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Text-based discussions play a critical role in student achievement.

Improving reading skills and SEL through text-based discussions

Classroom conversations and text-based discussions can play a critical role in students' academic achievement

As the importance and benefits of social-emotional learning (SEL) have become more widely recognized, many teachers have struggled to combine this type of learning with their required curriculum.

A recent edWebinar led by Bobbi Bear, director of customer advocacy for Achieve3000, identified effective ways to integrate SEL with reading instruction, through classroom conversations about nonfiction and fiction texts.

Recent research has shown that SEL increases high school graduation rates, and post-secondary enrollment and graduation rates, as well as employment rates and wages. SEL also decreases behavioral issues, dropout rates, drug use, and teen pregnancy, so the advantages of including it in elementary and secondary classes are clear.

Related content: 5 discussion tools to fuel student engagement

While definitions of SEL can vary, key elements include self-awareness and social awareness, relationship skills, self-management, and responsible decision making. And, the goals for students engaged in this type of learning include self-esteem, empathy, motivation, and commitment.

Turning to text-based discussions, recent research by John Hattie has shown that classroom conversations can play a key role in helping students achieve their overall learning goals for the school year, while researchers Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey have shown that collaborative conversations can help students improve their understanding of text and its meaning.

By integrating SEL with text-based discussions, teachers can improve social-emotional and reading skills at the same time, while also developing the growth mindsets that support continued progress and improvement.

Establishing routines for text-based conversations and SEL

Drawing on years of experience as a middle school English teacher, Bear emphasized the importance of engaging students in guiding their own learning processes by participating in the selection of some texts and the structuring of collaborative conversations. Teachers should not always be directing the discussions or being an intermediary, but they have an important modeling role through their own conversations with the students and in other ways they conduct themselves.

To prepare for effective text-based discussions, students can generate their own focus questions about what they are reading. This can be done by turning text features such as titles and headings into questions, especially by asking “why” and “how,” which can lead to extended conversations and deeper learning. Questions such as “what” and “where” are important in establishing facts, which can be done more quickly.

Citing the critical importance of having “students read with purpose and focus,” Bear explained an activity in which students first generate focus questions and identify their own text-based answers and the rationales for their choices, but then during the collaborative conversation let other students in the group provide answers and rationales before explaining their own. This can help to develop listening skills, awareness of other points of view, and a better understanding of the text.

Another activity is a “pyramid discussion,” in which students generate questions and then first have a conversation with just one partner. Then, the partners have a conversation with another team of partners, and the groups continue to get larger until there is a whole-class discussion, which can further extend the different types of learning that are occurring.

Developing growth mindsets that build social-emotional and reading skills

Growth mindsets have become an important part of SEL, especially in regard to characteristics such as self-awareness, motivation, and commitment that may take time to develop but then facilitate further learning. The growth mindset concept also is well-aligned with learning to read, which first progresses to higher levels of comprehension and complex text, and then digs deeper into the structure and meaning of text.

To integrate growth mindsets with the development of social-emotional and reading skills, Bobbi first recommends having students participate in establishing discussion routines, norms, and goals that will support learning and growth. This should go beyond standard attributes such as listening actively, being present, and agreeing to disagree, and instead identify key elements such as what an effective conversation actually looks like, and how to disagree politely. Students should also identify and discuss what an effective conversation does not look like, such as acting bored or refusing to participate.

After building norms together, students can then self-reflect and identify which elements they are good at, and which elements they are not good at yet. By identifying which of their skills need improving, they can then pick specific skills to work on, develop strategies for improvement, select examples of how they are improving, and plan next steps.

In this way, students can guide their own development of social-emotional skills, which will contribute to their reading progress and help them develop the broader interpersonal and communication skills needed for success in college and 21st century careers.

About the presenter

Bobbi Bear, director of customer advocacy for Achieve3000, and a former eighth grade English teacher has spent 11 years in the classroom. Additionally, Bobbi served as a learning facilitator, encouraging students to take ownership of their learning. She independently launched her district’s first hybrid-learning language arts classroom in order to drive increased personalized learning experiences and differentiated learning for students. She is an extreme technology enthusiast and believes integrating technology into the classroom aids in engaging students and preparing them for college and career readiness.

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Differentiating Instruction with Educational Technology is a free professional learning community on that provides educators, curriculum leaders, and industry members with a place to collaborate on best practices for using educational technology to differentiate instruction.

This edWeb broadcast was sponsored by Achieve3000. The recording of the edWebinar can be viewed by anyone here.

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