The Art of Observation and Interpretation
by Therese Rafalowski Welch
Observation serves many different functions in our everyday lives: We observe because we are interested in something that we see. We observe to learn how a task is done or to learn to do it better. We observe to confirm a hunch or information we might have, looking for evidence to support the idea or statement.
In education programs, observation serves a vital function as an important assessment method. In general, we conduct assessments to get a kind of "snapshot" of a student's current skills and then to use that information to develop relevant program goals. We observe communicative exchanges for similar reasons: to better understand how a student interacts and to further develop his or her skills. Our observations will guide our actions in separate activities, as well as in the student's overall program.
In recent years, educators, especially those working with students who have multiple disabilities, have favored an ecological approach to assessment. Such an approach focuses not only on a student's behaviors, but also on the context in which the behaviors occur: What is the activity? What is the setting? Who is involved with the student? Similarly, we recognize that successful communication depends on more than a student's skills or behaviors alone. It is also based on the skills and behaviors of his or her communication partners, various environmental factors, and the activities or circumstances in which the student is involved. Our observations, then, will also need to be ecological in nature, considering the student, his or her communication partners, the environmental conditions, and activities. Let's begin our discussion of these components by looking at the student.
Student Behaviors - Expressive Communication
When we observe students, we view their expressive communication forms, that is, how they convey messages. Charity Rowland (1996) provides a very useful framework outlining various stages of expressive communication. She refers to the stages as seven levels of communicative competence. The levels follow.
- Level I: Pre-intentional Behaviors: These behaviors are reflexive or reactive rather than purposeful/intentional. The behaviors are not under the individual's voluntary control and seem to express the individual's state of well-being. Caregivers interpret the behaviors as expressing hunger or pleasure or pain, etc.
- Level II: Intentional Behaviors: These behaviors are intentional but not intentionally communicative. The individual has voluntary control over several behaviors, but does not realize that he/she can control another person's behavior through these behaviors. Some of the behaviors, however, do serve a communicative function because caregivers interpret them as meaningful. At this level, the individual does not establish contact prior to exhibiting a potentially communicative behavior nor does he/she wait for a response from the caregiver.
- Level III: Unconventional Communication: A critical stage. The individual becomes aware that his/her behavior may affect another person's behavior. The individual begins to use primitive or nonconventional means (such as body movements, vocalizations, actions on people or objects, etc.) to intentionally communicate a limited number of messages. Although these behaviors are effective, they are usually replaced eventually by more conventional gestures.
- Level IV: Conventional Communication: The individual communicates intentionally and substitutes conventional (socially acceptable) vocalizations and gestures, such as pointing, giving, showing, waving, nodding, etc., for nonconventional means. The conventional gestures will continue to be used throughout adulthood to augment symbolic behavior. At this level, the individual has "dual orientation": giving attention to both a person and an object at the same time.
- Level V*: Concrete Symbols: The individual begins to communicate using symbols. He/she begins to pair concrete symbolic representation with specific referents in the environment-establishing a one-to-one correspondence. The representations are concrete in the sense that they have a clear perceptual relationship to the referent-resembling the referent in appearance, sound, touch, or motion. Symbols may include natural or depictive gestures, pantomiming actions or objects, use of tangible symbols, and vocalizations.
- Level VI: Abstract Symbols: The individual acquires the use of a limited number of abstract symbols, such as speech, manual signs, Braille or printed words, abstract graphic or 3-D symbols. The symbols bear an arbitrary relationship to their referents; they are not tied the referents' perceptual features. The individual uses the symbols only one at a time, rather than in combinations.
- Level VII: Language: The individual uses abstract symbols in two- and three-symbol combinations, and follows grammatical rules or syntax. At this stage, the individual can vary word order purposefully to produce different meanings.
* Level V behaviors tend to be interspersed with Level IV and Level VI behaviors.
Within this framework we can see several basic progressions of communication development as an individual moves from level to level:
- pre-intentional to intentional
- unconventional to conventional
- nonsymbolic to symbolic
- concrete to abstract
- single symbol to multiple symbols
These general progressions should help guide our instructional goals and objectives for our students. We want to move our students across these continuums.
Materials for the Communication Matrix.
A free online version of the Communication Matrix that makes use of these levels in an assessment: