Classroom Observations for the Dyslexic Student

 The purpose of a classroom observation is to determine whether your child’s  instruction meets his or her needs. A good observation of a dyslexic student will focus on instruction in reading and language arts. It will help you make effective educational decisions by giving you information about: 1) reading curriculum being used, 2) teacher expertise, 3) peer grouping, 4) frequency of instruction, 5) level of instruction, and 6) educational placement.

  • A classroom observation is an important part of any reading evaluation. It provides the evaluator with first hand knowledge about the learning environment and what might help to improve your child’s reading skills.
  • Observations should be made whenever making decisions about a change of placement to help you determine whether the proposed placement meets the needs of your child. If, for example, your school has proposed placement in a self contained language-based classroom, it’s important to observe that classroom to determine whether it’s appropriate for your child.
  • There are times when it is important to complete an observation to gain insight as to why a student is not making progress or to determine if the reading instruction is being implemented as outlined in the IEP.

I always prefer to undertake a classroom observation after testing.  This allows me to first understand the child’s needs so that I can focus on whether those needs are – or could potentially be – met in that educational placement. I always explain to the child that I will be visiting his classroom and that only his teacher will know who I am. I assure him that none of his classmates will know why I am there. I also assure him that I will not speak to him or acknowledge him unless he first speaks to me. I explain that I will only be watching and taking notes. Other evaluators may approach classroom observations differently; just make certain that you have a professional who understands how to complete an observation and who can properly evaluate reading curricula. While there are always exceptions, I don’t often recommend that parents do their own observation.

Documentation: Note-taking during any observation is essential. I always take notes on a minute-by-minute basis. I note where the observed student sits and who they were grouped with. I note exact times when students changed tasks, change behavior, change locations in the room, when others enter and leave the room etc. I am looking for behavioral responses to different activities, environmental conditions, and teacher interactions. I want to see if there was any cause and effect between student behavior, teacher behavior, time allocated to instruction, physical groupings, types of tasks worked on, instructional content, and the child’s ability to learn.   I average 8-12 handwritten pages of notes per hour of observation. I include a summary of those notes in the final report. (Visit www.Smartkidcantread.com for the summary sheet of a classroom observation used by our graduate students. Click on Free Downloads).

It’s important to quietly circulate among the students and periodically observe their seat-work to assess any discrepancies between the target student’s work and the work of the rest of the class.

Coordination of Instruction: Visit the classroom during reading/language arts instruction.  When a child receives reading instruction in settings other than the classroom make sure you observe in all settings where he receives reading instruction (for example, in the classroom and in a pull-out small group setting). Yes, you can observe instruction during 1:1 tutorials. Make certain that you ask to see his work folders. Observe student performance, the curriculum being used, student groupings, and teacher expertise.

Find out if instruction in different settings is coordinated.  Continuity of instruction is essential for a child’s success.  Children need to practice the same routines to establish a skill set. Are remedial reading services coordinated with classroom instruction in reading, spelling, and written language? If a child is receiving speech and language therapy, that should also be part of this coordination. It is common to observe that there is little or no coordination of instruction from one setting to another. For example, a child might be learning to read the words station, invention, and combination with one teacher, while working on words like stop, club, lock, and brick with another. These word groups represent two very different levels of skill development. This just confuses a struggling reader and interferes with his ability to master the content. (Hint: Always remember to include teacher coordination time in your child’s IEP to ensure that it takes place).

Teacher Interviews:Interviews of all teachers who teach reading/language arts to your child is an essential component of the observation. It’s important to understand the teacher’s perspective of your child’s struggle with reading. (Visit www.Smartkidcantread.com for the full Teacher Interview questionnaire- click on Free Downloads.) There is always valuable information to be gained from teacher interviews. Don’t skip this step.

I never actually sit with the questionnaire and ask questions. This questionnaire provides an overview of the topics I wish to cover in a less structured conversation with the teacher after completing the observation. Always include other topics that are more specific to your child. It’s important to individualize these interviews for each child and the observation that was just completed.

