The Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn has launched the Chief Inspector’s Report on quality and standards in primary and post-primary schools for 2010-12 and on the issue of Irish language teaching in the English-medium education system it makes for depressing reading.
“How good is the teaching and learning of Irish in primary schools?
Inspectors’ findings with regard to Irish are significantly less positive than those for English or Mathematics. During the years 2010-2012, inspectors reported that the quality of Irish teaching was problematic in one fifth of the lessons inspected during incidental inspections and the quality of pupils’ learning of the language was problematic in approximately one quarter (24%) of those lessons.
While many inspectors in whole-school evaluations commended the commitment and efforts of teachers to teach Irish, they also found that learning outcomes were disappointing. Inspectors judged that the teaching of Irish was satisfactory or better in 80% of lessons observed during incidental inspections. They also reported that the quality of pupils’ learning outcomes was satisfactory in 76% of the lessons evaluated.
In schools where inspectors found teaching and learning in Irish to be effective, there was evidence that teachers had adopted a well-planned, whole-school approach to fostering learning in Irish. They had also created an environment that encouraged regular informal use of Irish throughout the school. The richness of the language inputs provided to pupils was, not surprisingly, an important factor in successful learning. The accuracy and fluency of teachers’ own Irish language competence and hence of the language exemplars presented to pupils were critical factors in supporting effective learning. Clearly, where teachers’ competence and confidence in using Irish were weak, the learning opportunities provided to pupils were less effective.
The successful implementation of a communicative approach to the teaching of the language across the school was a further factor noted where Irish was taught most successfully. This meant that successful lessons in these situations were well structured, they included well-planned listening opportunities, and strategies such as drama, pair work and games that helped to develop pupils’ communicative abilities. The teaching of reading was integrated effectively with writing, oral and listening skills work, and a broad range of reading material in Irish was used in these schools. Teachers had also planned sufficient opportunities to enable their pupils to consolidate their language learning. Finally, teachers used a range of assessment methods such as teacher observation, teacher-designed tasks and collections of pupils’ work to assess the main language skills.”
In other words not only are many Irish schoolchildren being denied a proper education in their nation’s indigenous language but in some cases they are being denied an education from teaching staff who are themselves barely fluent in the language they are teaching.
“Irish: Learning from inspections
The inspection data from 2010-2012 illustrate starkly the challenges for considerable numbers of schools and teachers with regard to Irish.
Approaches: It is clear from both incidental inspection findings and WSE reports that a sizeable proportion of primary schools need to change their approach to the teaching of the Irish language. In 22% of the Irish lessons evaluated during incidental inspections from 2010-2012, pupils were not provided with opportunities to learn through talk and discussion, one of the fundamental requirements of language learning. The need for schools to adopt a communicative approach to the teaching of Irish is also one of the recurring themes in the WSE reports on schools in which there were significant weaknesses with regard to Irish teaching and learning. Related to this, both WSE reports and incidental inspections over the three-year period highlight the need for greater opportunities to be provided to pupils to work collaboratively during Irish lessons, and for the language learning to be consolidated.
Preparation: The use of a communicative approach in Irish lessons demands careful preparation. Teachers need to be clear about the intended language learning objective, they need to plan lesson content and the relevant language learning activities carefully, and they need to source suitable learning materials and resources. The findings from incidental inspections suggest that a significant minority (22%) of teachers are not preparing adequately for their teaching of Irish. This means that there are considerable numbers of learners in primary schools that are not being provided with properly planned Irish language experiences or a properly planned, progressive Irish language learning programme.
Teaching resources: Inspectors found, in a considerable proportion (20%) of the Irish lessons evaluated by incidental inspection, that there were shortcomings with regard to the use of resources to support Irish language teaching and learning in classrooms. The Inspectorate, in its 2007 report, Irish in the Primary School, recommended that a graded teaching programme similar to Séideán Sí (currently in use in Gaeltacht and all-Irish schools) be prepared for each class in the primary school to support the systematic implementation of the communicative approach. Such a programme is not yet available at a national level. The 2010-2012 incidental inspection findings underline the real need for such a programme to be developed for and used by English-medium schools in the teaching of Irish. It is hoped that the current work of the NCCA in developing an integrated Irish language curriculum with clear and specific learning outcomes and support materials for teachers as well as the ongoing work of COGG (An Chomhairle um Oideachas Gaeltachta & Gaelscolaíochta) in supporting Irish in Gaeltacht and all-Irish schools will improve considerably the overall quality of Irish language teaching and learning in our primary schools.
Assessment: The issue of assessment in Irish is one that appears to be particularly challenging for many schools and teachers. Inspectors noted that assessment practices were not satisfactory in more than one third (35%) of the Irish lessons evaluated in the years 2010-2012. This finding points to the need for critical numbers of primary schools to make planned, systematic provision for assessing pupils’ learning of the main language skills in Irish. Schools then need to use the information from this assessment to inform whole-school and individual teachers’ planning of the language learning objectives, content, and activities of Irish lessons and the necessary resources required. There is evidence that teachers need considerable professional development support to enable them to undertake this sort of teaching. The availability, from the Educational Research Centre, of standardised tests in Irish for primary schools is a further support to improve assessment practice. The use of these standardised tests in Irish has been a requirement in Irish medium schools since 2012.”
So in the period from 2010 to 2012 the teaching of Irish in many Anglophone-medium schools was under-resourced, under-planned, under-allocated and missing any national programmes guiding its implementation. Is it a surprise then that the teaching of Irish to one in every three students in English-orientated schools was actually detrimental to their acquirement of the language, let alone achieving any degree of fluency in it?
And this in 21st century Ireland!