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Young children’s language learning pathways

What observation is about and why it is important

Observation is the careful and purposeful watching and listening to a child, noticing what we see and hear, asking questions and interpreting the information. Observation can take various forms: scheduled, spontaneous, directed, or non-directed, recorded formally or informally. The way observations are used will depend on the context and the children in the setting. Observation is an important tool for teachers: by observing children’s interactions and behaviours, teachers can gain insights into the cultural experiences, language proficiencies, and learning needs of the children. Observation can be used to identify the linguistic repertoire of the children, and to gain an understanding of what and how the child learns as well as their interests and the cultural and social frameworks in which they live and learn.

The process of observation

Observation alone is not enough. We have to understand the significance of what we see, hear and touch.
Dewey 1938: 68

Observation is a cyclical process that consists of several different steps:

  • Observe and collect information (for example through observation notes)
  • Look at the information you have gathered and what it tells you (analysis)
  • Reflect on the information you gathered and decide how you are going to use this information
  • Select an appropriate action, response or teaching approach
  • Keep a record of your observations, reflections and actions
  • Start the process of observation and reflection again

Observation toolbox

In this section you can find a variety of resources and tools for observation which can be used to make visible a range of language learning pathways in the education system.


Please click on the tools for details

PORTAL – PALINGUI Observation Record for Teachers to Assess Language
Language(s) English, French (available in 2024)
Description Observation record template for documenting observations in the classroom / educational settings created by PALINGUI – for planned and spontaneous observations
Using the tool This tool can be used in a wide range of educational settings for both planned and spontaneous observations to record information about the observation itself but also to identify and guide the next steps in the children’s language learning.
EDINA – Education of International Newly Arrived migrant pupils ‘differentiation starts with observation’
Language(s) English, French, Dutch, Finnish, Spanish
Description Sample matrix for planned observations
Using the tool This is a class and group observation tool to identify the interests of the children, their current stage of development and next steps and the tools and resources they need to achieve these.
Beobachtungsverfahren - Approaches for observation
Language(s) German
Description This website offers an overview of procedures and tools implemented in different contexts in the German educational system.
Using the tool A number of resources are available for consultation with direct links to the educational providers who have developed observation tools.
European Schools Easy Guide to observation in the Early Years (3 – 6) - Annex 3 (p. 54 – 55)
Language(s) English, French, German
Description Key principles to support observations of children aged 3 to 6
Using the tool This guide can be used to support observations and the identification of next steps on the children’s (language) learning pathways.

Ways of observing

Observation is an important part of the learning and teaching process for all children within the education system. It can be spontaneous or planned, carried out over a short period of time or part of a longer series of ongoing observations to determine learning and teaching. All types of observation contribute to gaining a greater understanding of the child and their language and cultural experiences and can be used to identify the next steps (big and small) on the child´s language learning pathway.

Naturalistic observations -these involve observing children as they go about their everyday activities, this might be conversations (with the teacher or educator but also other children) or interactions during playtime. They can be used to provide an authentic overview of the language skills that the children have and the way they use language(s) in their interactions.

Planned observations as part of the teaching, learning process and assessment processes - either of specific language tasks but this might also include observing how language is used in context during the learning tasks, the range of vocabulary, grammatical and sentence structures. This might also include incidences of translanguaging - where children draw on their full linguistic repertoire to bridge gaps in understanding, enhance comprehension, and support meaningful communication.

Reflective activity: Observations to make language learning pathways visible in the classroom

Before you observe:

  • Why am I using observations: what do I want to learn, or find out, through my observations? Is this observation part of a planned sequence of observations or will it be a spontaneous observation to collect information about naturalistic language practices and interactions?
  • What will I be looking for in my observations? Will I be looking at a specific skill or competence or will I be taking a holistic approach?
  • How will I be keeping a record of my observation? Will I be using written notes? Or an audio-visual record? Or other artifacts - such as drawings, photographs, or other records?

Whilst you are observing:

  • What do my observations tell me about the child(ren), the language(s) used, the linguistic and cultural competences?
  • What did I expect to see / hear and was this also what I am observing?
  • Is there anything I am observing that I did not expect to see / hear?

After you have completed the observation:

  • What am I going to do with the information I have collected through my observations and how will this support the child's learning?
  • How do my observations add to my knowledge about the child(ren) and their language learning pathways?
  • What other information will I now need to look or listen out for? How can I collect this information?
  • Who will be involved in the observations and why?