An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Irish
Buncrana, County Donegal
Roll number: 71140Q
Date of inspection: 26 February 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching of Irish
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Crana College, conducted as part of a whole-school evaluation. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning of Irish 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 the teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with the 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, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and subject-teachers.
Irish is a core subject on the school curriculum provided for every student. A significant number of the students in the school, however, are not studying Irish because they have an exemption from the subject. Over 20% of the total number of students enrolled in the school are exempted from the study of Irish in the current school year 2007/08. One third of these are students whose mother tongue is neither Irish nor English. The other two-thirds are students who got their primary education outside the state up to eleven years of age – mainly in Northern Ireland – and other students with recognised learning difficulties. The inspector was given to understand that students with exemptions do not upset the Irish classes in any way. However, the fact that such a large number of students have exemptions presents considerable difficulties to school management and to the teachers of Irish, in making appropriate arrangements for them when Irish is scheduled on the timetable.
School management confirmed that exemptions are granted only in accordance with the provisions of Circular M10/94. It was stated that a small number of students who have exemptions are, in fact, studying Irish. It was understood also that some first-year students report that they did not study Irish in the primary school, although they did not have an exemption at the time. It is recommended that the question of exemptions from Irish be reviewed and that the feeder primary schools be consulted when in doubt. It would be advisable to set as an objective for the school in general, and for the standing of the subject itself, to focus on reducing the number of students who have an exemption.
It was reported that, in general, the standard of Irish among new first-year students is weak, and that, accordingly, students are allocated to mixed-ability classes for first year, to encourage students to take the highest level they are able for in the subject. Irish lessons are scheduled to be taught concurrently for other years, so that classes can be arranged according to the various levels of the subject. This arrangement ensures that students have access to the level in the subject which best suits their wishes and abilities. All Junior Certificate School Programme students study the Irish syllabus for Junior Certificate, except those who have an exemption from Irish. The teachers of Irish are making a conscious effort to set ordinary level as the lowest target for all students. Accordingly, no candidate from the school took foundation level Irish in the certificate exams in recent years. The teachers are commended for these efforts.
Four class-periods per week are provided for Irish on the timetable for junior-cycle classes and six class-periods per week for senior-cycle classes. This provision is considered low for junior cycle and more generous than the norm for senior cycle. It is recommended that the allocation of time to the subject be reviewed, in an effort to get a revised allocation. It would be worth trying to provide an extra period per week for at least one of the three junior-cycle years. To accomplish this, the number of class-periods for senior cycle would need to be reduced accordingly. As another alternative, it would be worth considering retaining the six class-periods for the higher-level in the Leaving-Certificate year, if the teachers of Irish consider this necessary.
Three teachers of Irish are central to the teaching of the subject. Two of those are native-speakers of Irish – which provides ready models of spoken Irish for the students and for the school community. A fourth teacher is playing a peripheral part in the work of the department of Irish this year. A particular teacher is usually assigned the responsibility for teaching higher-level Irish, based on experience and qualifications. That situation obtains this year. It is recommended as ideal practice that all the teachers who are central to the work of the department be given experience of teaching all levels of the subject. It would be worth trying to achieve this, for the sake of the teachers and the students.
Two of the three teachers who are central to the teaching of Irish have their own classrooms, which helps to create an atmosphere which is supportive of Irish. Up to now only limited use is made of information and communication technology (ICT) resources in teaching the subject. Certain classes are brought into the computer-room on a limited basis – once a month, the inspector was informed – to design postcards and notices in Irish and look up various internet sites such as www.gaelport.ie and www.focal.ie. It would be worth undertaking this work on a more formal basis and trying to use ICT resources more regularly.
A newly-appointed teacher has excellent ICT skills and a good start has been made at this point on integrating ICT resources into the teaching. A laptop is being used on a personal basis for this work, a praiseworthy effort. Commendable also is the collaboration with the Spanish department with a view to presenting material in Irish attractively. The school has six data-projectors and laptops on order and it is recommended that the department of Irish make a strong case to the principal for access to a fair share of these resources. One of the teachers of Irish has impressive skills in compiling attractive material that would be of considerable benefit to the other teachers and the subject.
