Berger’s Ethic of Excellence in Action
A new book from Sonia Thompson based around the work of St Matthew’s
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by St. Matthew's Research School
For teachers preparing to welcome children to school, it’s hard to be sure what to expect. But one safe bet is that bolstering children’s social and emotional health will be important. There will be no time to lose, so it’s the perfect moment to turn to the EEF Social and Emotional Learning report[i] for support on how to do this effectively. And it’s also a time to mobilise the power of Reading for Pleasure. Here is why.
Expanding children’s emotional vocabulary
Recommendation 1 of the EEF Social and Emotional Learning report[ii] recommends expanding children’s emotional vocabulary so as to support them to express emotions. At St Matthew’s, we know of no better way of doing this than through reading for pleasure. We know from the work of Isabel Beck what a powerful starting point books are for introducing robust vocabulary instruction. “An excellent source for words that will expand young students vocabularies are trade books that are designed to be read aloud.”[iii] At this point she is referring to working with children in Nursery, Reception and Year 1 but the same advice holds good for older year groups too.
By using a carefully selected canon of high quality books, it becomes possible – in fact, easy – to introduce the language of feeling, in context, to even our youngest children. The choice of books will be important, and we are fortunate at St Matthew’s to have significant expertise among our teachers, but, for schools needing help, there are many resources readily available. Empathy Lab[iv] and the Just Imagine[v] blog are two great places to start.
To read these books together, in school, is more powerful than simply sending them home. Contrary to a popular misconception, the best reading for pleasure is not a solitary experience. “To become a reader who finds pleasure in reading, children need to participate in vibrant communities of engaged readers within and beyond school,” argues Teresa Cremin, based on UKLA research[vi]
Enjoying books as part of a community of readers helps embed and build the emotional vocabulary and perspectives introduced through books. Sharing a book provides the initial context for a word, but the sharing of book talk widens it by providing additional encounters. Under the guidance of an expert teacher, nuances and shades of meaning can be explored so as to deepen understanding. Gradually, a shared lexicon develops that can be built on week by week, month by month and year by year. By the end of a carefully planned programme of reading for pleasure, children can be equipped with all the vocabulary they need for expressing their feelings in an articulate way.
This approach is characteristic of good vocabulary instruction. Isabel Beck notes the importance of teaching ‘facets of word meaning’ so that students’ knowledge is sufficiently ‘flexible… that they [can] apply the word to a variety of contexts’.[vii]
For vocabulary of the emotions, which is complex and slippery and should not be reduced to the level of emojis, this advice is important. She goes on to recommend, this time for older students,
“Begin with the context of the story as the basis for discussing the words. Talking about their applications in the story can prompt students to explore and elaborate on meanings. This deepens the students’ understanding of the words and concepts they know.”[viii]
Modelling social and emotional skills
Beyond vocabulary, Recommendation 2 from EEF Social and Emotional Learning[ix] report suggests we should integrate and model social and emotional skills through everyday teaching. In the context of a shared book, we know that we can explore emotional concepts and complexities in a natural and unthreatening way – and we can do this every day simply by providing daily opportunities to read for pleasure. Within this context, a teacher, by articulating their own responses can model emotional expertise, for example by normalizing the way we often feel more than one thing at once – and that sometimes our feelings are conflicting. They can overlay their own commentary on how they might have behaved or similar examples that have happened to them as models for their students to analyse in an unthreatening, hypothetical situation.
Identifying others’ emotions and perspectives
Traditional reading comprehension plays a part in helping children to understand the emotions and perspectives of others. Reading for Pleasure, however, generates discussion that reaches way beyond comprehension questions and that is more powerful when it comes to social and emotional learning. Book talk – sharing preferences and dislikes, unpicking patterns and anomalies provides opportunities for ‘exploratory, deliberative … and expressive talk’, Repertoires 3 and 4 in A Dialogic Teaching Companion by Robin Alexander[x]. For more information on this, see part 2 of Hydeh Fayaz’s blog). Teachers can plan and exploit opportunities to guide this talk purposefully in support of the SEL curriculum. The answers children come up with are unlikely to be right or wrong and will almost certainly need to be expressed in the conditional language of perhaps, may and might. If you are looking for more on practical, research-informed ways to shape book talk, Just Imagine[xi] is a fund of excellent work.
It’s worth considering how to present and, if necessary, how to record this sort of talk as neither is likely to follow traditional formulae. Rather than a classic comprehension question such as “How do you think the character feels?’ – Which for older children is likely to be followed by ‘Explain your answer giving evidence from the text,’ the teacher could make a statement about how that character feels and invite children to agree or disagree with it. Children are immediately provided with a model of a sentence to describe feelings, which provides a scaffold for the less confident. Reasons can be teased out with further statements, if necessary. Sometimes children can’t quite say what they mean but they certainly can tell you if you misrepresent their meaning in paraphrase!
Alternatively, a diamond nine activity to rank and prioritise emotional vocabulary would be a great way to introduce the concept of conflicting emotions.
Reading for Pleasure at St Matthew’s
At St Matthew’s, Reading for Pleasure was an integral element of our timetable before lockdown, so this work began weeks ago. Reading for Pleasure has been a hook to keep children engaged and talking to their teachers during the partial school closure. Teachers have regularly read stories to the children in their virtual classes, as well as to those coming into school. Ingenious methods have been devised to maintain our reading communities within virtual classrooms. Discussion threads have been posted as assignments; online voting forms have allowed children to decide which books are to be read next; tasks have been set to encourage the children to respond to and share what they have been reading. Jubilation followed a submission by an unconfident reader in Year 4 who recorded herself reading aloud for over 15 minutes because she so badly wanted to share her book with her teacher.
A variety of books have been selected as class reads – both to support children to make sense of the bewildering circumstances surrounding them and to provide escape from them. Our ‘whole school Empathy Day Takeover’ provided the opportunity for some focused social and emotional teaching, using age-appropriate stories to discuss others’ emotions and perspectives. For example, Reception children both at home and in school made masks of Elmer as a concrete way to introduce the need to see through other people’s eyes. While we used Empathy Day as a convenient peg, it’s an exercise that could easily be run on any other day.
This approach is simple, inexpensive and enjoyable for teachers and children. We will continue it as we return to school, however big the gap in coverage may be. We know what a difference it can make both to attainment and to support mental and emotional health. Why wouldn’t it be a key part of our strategy to welcome children back to school?
Looking to the future
Next academic year, we are proud and excited to be partnering with the Literacy Trust to nurture and grow a love of reading across the West Midlands. Watch out for more news and opportunities in future newsletters!
[i] Education Endowment Foundation, Improving Social and Emotional Learning in Primary Schools (EEF London 2019)
[ii] Education Endowment Foundation, Improving Social and Emotional Learning in Primary Schools p. 10
[iii] Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown and Linda Kucan, Bringing Words to Life, Robust Vocabulary Instruction, (Guildford Press, New York, 2013) p. 60
[vi] Teresa Cremin, Marilyn Mottram, Fiona M. Collins, Sacha Powell and Kimberley Safford, Building Communities of Engaged Readers, (Routledge, Abingdon and New York, 2014) p. 155
[vii] Isabel L. Beck p.84
[viii] Isabel L. Beck p.96
[ix] Education Endowment Foundation, Improving Social and Emotional Learning in Primary Schools p. 18
[x] Robin Alexander, A Dialogic Teaching Companion (Routledge, Abingdon, 2020) chapter 7
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