Published Online: November 7, 2012

First Person

Watchful Pedagogy: The Power of Observation as a Data-Collection Tool

Teachers today are constantly engaged in conversations about data—analyzing it, using it to inform instruction, and creating strategic plans around it. There is no denying that data are important and that the place of data analysis in schools is secure for the foreseeable future. What will continue to evolve over time, however, are the ways in which teachers use and analyze data—all kinds of data—on a daily basis to meet the needs of students. While administering assessments is, of course, a valuable means of collecting data, looking beyond the paper in front of us can provide us with meaningful information as well. I found that the power of observation can be one of the greatest tools teachers have in assessing our students.

I am a kindergarten teacher in a sheltered-English-immersion classroom, which means that the majority of my students are English-language learners. During the last school year, I had a powerful learning experience about what it really means to analyze data in order to tailor instruction effectively to what students need.

My students were excited about learning—as most kindergarteners are—from the very first day of school. They loved hearing the sounds of language, singing rhyming songs, and hearing stories with new and exciting words. I watched each of them carefully, figuring out what their interests were, seeing the ways they experimented in the block corner, and watching their interactions with books. When they were ready, I broke them into small groups for differentiated instruction.

One group in particular provided me with some interesting observational data. When it came time to assess their ability to decode consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words (e.g., cat, hat, man), I noticed that all six of the students in this group were demonstrating similar reading patterns. Each of them was able to articulate all of the letter sounds in the CVC words and to demonstrate appropriate print tracking with one finger. However, when it came time for them to read the word after saying the sounds separately, all six students lifted their eyes from the page and looked around the classroom. And they were unable to successfully decode more than one or two words.

This behavior persisted for each of the students throughout the assessment, even after several reminders to keep their eyes on the page. In their good-natured way, they didn't seem frustrated, only confused. After unsuccessfully reading a word, some of them shrugged; others gave me an uncomfortable smile. They could probably have read the words correctly with the help of a teacher and small group, but individually it proved too much for them.

Watching Their Eyes

I sat down and examined the recording sheet that I had used to track my students' responses during the assessment. According to the sheet, my students needed more practice with decoding CVC words. However, the more I thought about how all six of the students had let their eyes wander all over the room, the more I realized that I might have been missing an important factor. It occurred to me that, as their eyes wandered away from the words, their brains were processing the auditory input of the sounds that were coming out of their mouths. It was as if they were removing the visual stimulus of the letters in front of them so that they could just focus on the sounds. The struggle to decode CVC words, then, was not necessarily a symptom of weak phonics skills but seemed to be rooted in difficulty with the auditory task of blending phonemes.

After thinking through the wealth of observational data that I had at my fingertips, I decided to collect some more traditional data. I administered a quick, teacher-created phoneme-blending assessment for each of the students individually. My initial hunch was correct: I found that each of the students did indeed struggle with the auditory task of phoneme blending—specifically, blending three or more discreet sounds. If they were to be successful at decoding CVC words, the intervention would need to target this particular skill.

Like all kindergarten small-group sessions, the intervention sessions needed to be no longer than 10 to 15 minutes, and they needed to be fun. I started off the sessions by presenting varied multisensory tools that the students could touch and feel: Elkonin boxes with plastic jewels, beads strung on a pipe cleaner, and paint sticks decorated with felt shapes, to name a few. The idea was that my students could touch an object to represent a phoneme in a given word (for instance, sliding a plastic jewel forward as they said each of the three sounds in cat), and then push all of the objects together in order to have a visual and tactile representation of blending the sounds together. As they pushed the objects together, I hoped that their brains would make the connection and be able to then easily blend the sounds into words. My students enjoyed these activities and asked to make their own tools to take home with them. However, after a few sessions, I found that for the most part they seemed distracted by the visual and tactile aids, and once again their eyes wandered around the room when I asked them to blend segmented sounds together.

I then decided to simplify matters. During the next intervention session I gave each student a special pair of sunglasses and told them that the game we were about to play could be done "in the dark," without looking at anything. I then proceeded to teach them the game "mystery word." I slowly segmented a word for them (/c/…/a/…/t/), and their job was to listen closely, think about the phonemes, and blend the phonemes together in order to tell me my mystery word. I modeled a few words and the students repeated after me. Then they tried it on their own with me prompting them quickly at first if they were unable to blend the phonemes into a word.

My students were excited as they experienced success with this task. Eventually I incorporated the visual and tactile tools, and I kept a close watch on their eyes. After a few weeks, their eyes stayed in one place and they blended words quickly and accurately. They had taken a huge step forward in their phonemic-awareness learning. At the end of each small-group session, I asked them the same questions: "Why do we do this? Why do we segment and blend sounds?" Their answer was always the same: "So we can learn how to read!"

The group made progress quickly through the rest of the school year, and by the end of it they were indeed readers. I learned a valuable lesson that will stick with me through the rest of my years in the classroom: Never underestimate the impact of taking the time to observe the behaviors, body language, and subtle cues that our students give us. There is powerful learning in these observations that you cannot always get from information recorded on a piece of paper or a spreadsheet filled with student achievement data.

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