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The Anglophone Machine – The Systemic Failure To Teach Irish

Labhair Gaeilge
Labhair Gaeilge!

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!

8 comments on “The Anglophone Machine – The Systemic Failure To Teach Irish

  1. an lorcánach

    when i heard the story first i wondered about previous inspection reports but, bímis macánta, this can’t be a surprise especially as we’re really dealing with the teaching of irish and maths in anglophone schools – what’s really fascinating about all this is the one great shibboleth in the last 10 years that we’re not allowed to question: how is it where the points to get into primary teaching and final year college entry onto h.dip.ed courses are way-higher than the 80s?

    the answer is simple: third level grade inflation — after all, how can an anglophone secondary or primary teacher expect to inspire confidence if s/he can’t speak the language? – only recently the oecd said ireland had very poor literacy levels!

    teachers are not blameless but they’re individuals who have to sit an interview for a teaching job and if the relevant school/dept of education has only the applicant’s grade to go by, how else can someone explain this?

    naturally enough there’s other dynamics: teachers who are unhappy in their jobs, subcontracting/ temp teachers being ubiquitous and terrible teachers (irrespective of fluency) with permanent positions/ tenure — — a pernicious education system that’s literally strangling the language… a century on, scéal on phiarsaigh! @


  2. Failure to teach Irish? I think you mean failure to teach Gaelic, the language is not called Irish, it never has been, if you mean what you think, then it is called Eireanach, just as Scotland’s language (along with it’s more popular real tongue ‘Scots’ which is a good Germanic/Nordic language) is called Albannach.

    Irish is just an English word meaning Hiberni/ or Hibernia the land, not the language.


    • an lorcánach

      And so explains the confusion Americans have when Irish state-schooled graduates talk about the ‘Irish’ language as opposed to ‘Gaelic’ — good luck, Len, talking to a Dubliner/Corkonian/Galwegian about ‘Gaelic’ as opposed to ‘Irish’! — ‘Gaeilge’ I’d have thought was preferable though ‘Irish’ is used as admittedly as the conditioned shorthand (myself guilty of same) – a social construct of course (designed not to offend the Anglocentric!)


    • The indigenous language of Ireland has been referred to as “Irish” in the English language since medieval times. Numerous variant spelling can be found in historical records from the 10th to 18th centuries when orthography stabilised.

      The term “Gaelic” is of relatively late English coinage dating to the 15th century and actually originated in Scotland. Up to that time Scottish Gaelic was called “Scottish” until displaced in part by the neologism “Gaelic”. This was then latterly transferred to Ireland, principally in the 17th century. Unlike Scotland it never achieved the same popularity or use amongst English-speakers who still preferred “Irish” or “Irish language”.

      The English word “Irish” means both the people and the language, though derived from two slightly different spellings in the original forms.


      • Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ

        It’s worth pointing out that in Scotland in “Scots” that Gaidhlig was known as Scottis and what became “Scots” was known as “Inglish”. From late 15th century onwards there’s a change, where Gaidhlig was called “Erse” (Irish) and “Inglish” became known as “Scottis” (and thence Scots).

        One could argue the coinage of the word “Gaelic” in english is thus a way to move away from calling Gaidhlig “Erse” particulary form the 18th century onwards.


        • Absolutely. In the English language the term “Scottish” was originally applied to what is now called in the English language “Scottish Gaelic”.

          The word “Gaelic” existed alongside “Erse” for some time in the English language before supplanting it (outside of some extreme Britnat circles).

          That is why some young Scottish Gaelic speakers are now reclaiming “Scottish” as their term in English for their language.


  3. Gaidheal ~ Gael is of course in origin a Welsh word (Gwyddel being the modern form) meaning perhaps ‘wildman’ or some such. Before that there didn’t seem to be a common word for the various peoples settled in Ireland, the older texts resorted by phrases like Fír na hÉirinn.
    The practise of referring to the language as Irish, seems to me at least to be relatively modern, and although now spreading, seems to have began with and within the Irish state. Hence in the US and UK people will often still refer to the language as (Irish)Gaelic, unless they are in touch with modern Irish usage. The reason for the disuse of the G-word in Ireland may be that it was devalued by being used for “everything from politics to dancing” as someone once put it.


    • Gwyddelod = Féine “Wild, Wilderness Ones (People)”

      Féine was the commonest name for the Irish as a whole in the oldest texts though it may have originated with one dominant population group in the Midlands and West (the ancestors of the historic Connachta and Uí Néill). The word gave its name to the law codes amongst other things where it survived as a synonym for the Irish people

      Gaeil became more popular in the later Medieval period, c.8th century onwards, through widescale use in secular texts (with the likely artificial Clann Mhíle remaining popular in poetical ones). Éireannaigh is relatively late and only gained real popularity in the post-Norman period.

      As far back as one can go English language texts (when not using Latin or Norman-French) refer to the language of the Irish as “Irish”. Gaelic is a much later development.

      The terms “Gael” and “Gaels” were popular in the late 19th to early 20th centuries in Ireland in progressive and revolutionary circles. The word “Gaelic” however was far less so. It gained popularity in the US through British usage when applied to Scottish Gaelic. There was also a minority view that it would be better to use a word of “native” origin like Gaelic rather than “Irish”, which of course had English origins, as a sort of nationalist reclaiming of the language.

      The latter quote is very true. It became the ultimate form of Irish kitsch.


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