An Roinn Oideachais and Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Irish
College Street, Cavan
Roll Number: 61080S
Date of inspection: 21 November 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Irish
This subject inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Royal School Cavan, as part of a whole school evaluation. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in 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 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 to the subject teachers.
Subject Provision and Whole School Support
Irish is central in the three educational programmes provided by Royal School Cavan: Junior Certificate, Transition Year and Leaving Certificate (established). Irish has a good standing in the school, where a member of the school’s senior management was head of the Irish department for a number of years, and where the department now has a co-ordinator with significant experience in teaching the subject. There is good provision for Irish in the school’s timetable. Five periods per week are provided in each year of the junior cycle. Four periods are provided in Transition Year, which is a compulsory programme. The provision in the first year of the Leaving Certificate course is five periods, which is increased to seven periods per week in the second year of the Leaving Certificate course.
Eighteen per cent of the total number of enrolled
students have exemptions from Irish. Nearly half of these are students from
abroad. The other half is divided equally between students who received their
primary education outside the
At present there are two Irish teachers on the staff, one of whom has significant experience in teaching the subject. The inspector’s attention was drawn to the continuous difficulties facing the school in finding qualified Irish teachers in recent years. As a result various teachers were teaching the subject for a number of years, which resulted in a lack of continuity in the staff of the Irish department in filling the second post. The second Irish teacher is undertaking the post-graduate diploma in education at the moment and that teacher is being given guidance and support by the other teacher. This evident professional co-operation among the teachers is commended. Due to the difficulties mentioned above, the management decided to place all the higher level classes in the hands of the one qualified teacher who is in a permanent post in the school. Depending on circumstances in the future, the management will be prepared to divide responsibility for the higher level classes equally among the Irish teachers, as will the experienced teacher who is in a permanent position. The management’s particular care for the needs of higher level students in the subject are commended, as is the attention shown to the professional development of each teacher.
Although there is only one class in first year in the current school year 2008/09, due to the number of students being under thirty, new students are placed together in a mixed-ability class as a matter of principle, rather than from necessity. This arrangement means that a common programme is taught in first year rather than differentiated programmes equating to the various levels in the subject. This approach is commended as a good stimulus and challenge is provided for the students and as many of them as possible are encouraged towards the higher level at a later stage. Those parents who do not wish their children to undertake higher level are accommodated. Every effort is made to direct students to the ordinary level as a minimum level and rarely does a student in Royal School Cavan undertake the foundation level in Irish in the certificate examinations. The school, and the teachers, are to be commended for their efforts in setting the highest challenge in the language for the greatest number of students.
Two Irish classes are held in parallel on the timetable, in second year and third year, wherever the amount of students exceeds thirty. These arrangements ensure that the students have the opportunity to switch levels in the subject, without difficulty, at any time during the year. Every effort is made, as is the case in the current second year, where there is a higher level group and an ordinary level group in one class, to serve the two levels in the one class with differentiated teaching. Two classes are formed in the senior cycle, despite the number of students being below thirty. Mixed ability classes are established again in Transition Year in order to foster a different atmosphere for the different Transition Year programme. This effort to provide a comprehensive programme in Transition Year which differs from the other programmes is commended and in keeping with the aims of that programme. At the same time, it is recommended that the current practice of establishing two mixed-ability classes in Transition Year should be reviewed wherever the teachers feel that there is too large a gap in ability between the students of the two levels.
The Irish teachers have responsibility for classrooms, fully in one case, and on a shared basis in the other case. Efforts to create a stimulating learning atmosphere for Irish in one of those classrooms have been very successful – it is exemplary. One of the rooms is used for other courses also. There is very limited use of information and communication technology (ICT) resources for Irish, a usage which is limited to research and keyboard skills for the project work in Transition Year. This experience is commended. The afore-mentioned limited use of ICT resources relates to availability of televisions and DVD players as well as computers and data projectors. The teachers understand the advantages which could be achieved from using these resources appropriately as support for teaching and learning of the subject and they have appropriate ICT skills. It is recommended that an application for ICT resources be made to the school’s management for Irish and that such an application be strengthened by asserting those resources as an integral part of the subject plan for teaching and learning. The provision of such resources would be fully in keeping with the school’s mission statement which asserts the priority of supplying educational facilities in the school which meet the educational needs of the new millennium.
The Irish teachers have attended the Second Level Support Service in-service course for Irish and they attest to the value of that course, which featured the use of ICT resources. Students are encouraged to attend Gaeltacht summer courses and the school has received part-funding of a number of Gaeltacht scholarships in partnership with an Irish-language organisation in the community. The teachers’ efforts relating to personal professional development and to attempt to give the students other experiences of spoken Irish are commendable.
