About half of the students in the United States are presented with challenges when learning to read (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014). This statistic may seem staggering, and it should. But worse, let’s put it into an even more staggering perspective - literacy is an essential element of academic proficiency. It is the medium through which most learning in schools takes place.
There are years of research behind the teaching of reading, and we learn from this research in our "How to Teach Reading" teacher training courses. There is one component often forgotten in our training though - reading also includes an emotional component.
Struggling learners can be stigmatized by continual reminders of their reading challenges in classrooms, and what does this lead to? Learned failure. Struggling students are two times more likely to drop out of school, experience peer rejection, develop low self-esteem, battle anxiety, and suffer from depression (IDEA, 2002).
If a student can’t read, a student can’t access our academic content. Naturally, academic failures, resulting from repeated reading challenges, can potentially lead to social emotional impacts on students (Haft, et al., 2016).
Our goal as teachers, then, is to not only teach our students to read, but to also develop strong attributes of emotional literacy. We can do this by infusing social emotional resilience into our curriculum. Through the development of social emotional literacy, we can teach protective factors that positively modify or alter the effects of risks and outcomes associated with the typical trajectory of reading failures (Haft, et al., 2016).
So how do we teach our students social emotional literacy?
1. Create and promote supportive classrooms!
A supportive classroom climate protects against the detrimental impacts of reading challenges (Kiuru et al., 2012). Such climates build students’ confidence and optimism through the development of a positive and proactive system for classroom management and learning. Teachers should provide consistent praise for perseverance and effort. Through modeling of such feedback, peers will also begin to encourage each other to develop and meet learning conflicts.
Strategies to meet these challenges can be taught by utilizing cognitive strengths in instruction and differentiation. Great teachers tailor instruction to meet every student’s needs. To support social emotional literacy, differentiation means that we accommodate, intervene, and modify students’ learning to challenge them to meet learning targets, strengthen lagging skills, and essentially, close the achievement gap.
2. Develop strong and positive interpersonal relationships!
Close, positive interpersonal relationships have been identified as increasing the social emotional resilience of students with reading difficulties (Haft, et al., 2016). Specifically, close and constructive peer relationships help struggling learners with acceptance and support in the classroom, leading to positive engagement in school (Shany et al., 2012). Teachers can work to foster these meaningful and productive peer friendships in their classrooms.
Prosocial skills should be taught and reinforced through explicit instruction. This begins by identifying the lagging skill (i.e. turn taking in conversation). Teachers should then explicitly define the skill, model the skill, allow students to role play the skill, and provide performance feedback.
Furthermore, application of social skill learning can be trialed, generalized, and reinforced through teacher mentorship of struggling readers. Student-teacher mentorship can improve students’ social and interpersonal skills, while also providing a positive aspect to school (Ahrens, et al., 2010).
3. Instill a sense of control!
Struggling learners experience a sense of loss of control as they hit continual roadblocks in learning and attempting to read. This, inevitably, increases stress which can lead to maladaptive behaviors, ranging from work and school avoidance to social isolation to acting out in the classroom.
Believing that they exhibit a low academic self-efficacy, struggling readers often view their intelligence as fixed and unable to be changed. However, research has proven that the theory of growth mindset can influence academic growth and achievement (Baird et al., 2009).
By teaching adaptive coping strategies, that involve confronting problems directly, students can improve their functioning and social emotional literacy skills. Teachers can do this by explicitly teaching growth mindset principles and strategies for approaching difficult tasks. When confronted with a problem, students should learn to assess it, identify a strategy for solution, and apply the strategy. They should also learn that if the strategy does not work, it is acceptable to go back to the drawing board and revise the plan of attack.
4. Build student confidence!
Student confidence begins to increase through the successful application of learned coping strategies. Essentially, this teaches students to believe in their own capacity and ability to learn to read! Teachers can strengthen and reinforce improved student confidence by teaching social emotional learning to all students.
Students should cultivate a strong sense of self awareness. Through self awareness, students have a keen sense of their strengths and lagging skills, which enables them to tackle learning goals in a more effective and efficient manner for academic advancement.
Through a self aware goal setting process, students nurture the social emotional skill of self determination. Teachers should help students set realistic, short-term learning goals that utilize and further develop strengths. Short-term goals support more success for the development of both academic and social emotional skills due to immediate and on-going positive praise and reinforcement; thus, facilitating greater strides in academic progress.
Reading is one of the most important gifts we can teach our students. By teaching our students to read, we give them the ability to achieve their life goals, but we cannot forget to target all components of teaching reading, including social emotional literacy!
Ahrens, K., DuBois, DL., Lozano, P., & Richardson L.P. Naturally acquired mentoring relationships and young adult outcomes among adolescents with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice. 2010; 25:207-216.
Baird, G. L., Scott, W. D., Dearing, E., & Hamill, S. K. (2009). Cognitive self regulation in youth with and without learning disabilities: Academic self efficacy, theories of intelligence, learning vs. performance goal preferences, and effort attributions. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 28, 881-908.
Haft, S. L., Myers, C. A., & Hoeft, F. (2016). Socio-Emotional and Cognitive Resilience in Children with Reading Disabilities. Current opinion in behavioral sciences, 10, 133–141.
IDEAdata.org. Exiting by Disability, Ages 14-21. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); 2002.
Kiuru, N., Poikkeus, A-M., Lerkkanen, M-K., Pakarinen, E., Siekkinen, M. Ahonen, T., & Nurmi, J-E., Teacher-perceived supportive classroom climate protects against detrimental impact of reading disability risk on peer rejection. Learn Instr. 2012; 22:331-339.
National Center for Education Statistics. The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2003/2003495rev.pdf; ii. Colker, L. J. (2014).
Shany, M., Wiener, J., & Assido, M., Friendship predictors of global self-worth and domain-specific self concepts in university students with and without learning disability. Journal of Learning Disabilities. 2012.