An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Irish
Raphoe, County Donegal
Roll number: 71230R
Date of inspection: 11 February 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Irish
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Deele College 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 one day 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.
All the curricular programmes are offered to the 525 students enrolled in Deele College in the current school year 2008/09. In general provision for Irish within those programmes is very good. In junior cycle five class periods are provided each week; one class period less is allocated to Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) classes. Three class periods are provided to students in the one class group in Transition Year (TY), which is an optional programme; six class periods are offered in each of the two years of Leaving Certificate. A review of the current low provision of two class periods allocated to Irish in the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) is recommended.
School management is supportive of the efforts made by teachers of Irish to promote the subject. A good illustration of this approach is the fact that Irish classes are among the sample classes provided for sixth class pupils from the feeder primary schools who visit the school in February as part of the open day activities to encourage enrolment in the school. Bilingual, Irish and English, notices are affixed to every door throughout the school; priority is given to the Irish version of the school name, Coláiste an Daoil, on school stationery and on the name plate displayed at the school gate. Each morning a prayer is read to the whole school over the intercom and frequently this prayer is read in Irish. A member of the school senior management team attended the feedback session at the end of the inspection visit and requested that the business of the meeting be conducted exclusively through the medium of Irish. It is recommended that the amount of Irish visible throughout the school be enhanced, if possible, with the use of high quality notices such as a welcome notice to visitors. It would be worthwhile also considering the presentations of awards, at the prizegiving event, to a number of students in both junior and senior cycles who have made the best efforts in the subject. This need not necessarily mean the student who achieved the highest mark in examinations in the subject. It may be possible to obtain sponsorship for these awards, even if only in the short term, from the Irish language organisations sector.
A significant number of students, approximately seventeen per cent of the total student enrolment, have an exemption from Irish. Students with an exemption are welcomed to study Irish and, in the current school year, five students with an exemption are studying the language. This is a good illustration of the school’s efforts to make Irish available to the greatest number of students. Confirmation was given that exemptions from Irish are granted under the provisions of Circular M10/94 alone. In general these students are present during Irish lessons; however it was stated that no intrusion is caused to lessons. Every JCSP student takes Irish as an examination subject for the Junior Certificate. Another support provided for students in the subject is the seven scholarships available to the school which enable students to attend summer colleges in the Gaeltacht. A trip to the Gaeltacht is being explored currently as part of the Irish programme in TY. Cultural events are organised during Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish language week) as a means of providing enjoyable activities for students. These efforts are to be commended. It is recommended that the possibility of making available a student common room be explored, where students could meet at lunch time and be encouraged to practise the language. In addition it is recommended that any other members of staff with a proficiency in the language be invited to practise Irish in class during Seachtain na Gaeilge.
First year students are allocated to mixed-ability classes, in two ability bands, and one or two other classes are established for the JCSP where the focus for Irish is uniformly on foundation level. This model is continued in second year. It is left until third year to bring together the greatest number of students taking higher level into one higher level class group in the first band. Usually there are also other students in that class taking ordinary level. The decision to establish one mixed-ability class of both higher and ordinary levels in third year is based on the progress made by students in the highest ability band in second year. Other ordinary level class groups are set up in second and in third year, according to ability. This arrangement means that students in the second ability band take foundation level or, at best, take ordinary level from their first day in Deele College. In the case of all higher level classes there is a mixture of students taking higher level and taking ordinary level from second year onwards. This arrangement presents a particular challenge and all the teachers are focused on differentiated teaching to cater for this arrangement.
