People are social and emotional beings. Some have great social and emotional understanding and skills; others barely squeak by.
Generally, those with greater social and emotional understanding and skills do far better in every major aspect of life than those who struggle. Compared to those who struggle, they’re happier, healthier, and more productive. Usually, they enjoy and keep their friends and tend to avoid the life-threatening dangers of loneliness.
Unfortunately, difficulties with the social-emotional aspects of life severely wound many struggling readers (SRs).
Many feel ridiculed and rejected by their peers — because they are. Many feel dreadfully lonely — because they are. And many shrink from or show active disinterest, resistance, or hostility toward academic activities to avoid the pain, humiliation, and bewilderment they feel when stumbling over words and answers that so many of their peers’ glide through effortlessly.
As Jules Abrams, a well-respected psychologist who specialized in reading disorders, made clear:
“It is almost inevitable that a child who is experiencing severe difficulty in reading will develop intense feelings of frustration. As reading failure continues, many symptoms of social and emotional maladjustment will appear.
Children, increasingly bewildered by their inability to meet the expectations of their parents, their teachers and their peers develop a hypersensitivity to the possibility of failure. This fear of further wounds to their pride exacerbates the problem simply because children cannot risk any further humiliation. Instead, all too often, children act out aggressively, withdraw, become depressed or choose any one of many other maladaptive solutions.”
How does this start? Is it genetic, experiential, or both? My guess, both.
Clinically, however, we should stop searching for the original causes, especially if they’re immutable. Instead, we need to focus on active causes critical to accelerating SRs’ reading and writing success as well as their social and emotional competence.
How helpful is it to improve reading and writing alone if SRs remain devastated by social and emotional baggage? Thus, the need to emphasize social-emotional learning (SEL).
SEL, however, is important for all students, not just SRs. Consider this. Many academically successful teens and younger children feel anxious, lonely, and confused.
Annually, America’s suicide rates for teens and younger children continue to trend frighteningly higher: “A study of pediatric hospitals … found admissions of patients ages 5 to 17 for suicidal thoughts and actions more than doubled from 2008 to 2015.” Yes, age five.
Though SEL is not a therapy or cure for deep emotional problems, attempted suicide, or mental illness, high-quality SEL programs might help to minimize or prevent problems. By helping teens and younger children improve their understanding of themselves, their perspectives, their thoughts, and their abilities to work with peers, make and retain friends, and make better decisions, SEL might help them better understand and solve day-to-day social and emotional issues, such as stress, bullying, loneliness, rejection, sadness, peer pressure, peer conflicts, friendship difficulties, and so on. Thus, another important reason to emphasize SEL programs.
Social-Emotional Learning (SEL): Research
Much of the research on the academic effects of SEL is positive, very positive. It’s another reason for IEP and Section-504 Teams to emphasize SEL as an important component of remedial-reading programs.
CASEL, the highly-regarded Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, defines social-emotional learning (SEL) as“the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
Instructionally, CASEL focuses on five components critical to positive mental health and the ability to function effectively within families, other groups, and our quickly changing society. These components are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.
This sounds good, but what does the research say? In 2011, much of the research related to CASEL’s five core components of SEL was evaluated and summarized in a meta-analysis (a study of studies) published in Child Development, a highly respected academic journal:
“This article presents findings from a meta-analysis of 213 school-based, universal social and emotional learning (SEL) programs involving 270,034 kindergarten through high school students. Compared to controls, SEL participants demonstrated significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance that reflected an 11-percentile-point gain in achievement. School teaching staff successfully conducted SEL programs…. The findings add to the growing empirical evidence regarding the positive impact of SEL programs. Policymakers, educators, and the public can contribute to healthy development of children by supporting the incorporation of evidence-based SEL programming into standard educational practice.”
For teachers and schools who haven’t routinely used cooperative learning to strengthen students’ SEL, now’s a good time to start. Here’s why. As a component of SEL, it works.
