Strategy Guide

Tracking and Supporting Student Learning with Kidwatching

K - 8
Strategy Guide Series
Differentiating Instruction

About this Strategy Guide

In this strategy guide, you'll learn how to use kidwatching to track and support student learning. Teachers observe and take notes on students' understanding of skills and concepts and then use the observations to determine effective strategies for future instruction.


Research Basis

Yetta Goodman popularized the term kidwatching, the practice of “watching kids with a knowledgeable head” (9). In kidwatching, teachers observe students’ activities, noticing how they learn and what they do to explore their ideas. Teachers then examine anecdotal notes and other evidence to see how and when students engage in learning. After this review, teachers use their observations to differentiate activities to meet the needs of individual students. The strategy is based on “a seek-to-understand stance by attempting to look at life, literacy, and learning through the children’s eyes” (Mills 2). By discovering how students learn, teachers are able to choose the most effective strategies for each pupil.

Goodman, Y. M. (1985). Kidwatching: Observing Children in the Classroom. In A. Jagger and M. T. Smith-Burke (Eds.), Observing the Language Learner (pp. 9-18). Urbana: NCTE and IRA.

Mills, H. (2005). “It’s All about Looking Closely and Listening Carefully.” School Talk 11(1), 1–2.


Strategy in Practice

In the simplest explanation, kidwatching is exactly what it sounds like: watching kids as they read, write, collaborate, and participate in class. It is not formal assessment, but a series of anecdotes of student development that you share with families and administrators to provide concrete evidence of the kinds of student learning that traditional testing and reporting can have difficulty capturing. Try these strategies to use kidwatching in your classroom:

  • Take advantage of a variety of ways to observe students. Do not limit your kidwatching to what you see and can write down during a class session. Look at all the artifacts you have access to. Class documents, reading and writing samples, K-W-L Charts, Exit Slips, and even video or audio recordings can help you identify how students are learning.
  • Think carefully about who you observe when. You do not need to observe every student at length every day. Simply find a method that will fit within the structures of what you're doing in the class and make it a habit.
  • Choose a simple notetaking system. You can make a seating chart or a two-column list with students’ names on one side and space to record notes on the other. Some teachers arrange sticky notes on a clipboard, with one note for each student. After recording their observations, they sort the sticky notes into student folders. Simple rubrics and check sheets, like this Editing Checklist for Self- and Peer Editing, can also be part of your notetaking system. Recognize that the best format may change depending upon the activities that you’re observing. Keep your system simple and flexible.
  • Record basic information for every kidwatching episode so that you can notice students’ cognitive development over time. At a minimum, record student name, the date, the time of day, and, if relevant, the kind of activity students are working on. These details will allow you to arrange observations sequentially so that you can look for signs of growth.
  • Choose guiding questions to move beyond simply being aware of whether students are “on task” to paying attention to how they are accomplishing the task. If students are taking a test, for instance, your guiding question might be “Does student performance demonstrate rote knowledge, a guess based on the available information, a random choice, or knowledge found through testing and exploring?” This guiding question would lead you to note who is quickly speeding through the questions and who is just staring at the test. You would notice who was looking at the word wall, who scribbles notes on scratch paper, and who seems to be daydreaming. Your guiding question should help you identify what to look for as you observe students at work.
  • Use your kidwatching observations to plan activities. Examine your notes and other artifacts to see how students engage in learning then apply your findings to future class sessions and units. Observations alone can be useful; but what makes kidwatching a particularly strong tool is the step that teachers take to move beyond observations to analysis and curriculum building based on those observations.

Rather than tracking what students know or can do, kidwatching is a valuable assessment tool because it focuses on how students make meaning and learn new skills. By paying attention to how students learn, kidwatching gives teachers the information to differentiate instruction and plan classroom activities that fit the specific needs of their students.


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