Primary education: listening and observing
Primary education: listening and observing

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

3 Systematic observation

You can make more systematic observations using ‘codes’. Codes are pre-assigned numbers (or letters, or symbols) that represent specific actions, behaviours or words. When you observe using codes, for example, you log a number each time the child shows a specific behaviour.

For example, you could use these codes to describe a child’s behaviour in a classroom lesson:

  • 1 = on task (listening, speaking, reading or writing)
  • 2 = not concentrating, looking around
  • 3 = out of seat, moving around
  • 4 = behaving inappropriately, physically or verbally

Then, as you watch the child carefully for 10 to 15 minutes in the classroom, logging each time the child shows each behaviour, you might create a picture of the child like this in Figure 3.

Looking at the example codes, you can see that the child is on task just as often as she is off task, and there seems to be one incident of on task behaviour which is not rewarded by the teacher: the child raises her hand but is not called on to answer.

With this kind of systematic minute-by-minute observation, you can identify when and how a child begins to go ‘off task’ and to use this information to help prevent this from happening in lessons.

This type of observation can yield very specific information. Teachers and teaching assistants can use this information to develop action plans for children who find classrooms challenging.

But this type of observation can be more difficult to do than ‘naturalistic’ observation. You need to pay attention to the child’s behaviour, your codes, and the time.

In the next activity, you will observe a child who sometimes presents challenging behaviour in the classroom. His teacher has learned how to help him, by allowing him to move around the classroom and learn in a way that suits him.

Activity 3 Observing ‘Jack’

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

‘Jack’ (not his real name) is 4 years old. Watch the video of Jack and his teacher in the classroom. Observe how Jack behaves as he goes about his work in school. Pay attention to his body language and his facial expressions, the way he moves around the classroom, and how he interacts with his teacher and with other children.

As you watch, try to apply the following codes to Jack’s behaviour, using the time code on the video:

  1. interacts with teacher
  2. works alone
  3. interacts with other children
  4. works alongside other children but does not interact with them.

It is recognised that the video is edited and not continuous, but it gives you an opportunity to try out using codes for a short observation. There is a short interview with Jack’s teacher towards the end of the video.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 3
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Show transcript|Hide transcript
Video 3
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


  • 4 (00:00 – 00:08)
  • 1 (00:08 – 00:53)
  • 2 (00:53 – 00:58)
  • 3 (00:58 – 01:12)
  • 1 (01:12 – 01:25)
  • 2 (01:27 – 02:23)

The codes present Jack as working mainly on his own, or in one-to-one interaction with his teacher. These two codes cover the majority of the time in the video. Jack appears persistent and focused on the number activity, moving between the numbers on the board to his worksheet. His teacher describes him as independent and wanting to do things his own way.

Although Jack interacts with his teacher, he does not always look directly at her when he listens and answers her questions. This could mean that he is easily distracted, or that he is not interested in what she is saying. He answers her questions quickly and briefly.

There is one instance in the video where Jack makes his own, unprompted comment in conversation with his teacher. He notices similarities between the number 9 and the letter q (‘quarrelsome queen’ – from a commercial phonics (letters and sounds) scheme). You can also see Jack make this type of comparison when he sits next to another child and notices where an insect’s antenna should go and says a letter card looks like ‘bouncy bear’ (from the alphabet scheme).

Jack as an individual

The comments that Jack’s teacher makes about him echo the views of Professor Alderson that you heard in Session 1, about children as people. Jack’s teacher sees him as an individual with his own preferences about how and what to learn. She says that Jack can be a very unhappy child if he doesn’t see the point of what he is learning. Jack seems focused and persistent in the number activity we see in the video, but he seems sometimes distracted when talking to his teacher. He seems to like to move around the classroom, and you see him moving between the number line and his worksheet.

In some ways, Jack’s behaviour (given his young age of 4 years) is well within expectations for a lower primary or reception classroom. Jack tries to find his own personal way to learn, and this can be a positive disposition. His teacher has found ways to help him make progress in the classroom. The curriculum the teacher refers to is Northern Ireland’s Enriched Curriculum (Northern Ireland Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, 2007). This helps Jack because it is play-based and, to some extent, flexible in terms of what children must do and when they must do it in school.

In the next section, you’ll observe a whole classroom, the teacher and the children.

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371