Reading Instruction: Is the reading instruction your child is receiving appropriate to meet his needs as a dyslexic student?  An independent evaluation of your child will provide you with information about what your child needs. This observation will provide you with information about the reading instruction that is taking place in this specific educational environment. The observer needs to know what to look for so she can assess the reading/language arts curriculum in that environment relative to your child’s needs. What are your child’s cognitive, academic and behavioral needs? What type of reading and language arts curriculum would meet those needs?

The professional you have chosen must understand how to distinguish among different types of reading programs, especially when observing specialized pull-out reading instruction. Programs are not all created equal. Is your child receiving instruction in a remedial reading program such as Reading Recovery or with one of the multi-sensory structured literacy programs? Is the teacher using the classroom curriculum but just at a slower rate? Is the teacher using a mixture of many different programs? Is special education intervention being used to only help your child keep up with classroom assignments without providing instruction in reading or written language?

The professional must know how to assess a teacher’s expertise in teaching reading programs. If the observer knows what a Wilson lesson should look like, what an Orton Gillingham lesson should look like, or what a Lindamood Bell lesson should look like, it is easy to determine the teacher’s level of expertise with that program. And, yes, you can ask whether a teacher has been certified in the reading program they are using.

There have been times when I have changed my thoughts about a reading program based on what I saw during the observation. For example, in a few instances after observing a highly qualified teacher teaching a reading program that was not my first choice for the student; I decided that it was more important to work with her.   She knew what she was doing and we should not walk away from that. Never underestimate the value of teacher expertise!

It’s not only important to determine what type of reading program is best for a student but the observer must also consider if the level is appropriate for his skills. It is not appropriate for a child to be struggling through a 4thgrade book on dinosaurs when he doesn’t yet have basic phonological skills.

The observation must assess the issue of classroom accommodations and modifications. Are they appropriate to your child’s needs? Is he receiving accommodations and modifications to the curriculum that will enhance his understanding of the content while he receives instruction to increase his reading skills? Or is he merely receiving accommodations and modifications to replace his need for learning to read and write? Are there modifications or accommodations that could be helpful that are not in place?

One of the most common questions surrounding a request for an observation is whether the child is receiving enough help with reading so that he is able to achieve mastery? It’s so easy to over-estimate instructional time. I recall observing a 6thgrader who was receiving small group reading instruction in a group of four students for 30 minutes twice per week.  I timed this carefully: it took the students several minutes to walk to the tutor’s room and get their materials ready to work. There were 16 minutes of actual instruction time! Not even close to what he needed.

Your observer needs to understand the essential elements of reading instruction in order to make accurate assessments.

Instructional Environment: What type of educational environment does your child require to learn? Again, the answer to that question will come from your child’s independent evaluation and is based on the severity of his reading problem and the level of his reading delay. For example, some children require a structured small group learning environment while others can manage whole class instruction in a larger classroom. Is your child able get the reading help he needs in an inclusion classroom? Or does he need more individualized instruction in a pull-out model? Will small group instruction work or does he require 1:1 reading instruction? Does he need a self-contained language based classroom?

Placement issues must be assessed when completing a classroom observation. The observation will provide you with information about a particular placement and whether or not it is appropriate for your child. The observer needs to determine whether your child is able to make progress in this specific placement.

It is also necessary to assess the peer group in a proposed placement or in your child’s current placement. Is the intellectual or behavioral level of the peer group appropriate for your child? All too often I have observed placements that the school system proposed for a dyslexic child, only to find that these were classrooms for children with severe behavioral challenges or children with intellectual challenges.

In nearly every one of the hundreds of observations that I have completed, I’ve seen other children of equal or greater need who were not receiving the help they needed because their parents were not advocating for them. It is so important to get involved and advocate for your child.

Lorna Kaufman, Ph.D., is a Developmental Psychologist specializing in reading problems.

She is author of Smart Kid, Can’t Read, a book that provides parents of dyslexic children with an advocacy plan for getting help in public schools.