The teachers indicated that the support of the management is always available for attendance at in-service courses in all subjects. The three teachers who are central to the teaching of Irish recently attended an in-service course provided by the Second-Level Support Service for Irish, concerning the use of a communicative approach in first year. The teachers found the course really worthwhile and they got good guidance on using a lively approach to encourage the students to speak Irish. It is recommended that they keep in touch with this service and exchange ideas with other teachers through the communication forum on the internet website email@example.com
Great efforts are made to organise co-curricular events to support the subject, events such as inter-class competitions involving public speaking, writing poetry and visits to the Gaeltacht. These visits involve trips to Rann na Feirste for Leaving-Cert students and to Gaoth Dobhair for first-years. Substantial support is provided by Donegal Vocational Education Committee in the form of a Gaeltacht scholarship scheme. Seven Gaeltacht scholarships are awarded to the students under the provisions of this scheme. Among the events already organised by the teachers, at the time of the evaluation, for Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish Week) were a question-time, an Irish breakfast, a cover design competition, a football competition and a céilí mór.
These efforts to promote students’ cultural awareness in a pleasant way, and to place Irish in that context, are commended. It would be worth building on these efforts and bringing Irish in contemporary society to the attention of the students. At a future date teachers might consider inviting well-known people to the school, people who have a good command of Irish, or in whose work or lives Irish plays a significant part.
The teachers of Irish collaborate well to ensure that an appropriate curricular programme in the subject is provided. The department of Irish has had a co-ordinator for the past few years who has a comprehensive knowledge of every aspect of the teaching and assessment of the subject. The teachers hold formal planning-meetings twice a year – an arrangement which operates for all subjects. Matters concerning the year in general are discussed at those meetings and other meetings are regularly held at lunchtime throughout the year, to serve current needs and to ensure that the year-plan drawn up initially is being implemented. A good summary account of the proceedings and decisions of the department’s planning-meetings is available in the records of the department of Irish, as well as a preview of the agenda for the next meeting. The inspector was given to understand that the principal is kept informed of the proceedings of the meetings as necessary. It would be preferable, as normal practice, to make minutes of these meetings available to the principal, to keep him/her informed of planning-matters for the subject.
Common programmes are in operation to teach the subject to first-year mixed-ability classes and there are common programmes in use also for every other year, at ordinary level. Just one class in every year takes higher level and an agreed programme is in use here also. The teachers confirmed that review of the teaching-plan is an integral part of the work of the department and this procedure is commended.
The subject planning-folder was reviewed, which gave an insight into the joint-planning work of the department. It is obvious that the aims and objectives of the plan accord with those of the Irish syllabuses for the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate exams. The four main language-skills are specifically mentioned in the plan. Special attention is paid in the plan to students with extra learning-needs. There is a link in the plan with aspects of teaching other languages – especially the teaching of grammar, and a link between Irish and Spanish. It contains an account of effective methods of teaching and attention is focused in particular on speaking Irish in the class as often as possible, on introducing variety into learning activities, for example setting up conversations among the students themselves and class-games for younger students.
Work-plans are laid out for each term, under four headings – the content of the learning, the aims of the learning, homework and assessment – for all the years, according to the various levels of the subject. Guide-notes on the students are included, which show that the teachers have put plenty of forethought into the programmes for the various years. It would be worth listing the learning objectives for the different years, according to the various levels of the subject and the four main language-skills in the language. The inclusion of examples of the standard aimed at in those objectives, based on the students’ own work, would enhance the plan. Such a measure would provide good guidance for the students on the kind of work ahead. A good outline-guide to specifying learning objectives is available in the Council of Europe publication, European Language Portfolio.
