Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Using Read-Alouds to Support Social and Emotional Learning

Teachers can support elementary students’ literacy skills through focused read-alouds that also target SEL competencies.

September 20, 2023
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In elementary school, interactive read-alouds are commonly used to build various literacy skills, such as students’ listening comprehension, background knowledge, vocabulary, and understanding of language structures. Beyond their academic benefits, however, read-alouds can also serve as a support for developing social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. 

In fact, teachers can integrate read-alouds related to SEL into morning meeting structures, literacy blocks, and cross-curricular settings to target these skills in tandem.

Read-Alouds Support SEL and Literacy Simultaneously

Research shows that SEL supports student mental health, increases positive behavior, and strengthens academic performance. SEL also equips students with real-world skills that they can apply to their daily lives in both academic and personal settings. 

SEL-focused read-alouds present an opportunity for teachers and students to build classroom community through collaboration. The discussion and questioning that read-alouds can facilitate opens opportunities for students and teachers to make personal connections with characters or events in the story and to learn about their classmates’ diverse experiences, backgrounds, and cultures—thereby developing empathy.

Read-alouds also serve as natural entry points for follow-up literacy activities. While building SEL skills, students can practice language comprehension through vocabulary work and oral discussions; reading comprehension through targeted questioning and writing prompts; and oral fluency through teacher modeling of appropriate prosody and expression. 

Selecting SEL Skills to Focus the Read-Aloud

When facilitating an SEL read-aloud, the first thing I do—prior to selecting a text—is determine which SEL topic or skill I want to focus on. According to the CASEL Framework, there are five competencies for SEL, including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. 

Embedded within each of these competencies is a more specific breakdown of skills, such as social and cultural identity, empathy, a sense of belonging, perseverance, self-regulation, and the ability to recognize strengths and appreciate diversity, among others. When determining what to focus on with your class, I recommend asking yourself, Which SEL skills are developmentally appropriate for my students? Which SEL skills are my students needing additional support to develop? Which SEL skills best align with our ideal classroom community?

Your answers will likely generate a handful of topics to guide read-alouds. For example, if you notice that students are showing unkind behavior towards peers, you may choose to focus on building empathy and compassion. Or students may struggle with calling out or keeping hands to themselves, so a focus on self-regulation and impulse control would be a good fit. 

Picking a Text that Aligns with Your SEL Topic 

Once you’ve chosen your SEL topic, the next step is to select texts that align with it. Look at the texts in your classroom or school library, literacy curriculum (e.g., mentor texts), and digital resources to see which available stories would best align. 

Some recommended read-alouds for potential SEL topics that I have used in my classroom include All Are Welcome, The Day You Begin, and Our Class Is a Family for building community; I am Human, You Matter, and Have You Filled a Bucket Today? for kindness and empathy; It’s Okay to Be Different, The Skin You Live In, and Eyes That Kiss in the Corners for exploring and appreciating diversity; Fry Bread, The Sandwich Swap, and Mango, Abuela, and Me for cultural identity and tradition; and What If Everybody Did That?, Interrupting Chicken, and We Don’t Eat Our Classmates for self-regulation and impulse control. For perseverance and growth mindset, Ada Twist, Scientist, Giraffes Can’t Dance, and Jabari Jumps have strongly resonated with my students. 

Another consideration when selecting your read-alouds is to evaluate texts for cultural responsiveness. More specifically, be mindful of selecting multicultural texts that reflect your students’ identities and backgrounds and that provide authentic experiences and perspectives. 

Ultimately, students need to see themselves in literature; they need to recognize that their experiences, culture, and identity matter. To aid in your selection and implementation of texts, you can choose books from a curated list of culturally responsive read-alouds or use a rubric to evaluate the cultural responsiveness of your selected texts. 

Planning the Read-Aloud

Once you’ve selected your text, it’s helpful to map out a quick lesson for the read-aloud. I like to create preplanned discussion points, think-alouds, or questions to implement before, during, and after my reading of the text. 

Before reading, I provide students with a quick introduction to the book, set a focus for the read-aloud (e.g., identify the chosen SEL skill or topic or related comprehension skill), preview key vocabulary, ask questions to activate students’ background knowledge, and engage students in making predictions about the text and/or characters. 

During the read-aloud, I plan two to five stopping points during the text. These might involve teacher think-alouds, prompts for student discussion, or opportunities to make connections with the text and characters. 

After reading, we further discuss SEL in the context of the story, identifying the initial conflict and how the character solved the conflict using the specific SEL skill. I then lead students into a follow-up literacy activity to extend their thinking, learning, and application of the aligned SEL competency.

Follow-Up Literacy Activities

Follow-up literacy activities can include collaborative or whole-class discussions about the specific SEL skill and how it can be applied in school settings. Students can share connections that they made to characters or events in the text based on personal experiences and knowledge.

For example, they might write a personal narrative, make a drawing in response to a text, or respond to SEL scenarios by discussing how to act to solve a conflict. As they do so, they apply specific reading strategies to demonstrate textual comprehension of story elements such as plot and theme, character traits and development, and more.

Through this approach, read-alouds provide opportunities to foster literacy skills and social and emotional learning while promoting equity and students’ expressions of identity, culture, and lived experience. I’ve found my students more likely to engage, understand, and apply SEL skills in their academic and personal lives when this practice becomes a part of our learning community.

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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