It is indeed proper that the school directs students towards the level most appropriate to their ability in the language. At the same time it would be worthwhile to develop a strategy which would enable higher targets in the language to be set for first-year students who have already eight years’ experience in learning the language. It is recommended that teachers give thought to agreeing a plan of action with higher expectations in the subject in Deele College. This plan should be shared with parents, students and with the feeder primary schools. An ambitious approach should be considered and publicity should be given to teacher efforts to raise the standard of Irish in the school. The teachers of Irish are competent and well qualified. They are the most important resource in promoting the subject and in ensuring that publicity is given to the subject. It would also be worthwhile collaborating with the feeder primary schools in order to share with them, in a positive manner, the standard of Irish which would be reasonable to expect from sixth-class pupils. Particular attention should be paid to oral competence in this consultation. It is a serious challenge for teachers to retain their commitment to maintaining their skills and their level of enthusiasm and zeal for the subject in the situation where, on a continuous basis, only a small number of students undertake the highest level in the subject and a high number undertake lower levels. The above recommendation is made in order to promote a more positive attitude towards the subject among students and in the interests of teacher morale in the Irish department.
The different level classes are allocated evenly among the Irish teachers. This arrangement shows the confidence management has in the ability of the Irish teachers and is to be commended. Due to pressure of space only a few teachers have a designated classroom and stimulating material in the language is displayed in one of these classrooms. Teachers have access to CD and DVD players which allow them to use items from television programmes in Irish in class. The availability of information and communications technology (ICT) resources for teaching Irish is limited. Currently, the greatest use of ICT is made by teachers who download reading materials from websites. In one case the Vifax service from the National University of Ireland, Maynooth is being used. It is recommended that the consideration currently being given by the Irish department to the increased use of ICT resources be progressed in order to facilitate the presentation of the subject in a more enjoyable manner and so that the language can be placed in the contemporary world.
Good provision is made for planning of teaching and learning among the members of the Irish department. Planning time is provided for teachers generally once a term when staff meetings are scheduled. Other meetings are held at times when teachers are not timetabled for class. Responsibility for co-ordinating the subject is rotated among all teachers, for a period of one or two years at a time. This arrangement is to be commended as it allows teachers to gain a better understanding of the benefits of collaborative planning and to become more aware of the general state of the subject in the school rather than being solely focused on responsibility for their own classes. The teachers of Irish work well together to collaboratively plan the subject and implement the teaching of the subject according to the objectives of the syllabuses. Minutes of planning meetings are recorded and a concise worthwhile account is maintained of decisions taken. Minutes show that teachers of Irish have the development of ICT resources for Irish as a current objective and it is good that they are focused on the development of a common aspect of the subject. An interactive whiteboard has recently been provided to one of the teacher-based rooms and another member of the department has a laptop and data projector. This is a good start.
A good approach has been agreed by the teachers whereby different teachers are responsible for drafting the teaching and learning plan for particular year groups. This task is rotated from year to year and this arrangement ensures that review of plans is routine practice and that each teacher makes an input to the work. School management supports teachers to avail of continuing professional development opportunities. The department records show that each teacher has a high level of attendance at in-service courses provided by the Second Level Support Service (SLSS) for Irish. A positive sign of teacher engagement in those courses is to be found in the records of minutes of planning meetings where teachers discussed teaching and assessment methodologies observed in the SLSS in-service courses. This discussion took place in order to integrate these methodologies in their own teaching. An emphasis on assessment for learning is included among these methodologies.
Other than collaborative planning work teachers do not have experience of working together in partnership in actual teaching. As a first step in this direction it is recommended that teachers agree arrangements to observe each other’s practice. In the course of time teachers could add to this by combining classes from time to time. Thus, two teachers could take charge of practising particular aspects of language skills. Therefore, the timetable of all class groups should be copied on one page and included in the subject plan to facilitate the easier planning of this form of collaboration.
Teachers welcomed the decision to place greater emphasis on oral Irish in the certificate examinations. With two teachers in the class a new development could be introduced into the teaching in order to increase the focus on that element of the language skills. It would be a new, eye-opening, experience for students to have their teachers speak Irish naturally among themselves. This would be a welcome change from the conversation of individual teachers being linked exclusively to posing questions to students.