Planning and Preparation
The subject co-ordinator is appointed on the basis of seniority and experience. Therefore, the teacher in a permanent position has had the duty of co-ordinator of the Irish department for the past three years. There is agreement that this responsibility could be shared if another qualified Irish teacher were appointed. This is commendable. It is recommended that the duty of subject co-ordinator be shared as much as possible, especially in a school with a small number of teachers, in order to share experience and to promote co-operation among the members of the subject department.
One full day in the year is provided for the teachers to focus on planning for the subjects. As the school is small, teachers are engaged with different subjects. In addition to this the teachers have planning meetings once a month, in their own time. The discussion mostly concerns students changing levels and keeping an eye on progress in the teaching programme. The teacher with the most experience in teaching the subject shares his experience with the other teacher, which is acknowledged. This co-operation is commended. Minutes are kept of these meetings. It would be worth appending a copy of them to the subject plan. A template could be prepared in conjunction with the school planning committee to provide a record of subject meeting minutes regularly to that committee and to the principal. Though there would be extra work involved in translating these minutes into English, it is recommended that the Irish department meetings continue to be held through Irish. It is recommended that the teachers avail of opportunities in the planning work to observe the other teacher engaged in teaching or that the two of them have input into teaching together. Also, it would be worth considering co-operating with another department in the school, the French department for example, in order to swap teaching and learning plans for another language which is not a mother tongue.
The Irish department’s subject plan was provided, which gives comprehensive information on the approach practised in the various programmes for Irish. It contains the list of material taught in each year and at each level in the school. Positive and ambitious aims and objectives are set out regarding language acquisition. There is appropriate emphasis on use of the target language. Above all there is an appropriate emphasis on giving the students a positive pleasant experience of learning the language. As an indication of this the plan mentions the need to choose reading, conversational, compositional and aural comprehension material that matches the students’ own interests in order to stimulate their interest form the start. This emphasis is highly commended as it demonstrates that the teachers are placing the student in the centre of the planning work beside the programme of work to be taught.
Appropriate attention is paid to cross-curricular planning in the subject plan for Irish and co-operation is claimed between the Irish department and eight other subject departments as part of the Seachtain na Gaeilge programme of activities. This is commended. These include a link with the Geography department regarding placenames. It is recommended that the newly-launched website www.logainm.ie be included here and that the students be given experience of this website. It is recommended that the French department be included in this part of the plan especially.
The planning work demonstrates that the teachers understand the need to integrate all language skills in the class work. This point should be made clearer than it is in the plan, and it would be suitable for the limited description of teaching methods currently included. In addition, it is recommended that a more complete description be given of the learning outcomes expected of the students in all the classes, year by year, for the various levels. There is guidance in this matter in the syllabuses and in the teachers’ guides which accompany the syllabuses. It would be worthwhile providing examples in the plan of the kind of content expected. Common topics are recognised, for example, in the syllabuses for the Junior Certificate and for the Leaving Certificate, and indeed in the Primary School Irish Curriculum. It would be worth providing an illustration of the quality of work expected from one cycle to the next and from year to year. The Council of Europe’s publication European Languages Portfolio contains a guide to specifying learning outcomes in Irish for the Junior Certificate and for the Leaving Certificate.
The part of the plan dealing with Transition Year needs to be amended by providing an account of the innovative work being done by the students of that year in composing a story as a script for the TG4 film competition. This creative work is greatly commended and the students are given the opportunity to engage with the language based on their own imagination to compose a film script which would capture the attention of students of their own age.
There should be a focus in the plan, as an item in its own right, on an area to recognise improvements in teaching and learning of Irish in the school and to set down steps to achieve these improvements. A period longer than a school year could be set down to implement this action plan. Such an item would confirm that the teachers were considering the subject over and above setting the programme of content for each course as an objective.
There is no mention in the subject plan, in the description of teaching methods, of translation to English or from English to Irish. However, this approach was being used in the teaching and learning. This practice should be considered and included in the guidance mentioned in the planning work. Strong restrictions should be placed regarding the amount of translation used as a common practice in the lesson work and in the written homework. The syllabuses contain good guidance regarding translation which should be noted. At the same time it was mentioned that certain students are entered for a translation competition, English-Irish and Irish-English as co-curricular work in the subject. Although this skill is not mentioned in the Irish syllabuses these are higher order reading and writing skills which are recommended for students making significant progress in the language. It is recommended that these skills and these examinations be mentioned in the subject plan.
