Classroom Observations for the Dyslexic Student

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 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 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.


By |October 10th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Is Response to Intervention (RTI) Working for Your Child?

A report released by the National Center for Educational Evaluation and Regional Assistance reports that RTI for literacy in grades 1-3 falls  short of promise:

RTI is an educational model that is used extensively in schools throughout the country. It is designed to identify struggling students early to provide appropriate instruction and to prevent their difficulties from escalating to the need for special education. RTI uses a tiered approach to intervention. Tier I is the mainstream classroom instruction, Tier II provides specialized instruction for struggling readers and Tier III provides more intensive evidence-based instruction for readers having trouble.

Over 20,000 students in 13 states were studied. The findings of the study were alarming and quite surprising to researchers.

“First graders who received reading interventions actually did worse than virtually identical peers who did not get the more targeted assistance…moreover, students who were already in special education and those who were older than average for their grade (suggesting they had either entered late or failed a grade) performed particularly poorly if they received interventions…Students in 2nd and 3rd grades who were identified for Tier 2 had no significant reading benefits either, though unlike 1st graders, they saw no significant negative effects from the interventions.” There were no significant differences in the results for students of different income levels, racial groups, or native languages. Researchers found that many schools were blurring the lines between core instruction and interventions.

What does this mean for you as a parent?

It is difficult to know how to interpret these findings since there is such significant variability in how RTI is implemented in schools. In fact, I have never seen two programs that were the same. As Doug Fuchs, professor and chair of special education and human development at Vanderbilt University, pointed out, “we do not know the differences in quality of instruction, types of intervention, and the progress monitoring system used in each of the schools studied.”

If your child is a struggling reader it is important that you become involved in the educational decisions that are made on behalf of your child. It is essential that you monitor his reading program regardless of whether that instruction takes place in special education, Title I, or RTI. The results of this study highlight the need for parents to be active participants in their child’s education.

How do you monitor your child’s intervention services?

  1. Begin by asking what testing was completed that made your child eligible for RTI. Ask to see those test results. Did the tests include tests for phonological processing, pre-reading skills, decoding, reading comprehension, and reading fluency? Remediation for some of these skills is different than for others. For example, remediation for reading comprehension is quite different than remediation for decoding. This is not a case of one-size fits all. Make sure the remediation fits your child’s needs.
  2. Ask what reading intervention is being used to help your child. You want to know what curriculum is being used. Is this an evidence-based program? You also want to know if your child is receiving help in a small group or individually. Ask how this intervention differs from the core instruction used in the classroom.
  3. Ask what training and experience your child’s teacher has with the curriculum that your child receives. A teacher’s expertise is critical for the success of any reading program.
  4. Find out how your child’s progress is being monitored. Unfortunately, many independent evaluators report that informal progress monitoring in the classroom often over-rates a child’s progress. Consider having your child’s progress monitored by hiring an independent educational evaluator to check his reading skills. This does not need to be a comprehensive evaluation; you are just evaluating his reading progress.
  5. Remember, RTI cannot be used to deny or delay special education services. You can refer your child for a special education evaluation if you believe that RTI is not adequate for his/her needs.



By |July 15th, 2016|Uncategorized|1 Comment


We all need to be reminded of the urgency to act to help our children. Sandy and I are reminded of this as we present at the Learning Disabilities Association of America conference in Orlando, Florida this week. We met a wonderful group of motivated parents, educators, and administrators. Their interest in our message was evident and we were excited to let them know that our website was launched.

One participant said that the “motivation to act now was worth the session”.  Other participants loved our message about reading instruction; “no child is harmed by instruction in an evidence-based structured phonics program, but many are harmed by the absence of such a program”. This message rang true for many parents.

If you have the opportunity, try to attend a national or regional conference on reading or learning disabilities. You’ll learn from interesting speakers who are leaders in the field. You’ll have an opportunity to meet other parents and professionals. You may come away with new insights and renewed determination.

In the Events section, you can download a copy of our presentation from the conference.  We will also list some upcoming conferences around the country for you to try to attend and engage with other parents and educators.

Thank you for joining us at Smart Kid, Can’t Read!

By |February 18th, 2016|Uncategorized|0 Comments