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Observations typically have 3 steps to them:

Step 1 Prepare an observation schedule
Step 2 Complete the observation forms
Step 3 Summarise your observations

This page will detail procedures for each of the steps.

Step 1: Prepare an observation schedule

An observation schedule is a printed list of the behaviours and conditions that you plan to observe. Having this will help you focus your attention and provide a means of recording what you have seen and heard.

An observation schedule should include items that

  • are relevant to the research questions or other objectives of the survey
  • are appropriate for the culture and environment
  • do not require effort beyond observation
  • can be completed within the time constraints of the survey
  • are clearly formatted and leave space to write observations

For examples of observation schedules that have been used by survey teams before see the following resources:

  • Town & Village Observation Schedules A set of observation schedules for observing language use in both rural and urban settings. Also included is a page of notes about compiling observation schedules (Word doc @ 73 Kb).
  • Sunday Morning Church Service Observation Schedule An example of an Observation Schedule used in a study of what languages were used during church activities in the Republic of Congo, and how they were used. This is an English translation of the French version used in the study. The team realized that they needed a way to direct the attentions of each member of their multi-national, multi-cultural team so that they were all recording information about the same components of a given scene or event. They needed a way for researchers to record information quickly, consistently and legibly, and in a way that their heads and eyes didn't stay lowered to the page for very long. The survey team then distributed the forms and explained their use to a network of friends and colleagues so that each of them could report their observations back to the team. It seems to have worked well, and was especially valuable in corroborating self-reported language use behavior (Word doc @ 85 Kb).
  • Interview Observation Checklist An observation schedule designed for survey team members to observe a group who a colleague is using a questionnaire with. This example was used by the SIL-Papua New Guinea survey team to collect data to help inform questionnaire responses on a survey of the Tonda subgroup languages in September 2011 (Word doc @ 91 Kb).

Step 2: Complete the observation forms

The entries you make on the observation schedule will shape the answers to the research questions for each survey. Sometimes it's difficult to make observations without affecting the situation being observed. Here are some methods that others have used to help overcome this problem. However, only use these tips if they are appropriate and helpful.

  • Don't carry the observation schedule or notebook with you, or keep it where it can't be seen. However, always write down what you saw or heard as soon as you can so that you don't forget the details.
  • Make your observations while you're doing something else (e.g. attending a worship service, shopping in the market, conducting interviews).
  • Keep your ears open while resting with your eyes closed. If the people being observed think you are just resting, they may be more likely to behave naturally.
  • Don't show interest in conversations that don't involve you. People might then relax their effort to include you and switch to the most comfortable language. (Some surveyors pretend not to know the national language!)
  • Pretend to be observing something else.


  • If you observe something that isn't described by the observation schedule but seems relevant to the survey, write it down. Any behaviour related to language use and attitudes is important to notice.
  • Always use a pen, because ink is less likely to smudge than pencil marks. Pens that don’t use wet ink like ball point pens will not run if your notes get wet for some reason.
  • Write clearly and legibly so that anyone would be able to read what you've written. The observations you make won't be useful if you can't read your notes after the survey trip is over.
  • If you need to correct an entry, draw a single line through the incorrect information and add the correct information. This method is less distracting and leaves the original entry legible in case someone else observed something different.
  • If you don't observe one of the behaviors or conditions on the observation schedule, write that fact down (e.g. "Not observed", "N/O"). By doing this, anyone reading your notes will know that the questions were not ignored or forgotten.


To get some practice, choose a location and setting where you feel you can practice making useful observations about language use and other relevant conditions or behaviours.

  1. Select items to observe that include language related observations and items from at least two other categories.
  2. In your chosen setting, complete the items in an unobtrusive manner.
  3. Reflect on your experience including the ease of your effort, the relevance of the items to the setting, their completeness, the reaction of those present in the setting, and the probable validity of your observations.


Observation forms should be

  • written legibly in clear language
  • completed with thorough descriptions
  • have unobserved items marked as such
  • focused on the objectives of the survey
We need an example of a completed observation schedule. If anyone's got one from a real survey trip that they can add/link to this page, please do. If you do, please delete this message.

Step 3: Summarise your observations

The observations you have made in each category won't make much sense until you examine them and see if they reveal trends that help you answer the research questions. Writing a summary of the observed behaviours and conditions will give a form to this analysis.

You should summarize the answers to observation items according to the categories identified on the forms. The summary will be typewritten and contain at least one paragraph for each category. For each category, report the most frequently occurring behaviours or conditions and describe all noted variations.

When you write the summaries, be mindful of the information that other organizations want and include it when it's available. For any survey on which observations were recorded, summarise the information for the report.


Observation summaries should

  • include all of the observation forms in your analysis
  • tally the entries for each location in a way that allows easy comparison of the same or similar items
  • correctly identify and discuss the most common behaviours and conditions for each category of observation
  • note extremes, i.e. infrequently observed or unusual behaviour

Further Reading

Spradley, James P. 1980. Participant observation. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Milroy, Leslie & Matthew J. Gordon. 2003. 2nd Edition. Sociolinguistics: method and interpretation. Chichester:Wiley-Blackwell.- section 3.4 on participant observation.

Kindell, Gloria, ed. 1997. How to use observation. in Lingualinks library.