SEL and Literacy: A Natural Fit

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Schools today are facing a dichotomy of expectations between focusing on academics and focusing on the climate and cultures in the building by providing safe and engaging learning communities. This does not need to be an either/or choice. Ideally, children’s academic achievement and social-emotional learning (SEL) should be viewed as complementary objectives (McTigue & Rimm-Kauffman, 2011). As teachers and schools look for the best ways to teach the social-emotional skills that children need to thrive in school and beyond, one of the best places to look may be within the language arts curriculum.

Children in a colorful puzzle

The high pressure of standardized testing is often cited as a barrier for the implementation of SEL practices in schools due to the constraints of time. However, a cognitive-only approach to teaching—which essentially ignores collaboration, communication, and creative problem-solving—can elicit unintended consequences, such as students feeling disconnected and frustrated even to the point of disliking reading and writing, and teachers feeling powerless to address all of their students’ needs. A cognitive-only approach to teaching language arts is fundamentally incomplete because addressing students’ emotional needs and being responsive to their needs as individuals is an essential prerequisite to their comprehension of the material (Dresser, 2013).

Addressing students’ social and emotional needs in the classroom is crucial because we cannot learn unless we feel connected and safe. In addition, in order to feel connected enough to the material to engage actively with it, students must feel that what is being taught has meaning and relevance to their lives. Especially today, with large numbers of students suffering from the effects of stress and trauma and many being diagnosed with emotional and behavioral disorders, schools must address students’ social and emotional needs in order for students to be able to succeed academically (Arseneaux & Remington, 2019).

Teacher reading to students

Extensive research supports this approach. In 2011, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) conducted a meta-analysis of 213 school-based 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 (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011).

Social-emotional literacy is a relatively new term that garners its meaning from the intersection of its three component terms. Literacy is the ability to grasp the rules of written, verbal, and visual language and is often equated with one’s ability to read proficiently. Emotional literacy is one’s ability to “read,” recognize, and respond appropriately to emotions and feelings in oneself and in others. Social literacy is learning how to build and maintain respectful relationships. All of these skills are taught in childhood and can be honed and improved through adulthood. When one applies these definitions, the language arts curriculum provides a fertile setting for exploring SEL concepts in ways that will help students develop a deeper understanding of both language arts concepts and SEL concepts, and find meaning in the material as they connect it to their lived experiences. As Schlund writes, “Literacy in particular provides rich opportunities for reflecting on the connections between our thoughts, feelings, and actions; taking on someone else’s perspective; and using language and writing to navigate social dynamics and build relationships” (Schlund, 2019, 19).

Using language arts as a vehicle for teaching SEL also holds promise for advancing equity, Schlund argues—especially when the literature is carefully selected to explore these themes. Teaching SEL concepts in the context of a book can provide opportunities for students to engage in productive discussions about their culture and identity, as well as to explore power dynamics in society and to consider how our choices affect others.

SEL is best taught explicitly and reinforced throughout the school day in authentic settings (see, e.g., Aspen Institute, 2018). But when subject matter, such as language arts, lends itself particularly well to the teaching of concepts such as cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control (CARES), teachers and schools can use this natural fit to their students’ advantage. By addressing students’ social-emotional needs through language arts, teachers can help inspire in their students both a love of literature and an informed and empathetic response to the world around them that will serve students’ needs in and out of school.


  • Arseneaux, D., & Remington, L. (2019). Learning is a connection project: How social-emotional learning drives literacy. Literacy Today, September/October 2019, 40–41.
  • Dresser, R. (2013). Paradigm shift in education: Weaving social-emotional learning into language and literacy instruction.” i.e.: inquiry in education 4(1). Retrieved from
  • Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development82(1), 405–432.
  • McTigue, E., & Rimm-Kaufman, S. (2011). The Responsive Classroom approach and its implications for improving reading and writing. Reading and Writing Quarterly27, 5–24. doi:10.1080/1053569.2011.532708
  • Schlund, J. (2019). The Literacy connection: Examining the I\intersection of literacy, equity, and social-emotional learning.” Literacy Today, September/October 2019, 18–20.