Uncommon Results From Common Core Standards: How SEL Skills Can Support Student Success in ELA Classrooms

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By Emily Hemingway

As a result of the pandemic, more elementary students are now considered struggling readers, and schools across the nation are looking for ways to close those gaps (Sparks, 2022). While many students have made some progress during the 2021–2022 school year, more growth will need to occur in order for students to catch up to prepandemic levels.

One strategy for boosting academic progress is to explicitly teach social and emotional skills, which lay a foundation for academic learning (Vincent, 2021) and have a positive impact on student performance (Durlak et al., 2011). While studies show an overall increase in academic performance from explicit instruction in social and emotional skills, a strong connection can also be drawn between social and emotional skills and the skills needed for success specifically in English language arts classrooms.

This connection can be seen when there are opportunities to exercise specific ELA skills within an SEL lesson. For example, when explicit instruction of social and emotional skills includes discussion and written reflection, students are practicing speaking, listening, and writing skills embedded within that SEL lesson. Some SEL programs also offer an even stronger literacy connection with leveled passages that students can read or listen to, providing students with opportunities to integrate content-area skills at the same time as they learn social and emotional ones.

ELA skills can be practiced within an SEL lesson, and SEL skills can be called up during an ELA lesson. To see the ways that SEL skills support and strengthen content-area skills, we can take a look at the anchor standards that support both areas of study and the habits of a student who has mastered those standards.

ELA and SEL Standards and Skills

For both the C.A.R.E.S. SEL standards and the Common Core State Standards for English language arts, anchor standards provide the framework for learning by describing what students should know and be able to do. The C.A.R.E.S. SEL standards have five competencies: cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control. Each of these competencies has its own set of anchor standards, with a total of 23 SEL anchor standards. Developmentally appropriate grade-level skills are built around these anchor standards, showing how students at each grade level can grow and develop their core SEL competencies.

The Common Core State Standards for English language arts have four sets of anchor standards in the areas of reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language. Reading and writing each have a total of 10 anchor standards, while speaking and listening and language both have six anchor standards, for a total of 32 ELA anchor standards. In addition to these anchor standards, the Common Core English Language Arts Standards also include a list of seven “capacities of the literate individual” (Common Core, 2010, p. 7) that describe what mastery of the standards looks like in students. These capacities are:

  • Demonstrate independence
  • Build strong content knowledge
  • Respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose, and discipline
  • Comprehend as well as critique
  • Value evidence
  • Use technology and digital media strategically and capably
  • Understand other perspectives and cultures

SEL skills and standards help young readers and writers to find success in mastering ELA skills. For example, consider the first anchor standard for speaking and listening: “Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively” (Common Core, 2010, p. 22). Effective teaching of this standard would need to include social and emotional learning around working with others toward a common goal, expressing strong emotions and opinions effectively, respecting and valuing diversity in others, and more.

Support Student Progress

Explicit instruction in SEL skills is just one tool schools can reach for as they consider how to support students in developing literacy skills. SEL programs should be part of a balanced approach to education that includes responding to students’ developmental needs, building positive communities, managing classrooms effectively, and facilitating engaging academics. When academic, social, and emotional learning are brought together, all students can succeed in, out of, and beyond school.