In the world of advocacy and dyslexia, the observation seems to be a forgotten and seriously under-utilized tool. In fact, the observation can be the one thing that can turn a case around and create some change, but it has to be done correctly. The observer needs to know what to look for and what to report. It may also come as a surprise, but one of the most heart-wrenching things I do as an advocate and dyslexia expert is the classroom observation. There have been observations where I actually felt nauseous the longer I sat and watched the instruction. The reason for my visceral response is usually caused by the ‘instruction’ the student I am advocating for is receiving; but it is also caused by the students in the class for whom I am not an advocate – who is watching out for them? I take solace in the thought that advocating for one student will have a ripple effect for others. So, what could provoke such a response to what should be an innocuous experience? Below I have described why an observation should take place and what the observer should be evaluating. I have also shared some very common experiences that occur in classrooms with students with dyslexia.
When and why should a classroom observation take place?
A classroom observation should take place in the following situations:
- The student is not making progress, but the school is not willing to give an IEP.
- The student has an IEP and is not making progress.
- The student has a new IEP and the intervention needs to be evaluated.
- The student is receiving services from an aid instead of a fully credentialed teacher.
- The school has changed the intervention or teacher.
- In preparation for an upcoming IEP, Due Process or Mediation.
Who should conduct the classroom observation?
- The observer should be someone the student does not know. If the student knows the observer it is likely to create a less than authentic observation.
- The observer should be an expert in dyslexia. This person should be looking for interventions and teaching that are known to be effective for students with dyslexia.
- The observer should know how to take notes and how to write a detailed report that can be submitted in an IEP meeting and during legal proceedings.
What should the observer be looking for?
- Time management and pace: The observer should note what time the instruction actually begin and when it ended. There should be notes about the student’s effort during instructional time. Many times there will be comments by teachers that the student is off-task or disengaged during instructional time and that is what is contributing to their lack of progress. The observer has the opportunity to determine if and when this happens. I observed a child who had been described as extremely distractible and a bit of a classroom behavior problem. What I observed was a student who was in a group that moved far too quickly with little to no explicit instruction. What they described as distractible, I observed as a coping mechanism to frustration and the feeling of a lack of power to change it. This observation comes in handy when negotiating for a more appropriate placement.
Report Example: The lesson moved at a very rapid pace and there was no instruction. The lesson consisted of the teacher reading the directions from a workbook and giving answers. In thirty minutes, the group covered 4 different reading components without any explanation of the concepts being taught.
- Teaching strategies: Many schools are defending the curriculum they choose by stating it is structured, systematic and phonics based and based on the National Reading Panel results – but that is only half the battle. The teaching techniques employed by the teacher are equally important, and the observer can determine if the teacher is teaching using multisensory techniques, questioning strategies and including repetition and review. One of the most common and troubling observations I have made is that teachers are not using questioning techniques to direct students to the correct answer or to help them develop independent thinking and reading skills. Additionally, students are told to read things, repeat things and spell things, but they are never asked to explain how they can correct a word they misspelled or a word they read incorrectly. They are not given tools to use to help them determine how to decode independently. And last but certainly not least, what does the teacher do when the student makes a mistake or gets stuck on a word? Does the teacher give the answer to stop and teach? The answer to this question is of the utmost importance.
Report Example: The group then moved into a spelling activity. The teacher dictated words and the students spelled them. She did check to see if they spelled them correctly but she did not do any teaching to help them figure out why it was misspelled. She then dictated a sentence which had a word that was difficult for them to understand because of the teacher’s accent and she did repeat if for them several times. When they were done, she wrote the sentence on the board and asked the students to correct their sentences. She never asked them to read their sentences or talk about the types of errors they made. Student appeared to do his best and was on-task the entire portion of the lesson. There was no explicit teaching about spelling rules and or asking questions about their mistakes.