Teaching and Learning
Five lessons were observed during the inspection, two of them in the junior cycle and three in the senior cycle. The teachers had a lively presentation in each of these lessons and they did their utmost to deal with the lesson content in a way that encouraged the best efforts from the students. The teachers were active throughout all the lessons, asking questions, giving recognition and adding to the answers, writing additional explanatory notes on the whiteboard and assisting in the correct pronunciation of the words. The lessons were very true to the content as recorded in the subject plan. The teachers’ personality and communications skills succeeded in encouraging the students to engage with material that was not very interesting in itself. In the case of a first year class, for example the subject of the lesson was ‘this school’. The teacher succeeded in getting the students to list the school subjects at speed. There was no pause except to correct pronunciation issues. A handout was distributed containing the spelling of the school subjects on the programme for that year, with the spelling mixed up. All the students were given the opportunity to correct those in their own time. Though there was silence for a considerable amount of time while this individual work was undertaken, this approach suited the students in the class as there were various abilities in their midst. If the class had been asked at the start to work out the correct spelling on the spot the only students to benefit would be those who had the answers first. This could discourage other students who would not have any of the words worked out. The teacher clearly understood the range of ability in the class.
The teaching in this class was done confidently. The teacher attempted to show the students a definite limited range of the language to express satisfaction and dissatisfaction. To this end the structures ‘is maith liom’; ‘ní maith liom’; ‘is aoibhinn liom’ and ‘is fuath liom’ were practised frequently. ‘Taitníonn’ and ‘ní thaitníonn’ were added to these later and this range was practised. This material could be boring but the students were fully prepared to take an active part in this practice due to the pace the teacher kept in the practice, due to his praise for the students’ efforts, and due to the way in which he asked the same questions of a great number of students in the class without following any order. Every one of the students in the class paid attention to the teacher throughout the lesson.
All the classes were managed in more or less the same manner. The roll was called, homework was looked at, the whiteboard was used to write additional vocabulary or to draw attention to words in use, oral questions were asked, various students were asked to read pieces, handouts were distributed, pair work was tried in places and homework was assigned. The teachers’ presentation was organised and that work was well measured in advance to match the amount of time available for the lesson. The lessons were greatly influenced by the texts and they were rarely deviated from in order to make normal conversation in the class. This was practised for a short while with a student in a junior class about a birthday. It is recommended that these items of normal conversation be increased and that there should be regular practice of any subject of interest to the students. There is no need to adhere solely to the topics contained in the syllabus. These are merely steps in order that the learners may express themselves about these topics and progress from there to practising free conversation. A teacher should not be afraid that students would be overcome by normal conversation that had not been prepared in advance. This happens regularly to the language learner who hears the target language being spoken naturally around him. Since it is not easy to find Irish as the community language which would support the learning of the language in the class, TG4 programmes are the best source available to the teacher to find examples of the language being spoken naturally. It is to this end that the recommendation about an application for video resources was made earlier in the report.
In the case of another class in the junior cycle, for example, students’ place of residence and school subjects were the basis of the aural comprehension item in use. There is a risk of staleness in lesson content, for the students and the teacher, when topics such as these are on the contents’ list from year to year. Their only flaw is that the teacher is hard-pressed to keep freshness in material that has been discussed in the Irish class with students since they were at primary school. In the case of one class, for example, a composition item was being practised in the class as the subject of a conversation between two friends regarding a film about which they held differing views. Attention was paid to vocabulary relating to expressing likes and dislikes but no proper discussion of the film itself took place. It would be better to seize the opportunity to make the subject stimulating for the students by naming a current film in which the students would have an interest.
In a senior class the lesson was spent in preparation for the Leaving Certificate oral examination. First, use was made of a recording of the prose extracts being read aloud. Various students were given the chance to read aloud various extracts and they were guided in the correct pronunciation of the words. A copy of a reading comprehension piece dealing with teenagers’ hobbies was distributed. This was a well-chosen piece containing an appropriate challenge in Irish as well as being interesting in itself. The students succeeded in discussing this matter without being tied to the pre-written questions. The teaching and learning in this lesson was of a high quality and there was good variety in the class activities, between listening, reading, writing and speaking from start to finish. Certain students in this class succeeded extremely well in tackling questions put by the inspector to the class later. One student displayed a great vocabulary ability which enabled that student to tackle conversational material spontaneously, with Irish of a high standard. It is recommended that permission be sought to record a student who displays spoken competence of such quality, speaking naturally. It is recommended that this recording be played for students in other classes as a demonstration of Irish being spoken naturally by one of their own.
In the case of another class in the senior cycle every effort was made to discuss a poem on the nominated course. One student did his best to give his opinion of the poem but he did not have the vocabulary ability required for this. Group work was tried later to discuss the poem. These attempts did not succeed as the students did not have sufficient vocabulary. This honest attempt was commended, however, as the students were challenged to tackle the poem. It is recommended in such a case, to explain the poem in the simplest terms which the students will understand and not to spend as much time with questions which presented too much of a challenge to the students’ language level.
