Student Well-Being

Programs Impart Social Skills Along With Literacy

By Linda Jacobson — December 19, 2006 7 min read
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In Joy Crawford’s kindergarten class, the alphabet is sung to a hip-hop beat, and “rap” stands for “Read Aloud, Please.”

During an hour of singing songs, reciting poems, following directions, and dispensing reminders like “Dolphin begins with the letter D,” Ms. Crawford covers letter sounds, works on sight vocabulary, and uses what could be described as a skills-heavy approach to literacy instruction.

But woven into circle time here at the 500-pupil Peyton Forest Elementary School, southwest of downtown Atlanta, are messages of friendship, love, and feeling special. And the day’s reading selection, Rainbow Fish, was picked because of its story of a beautiful fish who learned he could be happier when he shared his sparkling scales with others.

From top left, 1st graders Kaylani Luciano, Hunter Palevo, and Earl Evangelista listen to an audio book as classmate Jepel Gibbs turns the pages at the listening center during reading time at Harding Elementary School in Lebanon, Pa. The school uses its federal Reading First money for the Voices Reading program, which aims to bolster students' social-emotional development

“This is so awesome for inner-city or low-income children,” the 34-year veteran teacher said, “because they don’t know how to talk about feelings.”

The curriculum Ms. Crawford is drawing from attempts to build the early-reading ability of her mostly African-American students, but also to support their social-emotional development. Called Voices Reading, the integrated method also draws on accumulating research that finds close connections between early-reading success and emotional development and behavior.

Earlier this year, for example, researchers from Stanford University published findings that children who made friends easily in 1st grade were likely to display strong reading skills in 3rd grade, and that those with low reading skills in 1st and 3rd grade were likely to exhibit aggressive behavior in 3rd and 5th grades.

Stanford researcher Sarah Miles and Deborah Stipek, the dean of education there, suggested in their paper in the journal Child Development that interventions for struggling early readers could prevent problem behavior later on.

“Children do not develop in particular domains independently of other domains,” they wrote. “To the contrary, social development and academic development are inextricably connected.”

Skimping on Basics?

Still, some scholars worry that giving too much attention to social development can compromise students’ progress in building strong literacy skills. Among them are Jerry Silber, a research assistant at the University of Oregon and an advocate of the Direct Instruction method of teaching reading.

“While teaching social skills is very important,” he said, “doing so during a time for reading instruction may be problematic, especially if there are many children who need intensive instruction to just learn basic critical skills.”

Programs like Voices Reading, which include an ethical or moral education component, could also be viewed as an alternative to the phonics-oriented types of reading programs advanced by the Bush administration through its Reading First grants under the No Child Left Behind Act.

But Robert L. Selman, an education and psychology professor at Harvard University and a contributor to the Voices Reading curriculum, said that the program—while it emphasizes interpersonal skills— does not downplay the need for clear reading instruction and decoding skills.

“We’re saying skills matter a lot,” he said. “But this very comprehensive literacy program only stands out from what the major publishers are doing because of this attempt to integrate.”

The program was actually developed as an anti-violence initiative by Pat Walker, a community activist living outside Boston in 1993. After teenagers in his neighborhood were killed in a series of gang shootings, Mr. Walker, a graduate of Harvard’s divinity school, saw the need to develop a reading and values education program using multicultural children’s literature.

Ms. Crawford, the Atlanta teacher, said she was convinced that the Voices program was reaching her students in new ways when she read the book On Mother’s Lap to her class. Not long after hearing the story, about an Eskimo mother who makes a cozy place for her two children on her lap, a shy girl with limited verbal skills acted out the book in the classroom rocking chair with a doll. To Ms. Crawford, the scene showed that the girl had formed an emotional connection with books that maybe she wasn’t getting at home.

Cheryl Champion, the principal at Harding Elementary School in Lebanon, Pa., said she had to persuade officials of both the state and her 3,800-student district to allow her to use Voices for her Reading First program. She encountered reluctance even though one of the authors of the program is Catherine E. Snow, the reading researcher from Harvard University who chaired the committee that produced “Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children.” That 1998 report from the National Research Council has helped spark efforts to improve early reading instruction, including the Reading First program.

Ms. Champion, a former special education teacher, said she felt her school, where 84 percent of the students qualify for federally subsidized meals, needed something other than the “scripted, rigid” approach to reading that was being used.

“When I first came seven years ago, it was not pretty here,” she said, adding that most of her day was spent handling discipline problems. “Now, my kids, they’ve come so far. They want to work it out. It’s not nirvana here, but you can tell a difference.”

‘A Supportive Context’

In the 24,000-student Worcester, Mass., school district, 18 of the 34 elementary schools have been using Making Meaning, another program that integrates social and emotional development with reading-comprehension skills. The schools are part of a research project to determine how Making Meaning compares with the comprehension strategies that are part of the Houghton Mifflin program that the rest of the schools are using.

Joan Fitton, the district’s manager for governmental relations and elementary programs, said the schools in the control group—those using Houghton Mifflin’s curriculum—are already asking when they can begin using Making Meaning.

“The respect you see in the classroom when the kids are going through these lessons is phenomenal,” she said. “With No Child Left Behind, there has been such a big push for reading and math, so it’s nice to see these other components put back in.”

The Making Meaning curriculum encourages social skills and positive relationships between a school’s children and adults through collaborative reading-comprehension activities, explained Eric Schaps, the president of the Developmental Studies Center, the Oakland, Calif.-based organization that developed the curriculum.

“Learning to read is pretty hard to do, actually. So having that kind of supportive context is important,” he said. “Kids are interacting and collaborating much more in the course of their learning.”

Skills such as retelling, visualizing, making inferences, and determining important ideas in the text are taught at the same time that students are practicing taking turns, speaking clearly, and learning to ask clarifying questions.

“Kids are not disembodied brains. They are feeling as well as thinking beings,” Mr. Schaps said.

Research conducted by other reading experts also backs up the connection between behavior and reading skills. In his observations of preschool classrooms, David K. Dickinson, an education professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., found that instruments used to measure the quality of instruction in the classroom were also good at predicting teachers’ ratings on children’s social skills. Other research, he said, has shown that as young children learn how to “regulate” their emotions, their behavior and academic functioning improves.

“If there’s anything that’s social, it’s language,” he said in an interview. In the Handbook of Early Literacy Research, published this year by Guilford Press, Mr. Dickinson wrote that, too often, support for literacy is seen as “standing in opposition to social and emotional development,” but that educators need to “move beyond such thinking to recognition of the need to address all aspects of development effectively.”

In Atlanta, Ms. Crawford still regularly draws lessons from the Voices Reading program, even though Peyton Forest Elementary did not implement it schoolwide after she and another teacher piloted it last school year. She said she appreciates exposing her students to literature that they might recognize in a store.

“Now they stop at the books, “ she said, “instead of heading straight for the toys.”

Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the December 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as Programs Impart Social Skills Along With Literacy

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