- Program being used: Most IEP teams will not specify programs to be used but may give some examples. So, during the observation it is imperative to find out which program is being used, what chapter the student is currently working in and if any other programs are used when the observer is not there. Write down the title and author so you can check to see if it is research-based, multisensory and age-appropriate. For example, I observed Zachary using a program that was written for grades 4-6 and students who need ‘some extra help.’ Many districts use this program because the author has a good reputation in the reading community. The problem is that Zachary is in the first month of the third grade and needs much more than ‘some extra help.’
Report Example: Student was using Phonics for Reading and they were on Lesson 11.
- Expertise of teacher: During an IEP it is important to ask the teacher what their experience is in the area of dyslexia and teaching those with diagnosed dyslexia. In many cases, the teacher or the district rep will respond that they have a mild/moderate or similar credential in special education. However, under NCLB, anyone working with a child with reading disabilities is required to be highly qualified in the area of reading. So, if you can’t get a straight answer about the qualifications, the observation is the next best thing. The one red flag I always notice is the over-reliance on the workbook instructions and almost no ability to improvise to make sure the student understands. A highly qualified reading teacher will know when to slow down, repeat, question and explain. A teacher simply following a curriculum will move too fast, give answers instead of question, have children echo read instead of independently read, and is not able to adequately teach spelling (a blog about spelling is in the works).
Report Example: Very quickly, the group moved into oral reading. Student read out loud and struggled significantly with the passage. When he came to a word he had difficulty decoding (i.e. what) the teacher gave him the answer. She said, ‘no, it is /w/ and the end is /t/.’ She gave him the answer several times and at no time did she teach him decoding strategies so that he could decode words independently. She repeatedly said ah-ah indicating the answer was wrong but never guided him to the correct answer.
- Collect any work that was produced during the observation: Something that has always been perplexing to me is the type of observation done by the school psychologist. It does not seem to differ based on the child’s disability – and it should. They will describe the classroom, the student’s behavior, the assignment and then write a summary. My question is always, “Did you look to see what they actually did while you were observing?” They always look at me like I have two heads. Well, who would of thought of doing that? This is an observation of a student with dyslexia – someone who is struggling with reading and writing, so if they appear to be ‘on-task’ and ‘appropriate’ during class then you need to see what they are producing during that on-task behavior.
Report Example: Once the observation was complete I took note of what Zachary had written during the writing portion of his lesson. He wrote the following sentence (sic):
The Wale (whale) wuz gry.
Although Zachary was on-task during this lesson, he was still unable to complete the task and I did not see any instruction to help him with his spelling.
A couple of things to remember
- Before any observation can take place, the school has to be notified and they will determine a good time.
- Because the school will be aware of the observation, it cannot be expected that the observation will be a 100% authentic representation of what happens on a daily basis. I like to think it is the best they can do, so if it is inadequate the day they know you are coming, then you can make the assumption it is not as good the days you are not there.
- Take notes, but try not to be intrusive. Don’t ask questions during the observation – be a fly on the wall.
Observations in the cases of dyslexia are vastly underused. They are invaluable in determining the appropriateness of teaching, services and curriculum. Don’t be shy and send someone into the school to find out what is really going on – it almost always has an impact.
Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley is the co-founder of the Dyslexia Training Institute (www.dyslexiatraininginstitute.org and www.dyslexiadr.com.) She is currently writing, Putting the D in to the IEP, and you can read excerpts at www.dyslexiadr.blogspot.com. She received her doctorate in Literacy with a specialization in reading and dyslexia from San Diego State University and the University of San Diego. Dr. Sandman-Hurley a Certified Special Education Advocate assisting parents and children through the Individualized Education Program (IEP) and 504 Plan process. She is an adjunct professor of reading, literacy coordinator and a tutor trainer. Kelli is trained by a fellow of the Orton-Gillingham Academy and in the Lindamood-Bell, RAVE-O and Wilson Reading Programs. Kelli is the Past-President of the San Diego Branch of the International Dyslexia Association. She has presented at numerous conferences as well as provided professional development for k-12 teachers. Join the Dyslexia Training Institute at www.facebook.com/dyslexiatraining