Coaching SEL Through Literacy: Ideas and Things to Look For

It’s hard to go a week without someone reminding us of the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL)—and with good reason. SEL is vital for our students’ emotional well-being and the development of healthy relationships and interpersonal skills. It’s also good for academic performance; CASEL found that students make an 11-point gain in overall achievement when teachers focus on SEL, which has also been linked to improved attendance and behavior. 

Just like educators, many instructional coaches feel overwhelmed by one more thing they must fold into their coaching. Many of you might also feel frustrated that, too often, this SEL message comes without easy-to-apply coaching strategies. 

As a former instructional coach and current consultant who works with educators to become instructional coaches, I have good news for coaches (and the teachers they coach) who are eager to incorporate SEL but feel at a loss on how to do so amid several other competing priorities. It might be simpler than it seems.

I have found that by folding SEL into instructional strategies teachers are already using and in areas with which they’re already familiar, SEL begins to feel less daunting. The same goes for coaches. Literacy is a powerful and lightweight channel through which to teach SEL. As a coach, it’s also one of the most high-impact entry points to SEL because all teachers, to some capacity, must be literacy teachers. All coaches, then, must know how to coach teachers toward rigorous and relevant, grade-level appropriate literacy instruction. SEL can then be seamlessly woven into the coaching you’re likely already doing and the teaching your teachers are also likely already doing.  

Let’s look to some opportunities for how teachers can fold SEL into literacy instruction. In a paper on SEL from the Center on Great Teachers & Leaders, its authors listed several skills that feed CASEL’s five SEL core competencies. With those as a springboard, I will include what coaches can look for in teachers’ literacy instruction and students’ learning that indicates high-impact SEL learning. A selection of skills borrowed from the paper are in quotes, followed by what coaches can observe in instruction and learning that indicates learning of the skill through literacy.

Credit: CASEL, 2017

Self-Awareness

“Label and recognize own and others’ emotions.” / “Identify own needs and values.” 

Are teachers providing opportunities for students to talk about characters’ emotions and connect them to their own emotions and values? This can be accomplished through text-to-self questions after reading.

“Analyze emotions and how they affect others.”

Are teachers providing opportunities for students to discuss how characters’ emotions impact other characters, and are they connecting this to their own experiences?

Self-Management

“Set plans and work towards goals.”

According to research by educational researcher Robert Marzano, goalsetting can produce student learning gains between 18 and 41 percentile points. Are students reading books where people persevere through adversity to reach their goals, and are students given opportunities to set their own goals? Students may set literacy goals for:

  • Independent reading
  • Number of fiction/nonfictions books read
  • Reading a new author
  • Reading a book chapter in a certain timeframe

“Monitor progress toward personal and academic short- and long-term goals.” 

Once literacy goals are set, are students monitoring their progress toward those goals? Are they meeting with teachers to discuss their progress? 

“Use feedback constructively.” 

Are students given opportunities to give each other feedback? Can they accept feedback from each other? Is the teacher giving respectful feedback to students about their work, and are the students able to hear it without getting upset? Are students given opportunities to incorporate feedback into their work to demonstrate new levels of understanding?

Essays and presentations tied to reading materials are avenues through which students can practice feedback. Students can write and exchange essays with classmates, providing each other with constructive feedback for improvement. 

Students can be asked to present on materials they have read or a topic that requires research and analysis of written materials or artifacts. Throughout presentations, students should be welcome to ask questions or give feedback.

Core to the success of leveraging essays or presentations for students to practice giving and receiving feedback is a safe and open classroom where risks are encouraged and mistakes are viewed as opportunities for growth.

“Seek help when needed.” 

When students confront comprehension issues or struggle to write at level, are they asking for help from the teacher and their fellow classmates? Has the teacher shared resources with them to help manage their own learning?  

For literacy, it’s helpful if students have been taught how to look up the meanings of words they don’t know, either using an electronic device or a paper dictionary.  Also for writing, it’s helpful that students have a student writing notebook that includes helpful resources—such as writing rubrics, word lists, and writing exemplars—to develop their own writing.

“Display grit, determination, or perseverance.” 

Are you seeing students read longer and write more? Do students have an opportunity to read a wide range of books that promote the growth mindset? (Follow this link for a suggested reading list.)


Social Awareness 

“Predict others’ feelings and reactions.”

Is the teacher using reading materials to have students predict characters’ emotions—for example, having students stop reading at certain points to engage in a writing exercise about how they think a character will react or feel? Are they then discussing as a group why or why not their predictions were different from how the character reacted or felt in the book? Can they connect the character’s feelings to their own? (Note: An Anticipation Guide can be a useful tool for such exercises.) 

“Respect others (e.g., listen carefully and accurately).” / “Understand other points of view and perspectives.”

Are teachers giving students opportunities to work collaboratively on reading and writing exercises—for example, using instructional strategies such as Jigsaw, Reciprocal Teaching, or Student Conversation Starters? During these times, are students respecting the views of their classmates?

“Appreciate diversity (recognize individual and group similarities and differences).” 

Are students reading books that include characters of different races, ethnicities, cultures, and creeds? Are students given opportunities to discuss and write about how they can and cannot relate to these characters, and why?

Relationship Management

“Exhibit cooperative learning and working toward group goals.” / “Evaluate own skills to communicate with others.” / “Demonstrate leadership skills when necessary, being assertive and persuasive.” 

When students are reading or writing collaboratively, have team leaders, roles, responsibilities, and group goals all been identified? Is the teacher providing opportunities for students to assess or get feedback from group members about how effectively they are communicating?  

Responsible Decision Making

“Implement problem-solving skills when making decisions, when appropriate.” 

Are students given exercises to discuss or write about scenario-based problems central to stories or books they read? Are they required to devise different possible solutions and explain their thinking? Are they participating in debates or Socratic Seminars?

“Make responsible decisions that affect the individual, school, and community.” / “Become self-reflective and self-evaluative.”

Are teachers tying reading content to students’ real worlds? For example, is Romeo and Juliet being connected to tribalism and polarization in our modern world? Are students engaged in discussions about how characters and circumstances impact the surrounding communities? Are they asked to reflect on how local and real-world issues impact their communities and what decisions they could make, if any, to impact their communities?

Please bear in mind that these ideas address only a selection of the social and emotional skills our students need. As far as ways to weave SEL into literacy coaching and instruction, the only limit is creativity. Consider these ideas as a launching point for your own. Have fun with it! 

Have other coaching ideas for SEL through literacy? We’d love to hear them! Email us at Shaped@hmhco.com or tweet us @LeadAndLearnYou can also read more about social-emotional learning's role in English language arts in this blog post, and consider using or sharing this SEL in ELA lesson plan in the classroom for Grades 2–8.

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You can book a keynote with Sherry St. Clair, ICLE Senior Fellow, to bring her expertise about instructional coaching and leadership to your school or district. Follow her on Twitter at @Sherrystclair.

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