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A Perfect Match: The Power of Blending Literacy and Social and Emotional Learning

By Margaret Wilson
 | Feb 28, 2019

school-stairsTeachers understand the importance of social and emotional learning (SEL) but are sometimes hesitant to add yet another objective to an already packed schedule. The good news is that teachers can weave SEL instruction into English language arts (ELA) lessons without adding learning time or taking away from other subjects.

SEL is a topic that’s getting a lot of attention; a highly anticipated report urges teachers to integrate SEL throughout the school day, citing the relationship between social, emotional, and academic skills and postsecondary success. The ELA period is an ideal time to provide students with opportunities to develop empathy, communication, and collaboration skills while improving literacy skills. ELA curricula centered on engaging topics and rich reading material allow students to connect on a deep and substantive level, enabling them to better understand each other and academic content.

Teachers can use the following proven strategies to facilitate discussion:

Teach wait time

Giving students time to reflect on a question before answering serves social and academic goals. This practice helps students learn to think before speaking, leading to more effective, articulate responses and deeper conversations. Teachers should pause after asking a question to give students time to formulate ideas. Explain the purpose of the waiting period so students can use their time intentionally.

Let students lead

When students struggle, we’re tempted to share our own responses to questions. But that signals that students can wait for teachers to do the work for them. It can also suggest that the teacher’s answer is the only right one, dismissing other possibilities and creative thinking.

Instead of interjecting, try the following approaches:

  • Have students discuss ideas in small groups first. This eases the pressure of speaking to the whole group. It can also help students articulate their thinking and develop the confidence to express their ideas in a larger setting.
  • Provide scaffolds. Sometimes our questions fail because students lack the requisite knowledge of a text. Instead of jumping in to answer, ask more basic questions that help students to build a foundation for deeper understanding.
  • Ask follow-up questions. Help students get themselves unstuck by asking more specific, follow-up questions, such as “What evidence from the text supports your conclusion?” or “Where could we go in the text to look for clues about why the character acted that way?”

Encourage peer-to-peer conversation

Many classroom conversations involve students talking to each other through the teacher. But to fully develop strong communication and relationship skills, students need to learn to talk directly with each other.

To help make this happen, consider the following strategies:

  • Avoid repeating student responses. Repeating student responses encourages them to listen to us rather than to each other. Try a nod instead. If students have trouble hearing a classmate, teach them to respectfully ask for higher volume.
  • Facilitate rather than evaluate. Often, we signal what we think of each student’s response to a question. That prevents students from reflecting on and building on each other’s thinking, and reticent students might not participate for fear of having the “wrong” answer. Instead, facilitate the conversation, for example by pointing out several insightful student comments and then asking a question to move the discussion forward.
  • Encourage students to respond to others’ ideas. Encourage students to actively listen to and connect with others’ ideas.
  • Try sentence starters, such as: “I agree with Alonzo because _______.” “I disagree with Alonzo because ______.” Ask follow-up questions based on student responses, such as “Do you agree with what Alonzo said? Why or why not?”

Everything you do to help students learn to talk directly to each other, respectfully respond to each other, and build on each other’s comments will pay off for them academically as well as socially. Their rich conversations will lead to a deeper understanding of content and enhance their ability to communicate with and ultimately relate to others.

Margaret Wilson is managing editor of Humanities Content Development at Great Minds, creator of the English language arts curriculum Wit & Wisdom. She is the author of the book The Language of Learning: Teaching Students Core Thinking, Listening, and Speaking Skills (Center for Responsive Schools, 2014).

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