Seven classes were observed in the course of the inspection, comprising mixed-ability classes, ordinary-level and higher-level classes. Good pre-planning had been done for these classes, which ensured that there was order, organisation and structure to the teaching and learning. The approaches to the management of the various classes had particular elements in common. Among these were roll call and informing the students what the objectives of the class were, at the start of each lesson, and the use of the target-language in teaching. The teachers also engaged in friendly complimentary interaction with the students to encourage them to participate in the activities of the lessons.
In the case of first-year mixed-ability classes, it was evident that the joint planning among teachers, as indicated in the subject-plan for that year, was being implemented in the classroom, because the same material, more or less, was being developed in the classes observed. Such an approach ensures that common assessment may be undertaken and that valid comparisons may be made between the results achieved in those tests. That is particularly important in the case of these classes because students are allocated to appropriate classes from the start of second year, based on their results in tests in the subject throughout first year.
The teachers had prepared various handouts to help the students to absorb the subject-matter of the lessons, which focused on the facilities available in the town and the kinds of shops in Buncrana. Active learning was very much to the fore in these lessons – a methodology which suited the age-group and the mixed-ability composition of the classes. Written work and oral work in pairs was practised in every one of the classes. In one case, great use was made of the projector at various points throughout the lesson to display vocabulary material and prompt-questions prepared beforehand by the teacher. This helped greatly to maintain the pace of the work and copies of the material were later distributed as typewritten handouts among the students. These two inputs were of considerable help in keeping students’ attention on the objective of the lesson. During that same lesson the students were directed to stand for a short while in a circle, then a ball was thrown from person to person at random to encourage them to practise off-the-cuff oral questioning.
In this way, students were required to ask questions of one another as well as answering questions – a necessary aspect of oral language. The approach used in this lesson was praiseworthy indeed and such a lesson would be a valuable model for other teachers, of an effective approach for use with first-year students. It was understood from the teachers that an in-service course run by the Second-Level Support Service for Irish was of great help to them in preparing these lessons. The teachers are commended for implementing, in the classroom, the suggestions made during that course.
In each class observed, part of the time was spent on simple exercises, such as word/picture matching, for weaker students. In one instance, students’ comprehension was checked matching one-word answers, ‘true’ or ‘false’, to simple statements. The teacher then moved on to more challenging work and the use of compound prepositions such as ‘os comhair’ (opposite), ‘in aice’ (near), ‘i mbarr’ (at the top of), etc. It was noted that no emphasis was placed on rules of grammar such as the use of the genitive case following compound prepositions, but that examples of correct usage of the genitive were given as a guide. This approach was commendable – grammar being practised in context without presenting rules of grammar to students who found sufficient challenge in the work already facing them.
Although good progress was made in these classes, on the subject-matter prepared for them, the material presented was not overly challenging in itself, perhaps, for students who would have already done it as part of the revised curriculum for Irish in the primary school. It was evident, however, that the students in general found the material fairly challenging. It was noted that the ability of first-years in general to express themselves orally was vary limited when the teacher digressed from the work set out for them in the lesson. This accorded with the information provided at the outset of the evaluation as an indication of school-context regarding incoming first-year students’ ability in Irish.
In the case of one class, for example, the teacher attempted for a short while to encourage the students to talk about another matter apart from the pre-prepared material for the lesson. The chosen topic suited the age-group well and there was a high proportion of boys in the class. Questions were asked about the Carling Cup soccer final, played a day or two previously, in Wembley. The captain of the Irish national soccer team was one of those who scored a goal for the winning team – an aspect of the game that might be expected to trigger comment. One student was able to make reasonable efforts to express himself about a normal unprepared topic of conversation like this. Regarding the vast majority of the other students in the class, however, they found it extremely difficult to say anything.
