The Power of Picture Books: Maximizing the SEL-Literacy Connection in Turbulent Times

By Nancy Boyles

Soon after the world shut down last March and students fled the classroom to stay safe at home, teachers recognized the heightened need to address children’s social emotional (SEL) needs. These were strange, scary times: Were the kids okay? How were they faring away from their friends and teachers and the familiar routines of school? It was a scramble to reimagine school overnight, but teachers quickly saw the value of using picture books with SEL themes as part of their online instruction. Excellent, I thought. What a great way to connect thinking and feeling.

But in practice, it’s easy to fall into a few pitfalls that can lessen the impact of reading SEL-related picture books with students. Here are three tips to maximize the power of picture books to connect SEL and literacy whether teaching online or face-to-face in a classroom.

Refine the SEL Focus

I observed lots of read alouds last spring and early this fall, and it struck me that almost all of them seemed aimed at helping students maintain a positive view of self. While this is appropriate given the many factors currently upending our world, the real issue is: what contributes to self-esteem? How can we be more specific as we care for children’s emotional needs?

First, it’s helpful to identify feelings more accurately. Children are quick to tell us they are sad. But can they drill down to why they are sad: Are they lonesome? Worried? Discouraged? Addressing sadness due to loneliness, for example, suggests a different conversation from the one we might have if the problem was sadness stemming from worry over the health of a grandparent. And don’t forget hope! Look for opportunities to remind students that even in these uncertain times, we need to remain hopeful about a better tomorrow.

Beyond feelings, there are numerous other areas that contribute to students’ sense of self-worth: their confidence, ability to set and meet goals, manage their own behavior, communicate well, and so much more. Dig into all of these areas by choosing a wide selection of books to engage students’ hearts and minds.

Choose Great Books

The good news is that there are plenty of books to launch a discussion about every possible SEL focus area. The not-so-great news is that we have a tendency as readers and teachers to default to familiar old favorites: Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes, Tacky the Penguin by Helen Lester, and Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell. These and others are tried-and-true stories, and I love them, too. But reading the same books year after year means children don’t get to experience new literature that might speak to them in important ways.

I’ll just mention a couple of newer books that have become my recent favorites. Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes is perfect for intermediate grade students.  It shows how the little things in life (like getting a great haircut) can, at least for a brief moment, raise your spirits and make you feel like anything is possible.

A book I’ve come to love for the primary grades is The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld. This story shares with young children the message that sometimes the best comfort for someone who is upset is to just “be there” for them, willing to listen—without the need for talking.

Engage Students

Finally, and of utmost importance, remember that the real goal for meeting students’ SEL needs is not just reading the book, but talking about the book. This has been the missing link in so many of the read alouds I have witnessed. One issue is that teachers often link to a pre-recorded YouTube video of someone else’s teacher reading the story, which limits opportunities for discussion. It can also be distancing. Faced with so much uncertainty, children don’t want to hear a stranger reading them a story; they want to hear their own beloved teacher, whose voice comforts and assures them that although the world may be careening off-course, there is some stability in their life.

Additionally, if we want to keep kids tuned-in to our instruction, we can’t just read a book straight through without actively involving them. That means asking some key questions during reading—not so many that they lose track of the plotline, but enough to draw their attention to the big ideas the author seeks to deliver. We also need to ask questions after reading. For instance, during a reading of Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, the teacher might ask, “How can you tell that the new haircut lifted the spirits of the main character?” An after-reading query could be: “What small event in your own life might lift your spirits?”

The questions we ask while reading with students can integrate strong SEL focus areas, introduce them to great books, and provide strategies for student engagement, not to mention enhance reading comprehension.  But most important, exploring the issues in picture books can help improve children’s social emotional wellbeing, by giving them a safe place to talk about the feelings, the characters, (and they themselves), are experiencing.

For more than 200 amazing picture books that meet varied SEL needs, along with hundreds of questions to ask about them, see Nancy Boyles’ new book Classroom Reading to Engage the Heart and Mind: 200+ Picture Books to Start SEL Conversations (Norton, 2020).  Nancy, formerly a classroom teacher and professor of reading at Southern Connecticut State University, is the author of multiple books for literacy educators. Currently a consultant working with districts and educational agencies to provide workshops, model lessons in classrooms, and assist with curriculum development, she lives in Truro, Massachusetts.

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