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The Role of SEL in Developing Reading Skills

Developing strong social and emotional learning skills can help students become better readers. The author of a recent New York Times opinion piece titled “Two-Thirds of Kids Struggle to Read, and We Know How to Fix It” is one of many who lament the number of current students who are illiterate and the lack of meaningful progress in this area over the last 25 years.

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While there are legitimate debates about how to teach reading, there is also a growing recognition that students’ social and emotional competencies play a significant role in their ability to read to their full potential. When students read, they use a variety of basic social and emotional learning (SEL) skills.


Recognizing and labeling emotions in pictures and as expressed through dialogue and narration in books. When children’s emotions are relatively undifferentiated, such as difficulty distinguishing between anger, frustration, annoyance, and disappointment, nuance in picture books for young readers is lost, making books far less interesting.

They are being able to see things from other people’s points of view and have empathy for characters. Similarly, when students are unable to accurately recognize the feelings of various characters, their actions will be difficult to explain, and the flow of stories will require significant cognitive work to follow.

Keeping strong emotions in check while reading. Following on from the preceding, students’ ability to manage their own emotions as they encounter unfamiliar words or storylines and character actions will determine how long they stick with a given reading assignment. Frustration, confusion, and annoyance are among the expected feelings that must be managed while learning to read.

Relationships, especially in groups. 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 benefit optimally from even the best reading instruction.

Problem-solving in the face of adversity. The process of learning any skill involves some setbacks. The ability to deal with them and solve problems around them is a critical factor in making progress. This can happen at the micro level within a sentence, multiple sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and so on. When students are turned off by seeing things they don’t understand or that elicit strong emotions they are unable to manage, their reading progress stalls. As these build up, negative expectations grow stronger and stronger.

Stephen Krashen, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Southern California, has studied how anxiety, low self-confidence, and negative expectations of success all affect students’ language-learning experiences, particularly for non-native English speakers.

Anna Park, an assistant professor at the University of Central Arkansas, and her colleagues discovered that feelings of inadequacy had a significant impact, particularly on low-socioeconomic-status Latino elementary school students. Thus, it is clear how deficiencies in SEL skills contribute to processes that derail reading success, particularly among struggling students.


Elementary level

Prioritize reading the emotions in pictures for young children before diving into the text. Show children pictures of various characters and ask them how they are feeling. Point to the emotional expressions depicted by the amazing illustrators: facial expressions, brows, hand position, posture, and so on.

Concentrate on increasing children’s emotional vocabulary and their use of a wider range of emotional words in reading and writing. This procedure continues through all grade levels.

Use a “book talk” format to develop problem-solving skills related to story comprehension and story flow. Ask children to consider how characters feel about the situations they are in and what each character would like to happen. Here are some questions you could ask students:

What are some different decisions or solutions to the problem that may have helped each person or group of people achieve their goals?
Do you agree or disagree with their problem-solving strategy? In a similar situation, what would you have done? Why?
What questions do you have as a result of what you’ve read? What do you wish you could ask one of the characters?
Personal storytelling, in which students share stories or personal experiences and respond to classmates’ questions, particularly about feelings, help students develop a variety of SEL skills.

Across all grade levels

Instruct students to use assigned, developmentally appropriate emotion words in their writing.
Teach your students a self-calming strategy to use, as well as a signal to give to the teacher, if they run into an obstacle while reading. Make this a standard benefit for all students.
Discuss the norms and expectations for how interactions will take place, as well as how to handle difficulties that arise when students are working in pairs or groups.
Personal writing about goals and aspirations, as well as challenges and opportunities, should be assigned. These tasks are frequently highly motivating for students and increase their willingness to overcome obstacles.

In many areas of life, SEL strategies and skill development aid in the achievement of desired outcomes. This is especially true when it comes to learning to read and reading well—one of the most important life skills.


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