The teacher’s efforts to involve the students in a discussion on this topic were very impressive, although those efforts resulted in only a limited response and it is recommended that straightforward chats about current topics, of interest to the students, be practised in all classes. Language learners need to be immersed regularly in casual conversation and teachers are advised to make regular attempts at practising straightforward conversation in class, about topics other than the structured, pre-prepared variety. For this purpose, it would be invaluable for teachers to record snippets of living language from TG4 for use with their students – for example, extracts from the serial ‘Aifric’ for regular discussion in class. Teachers might consider sharing this work among them, in order to build up an archive of fresh, up-to-date interesting material to be available to all teachers of Irish. Teachers need not worry that students will not understand such material. Learners of all languages face the same challenge when they find themselves among fluent speakers of the target-language. To use this strategy regularly, a fifth class-period per week would be needed on the timetable.
It was noted in the case of one particular first-year student that he was asked more challenging questions than his peers. This student had attended an all-Irish primary school and he had fluent Irish. It was stated that this student was representing the school in Gael Linn’s ‘Barúil’ competition involving public speaking in Irish, and that he was doing well. The competition gives an opportunity for him to polish his spoken Irish through competing with students from all-Irish schools and from Gaeltacht schools. This concern for the full range of student abilities is highly commended.
In the course of the inspection, lessons were observed which had been adapted for first-year Irish by one of the teachers, using Photostory 3 and Microsoft Publisher. These were lessons originally designed by a teacher of Spanish in the school. The material itself was attractive and the accompanying pictures were of a really high standard. These ICT (Information and Communication Technology) resources are being developed in the department of Irish to be more widely used later on. All this work deserves great credit. It would be worthwhile for all the teachers of Irish to enhance their ICT skills shortly, so that they can soon implement a common policy regarding the use of ICT in Irish classes.
There was evidence in other classes observed, at both junior and senior cycles, that the students’ ability in oral Irish was very limited, but that they could cope with the written work and the reading-comprehension work presented to them. The teachers did their best to encourage the students, in creative ways, to participate in conversation. In one junior-cycle class, an effort was made to initiate a simple conversation about one of the star footballers of the current Donegal team – Ryan Bradley – who is a past-pupil of Crana College. Good pictures of this sports-personality were on display on the classroom walls, to encourage students’ oral comments. The teacher mentioned that the footballer had sat in that same classroom where the lesson was being taught, a few years previously, but the student response to this information was very limited. The response was equally unenthusiastic when the teacher asked questions about the international rugby match between Ireland and Scotland played in Croke Park a day or two beforehand. The same lack of enthusiasm was evident when the students were asked about their own pastimes or about what they had done during the weekend.
A text about the television programme The Simpsons was presented to the same students later. It was an authentic text insofar as it was written by a student in a more junior class in the school. The choice of this topic was praiseworthy on two counts: the material itself was within the interest-range of the age-group involved and the standard of Irish in the text was on a par with what might reasonably be expected of that class-level. The teacher made valiant efforts to encourage the students to express their own opinions of the characters in the programme, but the results were very limited. It was clear that the students were far more at ease with written questions based directly on the text – the answers to which could be located in the text and written down – than they were with offering a personal opinion orally. The teacher is commended for these attempts at initiating conversation and it is recommended that these efforts be continued as standard practice during the lessons, for a limited time only, to get the students participating in basic conversation.
In a particular ordinary-level class in senior cycle, the teacher used gesticulation and mime, in preference to translation, to illustrate the vocabulary required to discuss certain pastimes. The students enjoyed those efforts. In the same lesson the students practised discussing films and concerts. It was evident from the material chosen by the teacher that he was taking account of the interest-range of the students. Music-groups such as Snow Patrol, Bell X1, The Frames, and films such as The Matrix, Shrek3, and P.S. I Love You were casually mentioned in this section and the students responded well to those references. Pair-work was practised later, after the teacher had first focused on appropriate vocabulary and questions. These strategies yielded good results and the students did valuable work in this area. The teacher moved around the room, listening to and helping various groups. A lap-top was used to display prompt-questions on the screen from time to time, but these were later switched off to challenge the students further.
