Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

The Role of SEL in Developing Reading Skills

Building strong social and emotional learning skills can help set the stage for students to become better readers.

March 30, 2023
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The author of a recent opinion piece in The New York Times titled “Two-Thirds of Kids Struggle to Read, and We Know How to Fix It” is one of many lamenting the number of current students who are not proficient in reading and the lack of meaningful progress in this area over the last 25 years.

While there are legitimate debates about approaches to teaching reading, there also is growing understanding that students’ social and emotional competencies play a strong role in their ability to read up to their potential. Several basic social and emotional learning (SEL) skills are utilized when students are reading.

SEL Competencies Related to Reading

Recognition and proper labeling of feelings in pictures and as conveyed through dialogue and narration in books. When children are relatively undifferentiated regarding their own emotions, such as having difficulty distinguishing between anger, frustration, annoyance, and disappointment, one can see how nuance even in young readers’ picture books will be lost, making books far less interesting.

Being able to take others’ perspectives and having empathy for characters. Similar to the above, when students are not able to accurately recognize feelings of various characters, their actions will be hard to explain, and the flow of stories will take considerable cognitive work to follow.

Managing strong emotions while reading. Following from the above, students’ inability to manage their own feelings as they encounter words they don’t understand or story lines and character actions that don’t seem to make sense will determine how long they hang in with a given reading assignment. During the course of developing reading skills, frustration, confusion, and annoyance are among the expected feelings that must be managed.

Relating to others, especially in groups. Because reading instruction often occurs in pairs, small groups, or full classrooms, students who are unable to wait their turn, listen carefully to what others around them are saying (including receiving and giving feedback), or pay focused attention to what multiple others are saying will not gain optimally from even the best pedagogical approaches.

Problem-solving around difficulties. The process of acquiring any skill leads to some roadblocks. The ability to handle them and problem-solve around them is a key determinant in making progress. At a micro level, this can happen within a sentence, multiple sentences, paragraphs, chapters, etc. When students are put off by seeing things they don’t understand, or that evoke strong emotions they are not able to manage, reading progress stops in its tracks. As these accumulate, negative anticipations become stronger and stronger.

An emeritus professor of English at the University of Southern California, Stephen Krashen, has studied how anxiety, low self-confidence, and negative expectations of success all influence students’ language-learning experiences, and this is especially so for non-native English speakers.

University of Central Arkansas assistant professor Anna Park and her colleagues found that these feelings of inadequacy had a profound influence particularly on low-socioeconomic-status Latino elementary school students. Thus, it’s clear how shortcomings in SEL skills contribute to processes that derail reading success, especially among students having difficulty.

Strengthening SEL Skills in Reading Instruction

Elementary level

For young children, emphasize reading the emotions in pictures before diving into the text. Point out the pictures of various characters and ask children how they might be feeling. Literally point to the signs of feelings that are depicted by the amazing illustrators: facial expressions, eyebrows, position of hands, posture, etc.

Focus on expanding children’s emotion vocabulary and their use of an increasing variety of emotion words in reading and writing. This process persists through all grade levels.

Use a “book talk” format to build problem-solving skills around understanding stories and story flow. Ask children to think about how characters feel about the situations they are in and what any given character might want to have happen. Here are some possible questions to ask students:

  • For each person or groups of people, what are some different decisions or solutions to the problem that might have helped them reach their goals?
  • Do you agree or disagree with their solution to the problem? What would you have done in a similar situation? Why?
  • What questions do you have based on what you read? What would you like to be able to ask one of the characters?

Personal storytelling, where students share stories or personal experiences and respond to classmates’ questions, especially about feelings, builds a number of SEL skills.

Secondary level

Utilize a more sophisticated version of the “book talk” used for elementary grades.

Literature can involve people showing their emotions through their actions. Have students reflect on the choices that characters make in the stories they read and think about the SEL skills and the character traits that they exemplify. Also, use literature that addresses cultural, ethnic, gender, ability, socioeconomic, and other aspects of diversity.

To help students track and develop strategies to overcome obstacles encountered during reading, use a problem diary.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has excellent strategies for use in bringing all SEL skills into language arts instruction.

Across all grade levels

  • Require the use of assigned, developmentally appropriate emotion words in student writing.
  • Teach your class a self-calming strategy to use, as well as a signal to give to the teacher, when they encounter some obstacle as they are reading. Normalize this as a benefit for every student.
  • When you have students working in pairs or groups, discuss the norms and expectations for how interactions will take place, as well as how to handle difficulties that arise.
  • Assign personal writing about goals and aspirations, as well as challenges and opportunities. These tasks often are highly motivating to learners and increase their willingness to work through roadblocks.

In many areas of life, SEL strategies and skill building help valued outcomes to happen. This is especially true when it comes to learning how to read, and to read well—one of the most essential life competencies.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts

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