommended so that students can absorb new vocabulary at their own pace and the board does not become cluttered. Care should be taken to ensure that the board is a model for well-organised work, particularly in relation to the assembling of points as a prelude to more extended writing.
Students were notably biddable and responsive, and participated readily in a range of classroom activities. They did much of the reading aloud in class, carried out pair and group work, acted out improvised scenes based on poems they were studying and took part in dramatised readings. The ‘think/pair/share’ model was effectively used in a senior-cycle lesson in which students firstly used their own experiences to investigate the link between music and emotion or atmosphere, then worked together on a specific task, and then shared their findings. While some active learning practices are regularly encountered, the use of drama, improvisation and well-structured think/pair/share work is less common and these imaginative strategies are especially commended. Teachers should seek to extend the opportunities for such work as a means of engaging the attention of all students and building their confidence and self-reliance. Active learning practices are an important aspect of the Teaching and Learning 21(TL21) initiative, and it would be fruitful to tap into the English department’s participation in the initiative in this regard.
Lively yet focused and purposeful discussion of topics and texts took place in many lessons. Teachers used questioning to good effect as a means of encouraging students to formulate more thoughtful and precise responses and, in particular, leading questions were well used to bring students to a point where they could make connections and arrive at conclusions for themselves. The use of questioning of named students and a ‘hands-up’ policy in most lessons sought to ensure that class discussion was not dominated by the more vocal students, although teachers should be vigilant in relation to the participation of those who are quieter or less forthcoming. It is also important that questions which are not factual in nature are treated as openly as possible, and that all responses from students which they can support should be seen as valid.
During the course of the inspection, the issue of how best to encourage students to write at greater length and depth was discussed with the inspector. Good practice was observed where oral work led to written work so that students had a chance to develop ideas about a topic before writing on it. Greater use of creative modelling is recommended so that students read exemplars of writing in different forms and styles and use them as models for their own work. The use of writing frames which give students the layout and opening sentences or pointers for a piece of work is very beneficial where students find the structuring of a response daunting.
Through their participation in the lessons and in their interactions with the inspector, the students generally displayed a good grasp of the material and an ability to express their ideas. They settled to work readily and most came to class with the necessary books and materials. While many students were clearly confident and eager to do well, teachers expressed some concern that a number of students were not aiming as high as their ability level would merit. The inspector noted the presence of students of good ability in all class groups, including those in the lower bands. It may therefore be timely within the context of school development planning to consider what positive action the school might take to raise the expectations and self-confidence of students who are possibly underachieving. It is suggested that the present banding system of class formation be examined as part of this process, as it was reported that some students placed within the lower band may feel discouraged and less inclined to make the full effort of which they are capable.
The classroom was in all cases effectively managed and a pleasant and good-humoured rapport was evident between teachers and students. The students were most courteous and co-operative in all their dealings with the inspector and clearly wished to present themselves, their teachers and the school in a positive light. In many cases, the classrooms themselves were well supplied with displays of helpful material, examples of students’ work and attractive visual displays such as film and book posters. Further development of the classroom as a print-rich and stimulating environment is to be encouraged.
In class, effective questioning along with observation of students’ participation in the work of the class were the principal means of assessing students’ grasp of the subject matter and ability to carry out the work set. Teachers also circulated in class to monitor students’ work and to give assistance where necessary. Where students are given a comprehension task, particular care should be taken to explain the nature of the task as well as the procedures that are to be followed. For example, a response that requires students to infer or predict should be flagged as different from an information retrieval exercise. One of the principles underlying the use of assessment for learning is that students must understand the basis on which their work will be judged: the criteria for assessment. In this way, they can review their own work and check if they have done all that was required. The NCCA web site has a section on assessment for learning (www.ncca.ie) and a short and helpful document, Assessment advice for students, can be found on the English section of the SLSS web site (www.slss.ie).
From a review of students’ copies and folders it was evident that a very good volume of work has been covered in all years and that homework assignments are set and monitored regularly. In many cases, the copies and folders contained examples of helpful written comments on students’ work, affirming the efforts made and suggesting improvements as well as highlighting errors. This is very good practice and should be followed whenever students submit substantial written work. As a way of encouraging students to develop a greater sense of responsibility for their own work, it is suggested that they be given time in class to re-read and sign their work before submitting it.
In-house examinations take place at Christmas and at the end of the year, and students in examination classes take mock examinations which are sourced and marked externally. Care should be taken to ensure that the mocks serve to motivate students rather than discourage them. In particular, able students who may not have applied themselves should not see a poor result in the mocks as a reason to opt for a lower level than is appropriate. In-house tests and examinations should be used to inform and assist students’ work and progress and not only as summative assessments. Criteria for assessment and suitable marking schemes should be discussed and agreed and should be shared with the students so as to assist their preparation and improve their answering skills.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Teachers of English are well deployed and the timetabling of senior cycle English is satisfactory.
· English is well-resourced and the school has a very spacious library.
· The English teaching team have a culture of planning. Individual plans are detailed and collaborative planning is being actively developed.
· A variety of effective and imaginative teaching methods are employed and a good level of active learning was observed.
· Substantial written work is set and monitored regularly.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· Serious consideration should be given to increasing the number of English lessons in the junior cycle.
· A move towards mixed ability rather than banding in first and second year English is recommended.
· In the areas of planning for English and in the further development of teaching and assessment practices, particular emphasis should be placed on raising students’ expectations and encouraging them to recognise and exercise their ability.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of English and with the principal and deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.