A marked difference was noted between the oral-language ability of students in higher-level classes and that in the other classes. Common topics of conversation were practised for about ten minutes at the start of higher-level lessons. These involved matters of current interest. The students participated fully in this conversation work and they were all agog and competing with one another to offer answers. Due attention was paid to grammar during this work and attention was focused on grammatical forms by practising correct usage rather than by explaining the actual rules of grammar. Comparative forms of adjectives and the use of the genitive case were the grammar-points involved. Handouts were distributed to anchor this work. These notes again focused on examples of the rules in use, rather than on explaining the rules themselves. This work on grammar was superbly integrated into the conversation-practice.
Emphasis on correct pronunciation was an integral part of these lessons and students were directed to pronounce words correctly, in a way that did not upset their self-confidence. That approach was particularly evident in the first reading of a poem with a senior-cycle class. The students in that class were asked to respond creatively to the subject-matter of the poem ‘An Mháthair’ by Caitlín Maude and they were well able to express themselves and to speak without difficulty, not just about the poem itself, but about the characteristics and the lives of mothers in general. This development on the theme of the poem was most impressive. All the language-skills were effectively integrated in these lessons and the teacher’s sense of humour was a great asset in this work, as well as the pace and variety of the various teaching and learning activities. The students appeared to be enjoying the various aspects of the classes tremendously and the best illustration of this was their keenness to participate in all that was going on in class.
The quality of teaching in all the classes observed was impressive and in some cases the teacher-student interaction was excellent. In the best such cases the teacher succeeded in coaxing the students to play an active part in the interaction with the teacher. It is recognised that those students had an obvious ability in the language, which was of considerable help to them in expressing themselves. Nevertheless, those students could have sat passively in class and listened to the teacher dispensing information. That was not the case, however. Those students took an active part enthusiastically in the conversation based on the subject-matter of the lesson. In other classes also, where the students’ ability in the language was more limited, the students were making great efforts, thanks to the teachers’ helpful approach.
It would be invaluable for teachers to consider observing their colleagues’ teaching practice, in order to increase the prevalence of good practice. Invitations to one another’s classes could be organised from time to time during the year, for this purpose. This recommendation is made because of the high standard of teaching observed in the classes and the excellence of that work in some cases.
The school has a written homework-policy, which recommends setting homework each night based on the work done in class that day. The plan for Irish recommends about three quarters of an hour’s work for junior cycle classes and about one hour’s work for senior cycle classes. If work is assigned on a regular basis, this may be considered too much, in which case a shorter assignment may be set, taking the requirements of other subjects into account.
The inspector was informed that, when setting homework, teachers try to encourage the students to pay attention to Irish-language radio and television programmes. Such efforts are praiseworthy, but that approach should also be used in the classroom. If the students were taking heed of that guidance, however, no positive effect was evident in the students’ ability in oral Irish – except in the case of higher-level students. The work in the copybooks examined was praiseworthy for being both comprehensive and well presented. Besides, there were helpful notes from the teacher in the copybooks, that indicated that account was being taken of Assessment for Learning. There was order and organisation in the work in the copybooks, regarding attaching a date to the work and the students’ efforts were regularly acknowledged with a teacher’s signature.
Assessment is conducted on a regular basis through questioning in class and short written tests are regularly set for junior-cycle classes, on the spelling of new vocabulary and on aspects of grammar in writing. The teachers keep a record of the results of these tests as a record of students’ progress in the subject. House exams are held at Christmas and at the end of the school-year and tests are set at the end of the second term for certificate exam classes. Written reports are sent home to the parents on the results of these exams and further information is provided at parent-teacher meetings which are convened for all year-levels. Cards are sent to parents, acknowledging and reporting on exceptional student-efforts in a particular subject or in homework. The card used in the case of Irish has an attractive picture on the front, with the wording ‘Department of Irish, Crana College’ printed on it. This is good practice.
Although common test-papers are now used at the different levels for house exams, there is no common method in use for assessing oral Irish. In first year, for example, one teacher awards of the marks for the Christmas test to oral Irish, but this language-skill is not taken into account at all in the other classes. It is recommended that oral Irish be included in the assessment and that a common practice be devised and implemented, not necessarily involving individual assessments of students.