During the inspection visit the subject plan for Irish was reviewed. This plan has been prepared in accordance with the subject planning template of the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI). Some of the individual plans are better than others. All of them include appropriate attention to a time scale for achieving content objectives. All plans are greatly influenced by the layout of the textbook and the emphasis, by and large, is on the content programme to be covered. It is recommended that consideration be given to the development, by the teachers themselves, of a textbook relating specifically to Donegal in order to enhance student interest in the subject. The subject matter should be made as enjoyable as possible for the reader with high quality photographs included. A focus on setting out learning outcomes together with appropriate assessment methods is recommended also. The publication European Languages Portfolio is recommended as a reference resource for identifying learning outcomes. A good account of learning outcomes is to be found in the higher level work plans for second and third years. It would be even more beneficial to include in the plan exemplars of how students engaged effectively in order to achieve the learning objectives. This would result in the sharing among teachers of examples of the best of student work.
The scheme of work for the LCA is good with regard to the clear description given of class activities, resources, teaching methods and assessment procedures. The TY plan is well laid out. It contains appropriate attention to the integrated practice of all language skills and the layout is very measured in relation to the amount and type of work that is planned for completion in the course of the year. The TY plan closely reflects the objective of that programme which is to ensure that the approach used is different from the Irish programme in Leaving Certificate. The variety in the content chosen shows the use of authentic materials from the Irish broadcast media to motivate students to engage with the living language in an enjoyable manner. This approach is to be commended. It is recommended that when activities are being planned for the TY that these activities do not coincide, in so far as is possible, with timetabled Irish lessons, especially since there are only three lessons per week allocated. Otherwise continuity will be adversely affected.
During the inspection visit a total of five lessons with five teachers were observed. Two of these lessons were in junior cycle and three in senior cycle. Preparation for lessons was good in all cases. Background information was provided for the inspector regarding student proficiency in the language in all lessons as a context for the work. This information showed that teachers have a good understanding of the abilities and the needs of their students. All teachers approached their work with diligence and were vigilant with regard to speaking Irish in the lessons.
However, it was noted that many students struggled to understand what the teachers were saying and this was especially evident in the case of the youngest students in junior cycle. Because of this the teacher had to translate questions to English which undermined the communication. The type of questions was well chosen by the teacher and it would be reasonable to expect students to understand what was being said to them. However, that was not the case. Nonetheless, this experience did not lessen the enthusiasm of the teacher who continued to praise students for their efforts to answer questions. These young students were much more comfortable asking for help from the teacher to write a postcard rather than answering oral questions on everyday activities. Great praise was given to student efforts and the terms of praise such as ‘excellent’, or ‘very, very good’ were to be heard frequently. The effort made to practise ordinary conversation is commended and it would be worthwhile continuing these efforts.
The objective of the lessons was very clear in all instances and teachers had prepared handouts as an extra guide for students with the work that was planned to be covered. In another class in junior cycle a sample letter prepared by the teacher was distributed as an indication for them of the standard of work expected in the Junior Certificate Irish examination. It was helpful for students to have exemplars like this when they had to compose their own letter for homework. Again in this lesson it was noted that the teacher had to turn to translating the instructions to English for students to ensure that they understood those instructions. In the case of a class like this where there are both higher and ordinary level students it is recommended that greater variety be introduced into the questions posed to these two groups.
In a particular lesson in senior cycle the emphasis was on oral communication followed by writing the language. The teacher was very much in touch with the topics of interest among these students. It was obvious that they enjoyed the lesson even though they said in reply to questions that Irish was not the favourite subject of any one of them. It was in this lesson that the greatest effort was made to practise ordinary conversation with students and to encourage them in normal dialogue. The major stories of the day were discussed – the key sporting events of the previous weekend and looking forward to the Irish soccer team’s international match that evening. The Irish banks and the bad weather at the time of the inspection were discussed. Up to ten minutes was spent on these stories and students engaged quite well with the challenge.
