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Emotional Literacy by Rachel Clarke

Rachel Clarke explains the importance of emotional literacy for reading and offers her advice for how to support this crucial area.

Posted on Tuesday 20th December 2022

Do you ever feel a bit meh? You know what I mean, don’t you, that kind of not exactly happy but not fully down in the dumps kind of bored indifference. We all have it from time to time and meh, a sort of vocal shrug of a word, seems to sum it up rather well. But what of your other emotions? There must be times when you’re elated, nervous, self-conscious, raging or desolate. These are all feelings of much greater intensity than meh, and yet too many of our children don’t have the means to express these feelings in themselves or recognise them in others. Instead, they are trapped in an emotional vacuum, which I can only imagine is akin to feeling meh.

So what do we mean by emotional literacy?

Let’s start with the picture in schools. In my recent article for TTS I referred to the research undertaken by the EEF into the impact of the Covid school closures on the youngest children. In that research they say that the school closures exacerbated the problems that children have traditionally experienced with their learning so that in the case of reading it is inference, emotional literacy and emotional vocabulary that young children have struggled with most widely.

 When we talk about emotional literacy, we’re talking about a person’s ability to understand and express their emotions through words and read them in others. To do this, they need an emotional vocabulary of words that help them label those emotions. Most children can identify common feelings such as happiness or sadness but when it comes to more complex or nuanced feelings such as jealousy or anxiety there are many children who are unable to recognise the physical signs of that emotion or label it accurately.

In terms of educational attainment, this means there are children who are unable to infer how characters might be feeling in a text or to express their own emotional reactions to the texts we share with them. More widely, if children are unable to recognise and express their emotions, there are consequences for their emotional wellbeing that reach beyond school.

Literacy Trust research shows that children who are the most engaged with literacy are three times more likely to have higher levels of mental wellbeing than children who are the least engaged (39.4% vs 11.8%)

What can we do to improve children’s emotional literacy?

With emotional literacy being a combination of recognising your own emotions, noticing emotions in others and having the words to express those feelings, there is quite a lot we can do.

Let’s consider each of these points in turn:

  • Recognising your own emotions. Use books that mirror how the children in your class may be feeling at key times to allow them to find a better way to express how they feel. The Book Trust have some excellent lists of books on key topics and themes. This one about grief has a range of books suitable for children aged 5-8.
  • Noticing emotions in others. Make time for discussion about the feelings and emotions of the characters in books. This could be as a class or with the children talking amongst themselves.
  •  Having the words to express emotions. Reading is one of the best places to start. From an early age, we need to introduce books that use a wide range of emotional language. I’ve made some suggestions that you’ll find later in this article. When you’re reading with children, ask open-ended questions that help them step into the shoes of a character or person. Say, ‘How do you think that made him feel?’ or, ‘How would you feel if that happened to you?’

If you’re looking for some quick fixes and fun approaches to include in your classroom practice, then these suggestions might help you build emotional literacy in your classroom:

  • Role play – ask children to show you what different emotions look like in response to the characters in the books you share with them. You could extend this to a game of charades. Give children an emotion on a card, and they have to act it out for others to guess.
  • Emojis – provide children with a range of emojis and ask them to select the ones that match a particular emotion. You could differentiate this by providing emotion words on cards so that children can match the emotion words to the emojis.
  • Emotion thermometers – create a thermometer for key emotions such as anger. Collect synonyms for the emotion and place them on the thermometer to show the intensity of their meanings. Children then have a sense of the level of the emotion. You could also use the thermometer for children to express where on the scale they feel at a particular time.
  • Wordless picture books – reading wordless picture books requires deep levels of inference. They can be a great tool for starting dialogue with children about how they interpret a character’s feeling from the context of the pictures.
  • Music – make a collection of music that evokes different feelings. Play tracks to the children asking them to discuss how the music makes them feel. They could do abstract doodles or drawings while listening to the music if you wanted. Good music to include in your collection includes Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba and Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky.

One thing that comes out strongly from considering emotional literacy, is the importance of empathy. Emotionally intelligent people are able to empathise with others and so are more likely to conduct themselves in a compassionate and empathetic manner.

As the former UK Children’s Laureate, Chis Riddell says:

Reading allows us to see and understand the world through the eyes of others. A good book is an empathy engine.

If you want to find out more about empathy and how to make empathetic book choices, it’s also certainly worth checking out the Empathy Lab website and taking part in the annual Empathy Day celebrations.

If you’re looking for books to explore emotions other than meh, you might find these recommendations useful:

  • Barbara Throws a Wobbler by Nadia Shireen
  • Wonder by RJ Palacio
  • When the Sky Falls by Phil Early
  • The Invisible by Tom Percival
  • Not Now Bernard by David McKee
  • Ori’s Stars by Kristyna Litten
  • The Koala Who Could by Rachel Bright
  • The Arrival by Shaun Tan
  • The King Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Emily Haworth-Booth
  • The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell-Boyce

Article written by Rachel Clarke

Rachel is an experienced educational trainer and author with over 10 published titles including the popular Reading Detectives series. Rachel is now the director of the Primary English Education Consultancy; an organisation dedicated to raising standards in literacy.