It is recommended that teachers discuss the implications of Circular 0042/2007 as soon as possible and that oral Irish be given a more central place in planning, in classroom practice and in assessment. Regarding a related area, it is also recommended that the department of Irish in the school make a decision, as soon as possible, to encourage students to take the optional oral Irish test in the Junior Certificate examination. That decision is of particular importance to first-year students in the current year, 2007/08, who will be taking the Junior Certificate exam in 2010. Forty per cent of the total marks for Irish will be available for the optional oral component, to students taking the Junior Certificate exam that year. Students who will not take the optional oral exam will take a written exam only.
That optional oral test would be a really good trial-run for the new allocation of marks in the Leaving Certificate exam from the year 2012 onwards. Under the new arrangements announced in Circular 0042/2007, forty per cent of the total marks will be allocated for competence in spoken Irish in the oral test which is an integral part of the Leaving Certificate Irish exam. Obviously, it would be a difficult step forward for students to face this emphasis on spoken Irish, if they had no prior experience of it in the junior cycle.
Therefore, it is strongly recommended that the teachers of Irish introduce assessment of oral Irish, step by step, in the junior cycle house exams, as soon as possible. This recommendation applies even if the department of Irish in the school decides not to enter candidates for the optional oral in the Junior Certificate examination.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· A small number of students who have exemptions are studying Irish.
· Mixed-ability classes are formed in first-year to encourage students to study Irish at the highest level they are able for, and the JCSP (Junior Certificate School Programme) students study the Junior Certificate Irish syllabus, except those who have an exemption from Irish.
· All the teachers of Irish are trying to present ordinary level as the lowest that students might aim for. Accordingly, no student in the school took foundation level in Irish in the certificate exams in recent years.
· A newly-appointed teacher of Irish has exceptional ICT skills and a good start has already been made at integrating ICT into the teaching.
· The teachers of Irish, with the support of school management, are very assiduous in attending in-service courses provided by the Second-Level Support Service for Irish.
· Admirable efforts are made to organise co-curricular events to support the subject.
· The teachers of Irish collaborate well to ensure that an appropriate curricular programme in the subject is provided, and review of the teaching-plan is an integral part of the work of the department of Irish.
· It was evident that joint planning among the teachers, as included in the subject-plan for the current year, is being implemented in the classroom in the case of the classes observed.
· Attention is focused on grammar in the classrooms with examples of correct usage of the language, rather than by emphasising rules of grammar in particular.
· The teachers are careful to guide students to practise oral Irish, through normal conversation about topical subjects as well as through prepared subject-matter – although that work has yielded only limited results so far with ordinary-level classes and with first-year classes.
· The quality of teaching was admirable in all the lessons observed and the teacher-pupil interaction was excellent in some cases.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The high number of students who have exemptions from Irish should be reviewed – with a view to reducing the proportion, which stands at over 20% at present – and confirmation should be sought from feeder primary schools in cases of doubt.
· That the allocation of time to the subject be reviewed in an effort to provide one extra class-period per week for at least one of the three junior-cycle years and to decrease the number of class-periods in senior cycle as the teachers of Irish consider necessary.
· It is recommended as best practice that the teachers who are central to the work of the department be given experience of teaching the language at all levels.
· That student experience of Irish in the computer-room, using ICT resources, be provided on a more formal and more regular basis.
· That the learning targets be included in the Irish department’s plan for the various years, according to the different levels of the subject, and taking account of the four language-skills.
· That the teachers consider observing their colleagues’ good teaching practice, so that good practices would become more widespread.
· That the department of Irish discuss, as soon as possible, the implications of Circular 0042/2007 regarding entering students for the optional oral Irish exam for the Junior Certificate.
· That assessment of oral Irish for the junior cycle house exams be gradually introduced, starting as soon as possible.
Published November 2008