It is recommended that a fundamental reconsideration be made of the amount of translation in use on certain classes. This work was done for two reasons, to increase the vocabulary store of the students and to ensure speedy comprehension of Irish vocabulary. To this end, in the case of a class in the junior cycle for example, a list of phrases and short sentences in English was called out and the students were asked to translate them into Irish, such as ‘I’ll see you in a while’; ‘I agree completely’; ‘I have to go’. The students answered these questions well. A list in Irish was then called out, such as ‘Táimid ag fanacht in óstán cois na farraige’ and the question was asked in each case ‘Cad is brí leis sin’ (What does that mean)? In each case, a translation to English was given. Great care should be taken with such an approach, despite the fact that this practice is seen in textbooks. At best, this is rote learning, removed from a true communicative context, and the learners gain no advantage from it as regards engaging with the language personally.
The same applies as regards instructions for learning activities in the class. In certain cases the instructions in Irish relating to certain questions were read out. Then English translations of those instructions were provided. In another case three questions relating to reading comprehension were read and then the questions were translated into English before being answered. This practice should not be so easily submitted to and the target language should be kept to the fore in the lesson as opposed to being in a secondary position, even if less progress is made concerning the amount of material covered in the lesson. The same approach was noted in the copybook work where letters in Irish were observed side by side with letters in English. Apart from that the copybook work was to be commended greatly and contained excellent work as well as the teacher’s recognition.
There would be an advantage to linking classes in the same year from time to time and having the two teachers teaching together in order to add to the amount of Irish the students hear being practised. The conditions are appropriate for this with diligent teachers, small classes and students who showed respect for their teachers in all the classes visited.
A scholarship scheme is available for boarding students and examinations are held in March for sixth class primary school students who apply for a place in the first year of the boarding school. Irish is one of the four subjects in the scholarship examinations. This is another illustration of the standing of Irish in the school’s programme. The Irish examination is based on the primary school Irish curriculum as opposed to the Junior Certificate Irish syllabus. The Irish department’s understanding of the content of the primary school Irish curriculum is commended.
Apart from the in-house examinations organised on a common basis for all years in the school, the subject departments have freedom as to the type of assessment made in the various subjects. The school’s website has a good description of assessment matters in all subjects in Transition Year, including Irish. It would be worth referring also to the translation competition for which some students are entered. It is recommended that the brief description in the Irish department’s plan, regarding assessment matters in the subject in general, be added to. The four language skills should be specified, in the case of each year, and an account given of the type, frequency and allocation of marks that will apply in the proposed assessment.
The school has a homework policy which sets out the amount of time agreed to be given to the various subjects each night. It would be worth making the account in the subject plan for Irish on this matter clearer. A short account should be given of the way in which homework will build on the different language skills practised in the class. In addition, it would be worth setting out a monthly homework plan in advance and sharing with the students as a guide for them on the reasons for assigning homework. The practice in the classes showed that homework was being assigned and that the teacher’s recognition of those efforts was to be seen.
The teachers are considering entering students for the optional oral examination in Irish in the Junior Certificate examination. It is recommended that a decision be made in this respect soon and that the students be informed about it. Under the current system in place in the school, spoken Irish is included in the in-house examinations only in the case of Leaving Certificate students. It is recommended that all the language skills be included in the assessment of all students. A policy should be set out soon regarding the allocation of marks to be awarded for spoken Irish and on the type of assessment involved. The direction of Circular 0042/2007 should be taken into consideration and attention paid to the forty per cent of marks to be awarded for spoken Irish in the Leaving Certificate oral examination from the year 2012 onwards and in the optional Junior Certificate oral examination from the year 2010 onwards. This should be prepared for immediately. It would be better to move towards the forty per cent gradually as opposed to starting out with that portion immediately. It is recommended that, at first, teachers should assess students’ spoken Irish competence in the junior cycle with a general assessment of the students’ spoken quality from their efforts in the class as opposed to starting with individual oral examinations based on syllabus topics. The students would have to be informed of this type of testing.
The subject plan contains a record of the students’ achievements in Irish in the certificate examinations for the past two years. It would be worth affixing the principal’s analysis of those results also as an indication of trends in the number of students attempting higher level and as a record of attainments. That analysis contains valuable information on the objectives being set by the Irish department and on what is being achieved. This analysis should be included as a guide to the review of planning for teaching the subject.
Summary of Main Findings and Recommendations
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 Irish and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation at which the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published November 2009