Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Embedding SEL Into Early Literacy Through Nursery Rhymes

Nursery rhymes are great texts to engage in shared reading and interactive writing about core SEL concepts.

June 20, 2024
FatCamera / iStock

Learning how to understand your emotions when you are young can be confusing and overwhelming. How do we move past the simple emotions of happy/sad/mad to help students more deeply identify their feelings and access a plan of action? One way is by embedding social and emotional learning (SEL) into literacy activities in the classroom. With effective literacy techniques such as shared reading and interactive writing, SEL can become a part of the classroom culture and build empathy and problem-solving approaches. 

What does quality literacy instruction look like early on?

Engaging students in effective literacy techniques is an important part of reading instruction in the classroom. Here are two tried-and-true techniques in the early elementary classroom:

Shared reading: The teacher and children interactively share the reading, which is displayed in a large format for all to see. This could be a big book, a poem, or a chart, on a Promethean board or document camera. Students learn about concepts of print, directionality, and phonemic awareness. The teacher reads aloud and then asks the group to join in a repeated reading of the text. 

Interactive writing: The teacher and students use a share-the-pen approach to record a written response using early writing acquisition skills, letter ID, handwriting, and composing a story in a whole group setting. Using chart paper or sentence strips is a great way to record the message together. It might look and sound like this: “Let’s compose our answer. How many words do we need? Let’s say the words slowly and write the sounds we hear and use our ABC charts for help.” The teacher calls upon students to write letters or words they know, while scaffolding more complex parts of the writing process.

example of student work
Courtesy of Anne Jordan

incorporating SEL into Literacy instruction

Mother Goose rhymes are often well-known to students, short in length, and full of angst! This makes them a perfect tool for learning early literacy concepts as well as how to identify and problem-solve feelings. Here are just a few issues that the various characters encounter:

  • Little Bo Peep lost something important to her.
  • Little Miss Muffet was unexpectedly frightened.
  • Humpty Dumpty had a life-altering accident.
  • Jack and Jill got injured and needed help.

CASEL discusses five competencies of SEL, all which can be related to a few nursery rhymes: 

Self-awareness: Jack and Jill, Itsy Bitsy Spider, Humpty Dumpty

Self-management: Little Boy Blue, Little Miss Muffet, Little Bo Peep

Social awareness: Mary Had a Little Lamb

Relationship skills: Humpty Dumpty, Jack and Jill 

Responsible decision-making: Humpty Dumpty, Mary Had a Little Lamb, Little Boy Blue

Changing the poem or book is the only planning that needs to happen each week, and students will be free to think and discuss the SEL components that the characters face. It brings complicated feelings down to a level that a 5- or 6-year-old can comprehend, relate to, and problem-solve.

After reading the poem in a shared reading format, you might pose these questions: 

  • What happened to the character? What was the problem?
  • What feelings could the character be feeling? Why are they feeling this way?
  • Have you had a time when you felt that same thing?
  • What could the character do now? How can we help solve what they could do next?

Teaching SEL through Little Boy Blue

Here is a multiday example using Little Boy Blue as the focal point to incorporate SEL into shared reading and writing.

Day 1: Read Little Boy Blue as a shared reading experience and discuss the poem using the prompts. Honor all suggestions while including synonyms for feelings like sad—could he also be anxious, upset?

Day 2: Reread the poem. Respond as an interactive writing activity after identifying the problem and the feelings he might be having. The class might write: “Little Boy Blue fell asleep, and now he feels (guilty, upset, anxious) that the sheep and cows have run away.”

Day 3: Reread the poem as shared reading focusing on finding certain letters, words, or directionality of print. Respond as an interactive writing activity to identify why Little Boy Blue is upset. The class might write, “He is afraid that: They might be mad at him for falling asleep. The animals might cause damage. He needs help to rescue the animals.”

Day 4: Reread the poem and discuss how Little Boy Blue needs to do things differently on another day. Write this interactively. Students might write the following: 

  • “I was tired because I did not pick up my toys when asked.” 
  • “I didn’t get ready for bed on time. I had to get up early. These are things I can change.”
  • “I can tell the farmer that I am sorry for letting the animals run away.” 
  • “I can do better next time.”

Developing a routine way of talking and thinking about characters, integrated with a daily structure for shared reading and interactive writing, makes a predictable routine and whole group task for literacy acquisition at the emergent and early levels. The transfer of both the academic learning and the SEL into the students’ independent lives is the goal.

For example, students’ independent writing will begin to look more traditional in letter formation, spelling, and conventions of print. By discussing the characters and their decisions, students begin to make informed decisions on handling situations when they occur in their own lives. Embedding SEL practices across the day helps students understand that they can manage their own feelings and develop a sense of agency.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Literacy
  • K-2 Primary

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