Later on group work was introduced involving content nearer home, life in Deele College. When a student gave an answer such as ‘is scoil mixed (i.e. co-educational) í seo’ with the word ‘mixed’ in English, the correct Irish version was provided, however the teacher asked the same student to explain the term ‘mixed school’ in Irish. Working in pairs students were directed to ask each other questions. Following that a picture was distributed to each group and one person was asked to describe the picture in Irish to the other student who had to draw the picture based on that information. These efforts were quite successful and it was evident that the students enjoyed this work. Good humour prevailed during this class and students had a positive learning experience throughout. It would be useful for other teachers to observe the management of this class, especially in relation to promoting oral communication with students whose Irish is quite limited.
In another lesson in senior cycle the TG4 programme for teenagers ‘Aifric’ was used as a stimulus for students. Excellent preparation was made for this lesson with a questionnaire which was designed to elicit basic information from students on the segment of the programme shown to them. A crossword, based on the programme, was prepared to enhance vocabulary. Even though student ability in Irish was very weak in this class, it is recommended that the English subtitles be hidden or that a shorter segment be shown, replayed with the English subtitles displayed only once. It was not clear for example whether it was it was from the subtitles alone that students understood the segment that was shown. In addition, an effort should be made later in the lesson to have students give a basic oral description of the programme segment that had been shown.
In a senior cycle class which was making advance preparation for the oral examination appropriate attention was being given to practising oral language. Again, this was a mixed-ability class where two thirds of the class group was undertaking higher level and one third taking ordinary level.
A listening comprehension segment was also practised; this segment had the same theme as the oral work which helped to consolidate the content. In this lesson every effort was made to encourage student participation. The teacher spoke only in Irish and student efforts were highly praised. Students made good efforts to engage with the content of the lesson. In general, however, their standard of Irish was quite limited, as was shown by their lack of understanding of the vocabulary heard on the listening comprehension segment.
It was apparent from all of the lessons observed that worthwhile efforts are being made to present the subject to students in an effective manner. An excellent atmosphere prevailed in all the lessons observed and mutual respect was evident between students and teachers despite the fact that this subject presents a significant challenge for students.
Assessment tests are set in spring, prior to the start of first year for students entering Deele College in the following autumn. First year classes are established from the outcome of these tests. English and Mathematics are the subjects tested, Irish is not included. From their first day in first year student ability in the language is monitored in Irish classes. The school ensures that no student with ability in the language or who demonstrates an aptitude for the language is left out of a first band class. Mixed-ability bands were established two years ago to replace the rigid streamed classes that obtained in the school up until then. Consideration has been given by staff members to setting up only mixed-ability classes in first year, without the establishment of ability bands, as has been the practice for the past two years. It was thought that the ability range of students is too wide for this arrangement and that ability bands better serve the needs of the students. The school is to be commended for trialling an alternative system in place of the rigid streamed classes. As an integral part of curriculum planning, it is recommended that the new system be kept under review and that the school revisits the possibilities of setting up only mixed-ability classes in first year. This recommendation is made on behalf of those students who, from their first day in school, are set very limited learning objectives in the language.
It is also recommended that the standard of Irish of incoming first year students be assessed in the first days of the new school year and that the results of these tests be made available to the feeder primary schools, as a courtesy and to enhance co-operation. Oral competence should be included in these tests and all tests should reflect the objectives of the Irish curriculum of the primary school rather than being a reflection of the examination paper in Irish in the Junior Certificate.
Reference is made in the subject plan to the type of assessment used with each year group - in relation to writing the language, reading and listening comprehensions. This assessment reflects the different units in the textbooks. A good account of assessment procedures is found in the third year plan where reference is made to monitoring the work orally, and evaluating reading competence, in class. These two skills are essential. Consideration is given to speaking the language in the other plans. It is recommended that the proportion of marks to be awarded for the different language skills in house and class examinations be recorded in the subject plan. Guidelines in this regard are recorded only in the Irish plan for Gaeilge Chumarsáideach (Communicative Irish in LCA).