Most students and many teachers enjoy cooperative learning activities. The activities help to strengthen academic achievement, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. They help to motivate and integrate students with different learning profiles, including SRs. And they help students enjoy learning, a gift that can last a lifetime.
Does cooperative learning succeed with all SRs? No. No instructional program does. None suddenly catapult SRs problems into oblivion. But cooperative learning helps many SRs.
Cooperative Learning: Think-Pair-Share
Below are two cooperative learning strategies for teachers. The first, Think-Pair-Share (TPS) is relatively simple to use. And I’ve rarely seen students, including SRs, tire of it.
As Reading Rockets notes, TPS starts with students independently reading assigned material. The teacher then asks the students to engage in three stages, which I’ve edited lightly:
T: (Think) Teachers begin by asking a specific question about the material. Students independently “think” about what they know or have learned about the topic.
P: (Pair) Each student is then paired with another student or a small group.
S: (Share) Students share their thinking with their partner(s). Teachers expand the “share” into a whole-class discussion.
As with all new strategies, methods, and the like, it’s wise for teachers to “think big but start small” and to routinely analyze how they might improve their efforts. By the third or fourth time they’ve used TPS, most teachers have become confident, highly proficient fans. Such confidence and proficiency help make the second strategy, Jigsaw, relatively easy to use.
Cooperative Learning: Jigsaw
Though Jigsaw is relatively easy to use, it initially requires teachers to carefully plan their lessons and feel confident in sharing the control of learning with their students. I’ve often used TPS and several variations of Jigsaw in general education classes, in special education classes, and in graduate school classes. Why? The cooperative learning structures themselves tend to spur students’ engagement and interest. They encourage student cooperation, help them learn about and appreciate one another, and improve academic achievement. They help students adopt the highly important mindset, “I want to learn.”
Here’s a basic approach to Jigsaw that’s moderately easy if teachers carefully plan the activity and clarify each step until students are comfortable with them.
The Pre-stage: Discuss and model the Jigsaw approach with the class. Make clear that for groups to succeed, their members need to help one another.
Stage 1: Break the class into equal groups of 3 to 5 students, including SRs. These are the home groups.
Give each home group member a different text to read, such as different newspaper articles or parts of articles about a specific subtopic. Alexis’s subtopic might focus on Lincoln’s first inaugural address, Kierstin’s his second.
These subtopics need to be at each student’s independent or instructional reading level, the level at which she (or he), including SRs, is comfortable and can probably read with at least 95-98% word recognition accuracy and correctly answer 70-to-89% of questions.
Ask the students to quietly and independently read and study their subtopics. Their texts should be short enough to independently read and study in five-to-10 minutes. Their individual subtopics are the pieces of the jigsaw.
Stage 2: Have the students join a new group, called their expert group. Alexis would join the group studying Lincoln’s first inaugural address; Kierstin the expert group studying his second; and so on. In other words, each home group student would join the expert group that matches his or her subtopic.
Appoint a discussion leader for each expert group.
Have the students independently reread their expert subtopic. Then ask the discussion leader to have her (or his) experts share their expertise about their subtopic. Alexis’s group would discuss Lincoln’s first address; Kierstin’s group his second; and so on.
Tell the discussion leader to ask her members to correct any mistakes or omissions the experts make. If members can’t, the discussion leader should do so. This may involve rereading and studying.
Stage 3: Have the experts rejoin their home groups. Have them share their expertise with their home group until they’re comfortable that the group fully understands their subtopics. This helps pull the jigsaw pieces together.
Stage 4: Have one member of each home group present her group’s most important findings to the class. Again, this helps pull together the jigsaw pieces.
Stage 5: Give the students a quiz on the home group’s broad topic. Each home group’s median or mean score becomes the score for each member.
Take Home Points
Struggles with reading are far more complex than word recognition and comprehension.
Instruction needs to systematically address SRs’ social-emotional development.
IEP and Section 504 Teams should avail themselves of high-quality SEL programs.
Note: This is the second of two articles on Struggling Readers Have No Time to Lose. The first article discussed the instructional practices that exemplary teachers used to teach reading.