Emotional literacy: why it's key to improving outcomes

By Amy Arora

15 Jul 2021

Two parents speaking to a child about emotional literacy

5 key benefits of emotional literacy across the school

Explicitly taught, emotional literacy – the ability to communicate one’s emotions and to understand the emotions of others – can have a radical impact on whole-school culture including:

  • Wellbeing
  • Engagement
  • Reading
  • Analysis
  • Creativity

Here, we look at how Social and Emotional Learning plays an important role in the primary classroom.

1. Wellbeing

The long-term benefits of emotional literacy on student wellbeing are enormous, with researchers noting that good social and emotional skills at the age of ten are predictors of a number of factors in later life, ranging from health to life satisfaction. Simply put, children who understand how to express and regulate their emotions become happier and more productive adults.

Learners can be empowered to express their emotions through classroom displays of Word Wheels. Most teachers will recognise that issues around behaviour commonly arise when a learner is unable to express their emotions, whether they are feeling frustrated, unhappy or simply bored. Giving learners this vocabulary is a huge step towards improving their wellbeing.

2. Engagement

Part of emotional literacy is letting learners know that all feelings are allowed, even though all behaviours may not be. Putting this idea at the heart of Social and Emotional Literacy (SEL) teaching means that the culture of a classroom becomes more open, as learners do not feel that they need to hide or be ashamed of their emotions.

This open culture can have a positive impact on engagement across the curriculum, with learners feeling more comfortable asking questions to satisfy their curiosity about new topics. Crucially, they will also feel more confident to explain when they do not understand.

3. Reading

Empathy lies at the heart of the reading experience. Better emotional literacy can improve the enjoyment of reading, and all the benefits that entails.

After all, we ask our learners to read stories about wizards, hungry caterpillars, and Vikings, to name just a few. These characters are often outside the field of our experience, occupying magical lands, but learners can tap into their emotional literacy to engage with the text. “How do you think Harry feels when he loses that Quidditch match? Does it remind you of our own feelings?” Emotional literacy boosts the experience of reading and, in turn, reading promotes emotional literacy. No wonder teachers are always telling learners to read more!

4. Analytical skills

Emotionally literate students will be better at language analysis. This makes sense. Learners who can articulate their own emotions will be better at articulating the emotions of the writers and characters they are exploring.

Teachers may share a non-fiction text with learners and find that they can see that the writer is angry. What is more powerful, however, is to consider what type of anger the writer is feeling. This can easily be identified with a Mood Meter: are they full of rage, about to explode, or is this a quiet, seething fury, brought about by years without change? Once learners can identify the type of anger, they can explore which word choices in particular lead them to that conclusion, and what the connotations of those words may be. Their analysis will develop from simply “the writer is angry” into a full evaluation. This can have a profound effect on exploring their own emotions as well.

5. Creative writing

Powerful creative writing comes from the ability to reflect on how characters might feel about and experience the world. Learners who are well-equipped with the vocabulary of emotional literacy may write more compelling characters, with clearly-expressed desires and motivations.

For emotional literacy to improve creative writing, tasks need to be carefully designed and thought through. Too often, teachers (myself included) set a task like writing the diary entry of a character without adequate discussion of the character’s emotional state and vocabulary checklists to raise the quality of the writing. We cannot expect all children to just know this without teacher support. When that support is in place, just watch what learners can do!

It is clear that emotional literacy can be hugely beneficial. At its heart is self-expression. At the heart of self-expression is vocabulary. We need to ensure that we are equipping learners with the right words to develop their emotional literacy.

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