It is recommended that the guidelines in Circular 0042/2007 in relation to the proportion of marks for the four key language skills be implemented in the house examinations. The teaching programme should be amended accordingly with regard to the amount of time to be allocated to teaching and learning those skills. It is recommended that consideration be given to the benefits to be gained from entering students for the optional oral examination in the Junior Certificate. The same recognition should be given to spoken Irish in house examinations as would be awarded in the optional certificate oral examination. Teachers were very positive in their discussion on the various aspects of assessment work in relation to the new emphasis being placed specifically on spoken Irish in the certificate examinations. It is recommended that this enthusiasm be directed to assessment of spoken Irish as a common practice. It would be better not to have individual oral examinations as the model in use from first year onwards. It is recommended that students be encouraged to speak more during lessons and that, accordingly, more opportunities be provided to that end. It would be good to explain to students from the beginning how their efforts to converse in lessons will be monitored on a continuous basis.
A number of student copybooks were examined which showed work appropriate to the level of the classes. Teacher acknowledgment of student work was to be found in the copybooks. An examination of homework diaries showed that girls were more careful in recording homework regularly than were the boys. In order to focus students more carefully on this aspect, it is recommended that consideration be given to a common allocation of marks in house examinations in junior classes to the standard of work in the copybooks and the standard of recording homework in the diaries.
A clear analysis of student participation and achievement in the subject in the certificate examinations was provided. These statistics showed the scale of the challenge facing the school to undertake improvements. More emphasis should be placed on these statistics in the subject plan as a point of reference. In the short term it would be worthwhile to focus on a developmental plan for the subject to drive phased improvements in relation to achieving greater student participation at a higher level and to improve results. It is accepted that other conditions obtain in the school which have a whole-school focus and which are necessary in order to add to these objectives. These include an improvement in general student attendance and the extra effort which will be required to offset the lack of support and guidance in the subject which, it is understood, is received from the home in many cases.
The most important resource for the subject is to be found in the diligence and quality of the teachers of Irish as was observed in the lessons and in their dialogue with students. It would be very heartening for everyone in the school if improvements in the subject as outlined above were to be achieved. This would be a fitting recompense for teachers for the worthwhile efforts observed in their teaching.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· School management is supportive of the efforts of the teachers of Irish to promote the subject and, in general, there is very good timetabled provision for Irish.
· There is good provision for planning of teaching and learning in Irish. Teachers have discussed the integration of teaching methods observed during in-service courses into their own teaching.
· In general a good foundation has been laid for planning work. The Transition Year plan closely reflects the aims of that programme and the LCA plan is well laid out also.
· Teachers had a good understanding of the abilities and needs of their students and all the teachers had a diligent, enthusiastic approach to their teaching.
· Successful outcomes in teaching and learning were most evident where the teacher was very much in touch with the topics of interest to students in order to practise ordinary
conversation and good humour prevailed during the class. This approach resulted in good results for the efforts made to encourage students with limited Irish to make conversation.
· The most important resource for the subject is to be found in the diligence and quality of the teachers of Irish as was observed in the lessons and in their dialogue with students.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· It is recommended that teachers give some thought to agreeing a plan of action with higher expectations in the subject for Deele College. This plan should be shared with parents,
students and with the feeder primary schools. This would involve focusing in the short term on a developmental plan for the subject in order to achieve a phased improvement of student
participation at a higher level and to improve results.
· It is recommended that teachers agree arrangements to observe each other’s practice and enhance this approach over time through combining lessons for the practice of specific language
skills such as speaking the language, in particular.
· It is recommended that the standard of Irish of first-year students be assessed in the first days of the new school year and that the results of these tests be shared with the feeder primary schools.
· The implementation of the guidelines quoted in Circular 0042/2007 in relation to the allocation of marks awarded to key language skills in the house examinations is recommended.
The teaching programme should be adjusted accordingly with regard to the allocation of time for the teaching and learning of those skills.
A post-evaluation meeting was held with the teachers of Irish and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published December 2009