What Is It?

The term language arts refers to the subjects that aim to develop students’ capacities to understand and use language. Here, we will focus on the core components of language arts, reading and writing, which provide ample opportunities to integrate prosocial development into the academic curriculum.

 

Reading Instruction

Prosocial instruction in reading involves emphasizing social-emotional and ethical themes, analysis, and experience when reading literature or other forms of texts with students. Using a prosocial lens in literacy learning can help students better understand themselves and others, examine moral dilemmas, and encourage them to practice compassion and other prosocial qualities in their everyday lives.

While reading aloud to his students, an elementary school teacher helps students become emotionally transported into stories by encouraging them to imagine what characters are seeing, hearing, touching, and so on. After reading, he pauses to discuss social-emotional questions that have arisen in the story, such as how characters are feeling and why, the reasons characters are behaving in a certain way, or how a character’s actions affect others.

A high school English teacher, when teaching literary fiction or life narratives, gives students the opportunity to think about and discuss the thoughts and feelings of people who may have very different experiences than their own, or who may offer new perspectives on familiar experiences. She then prompts students to make connections between issues in the text and in their own communities, and to think about how they could act to help.

 

Writing Instruction

Applying a prosocial lens in writing instruction can involve using writing to further examine and discuss prosocial themes in texts that students have read; especially in older grades, the teaching of writing is often integrated with literary analysis.

However, writing—especially in the form of narratives or poetry—can also offer students a unique chance to explore and express their own feelings, life experiences, and values.

At the beginning of the school year, high schoolers in English class are asked to write briefly about their most important values. As the year goes on, for each text they read, their teacher asks them to write a response identifying the main character’s central values, how these values influence the character’s actions, and how these values are similar to and different from their own.

As part of a poetry unit, a middle school teacher has her class read several poems that include descriptions of different emotional experiences. In addition to analyzing the technical features of the poems, they discuss the emotional qualities of each one, and students write responses about how one or more of the poems produces an emotional effect. Then, students are assigned to write their own poems about an emotional experience in their lives that they are willing to share, and are each given the opportunity to perform their poem for the class if they would like.

Why Is It Important?

The potential of reading to promote prosocial skills, especially empathy, has long been recognized by research. The research on using writing in ways that promote well-being is more limited, but early studies are promising. Here are some of the findings:

Reading fiction helps us understand others.

 

Reading encourages us to act in more prosocial (kind and helpful) ways.

 

Motivation to read and prosocial behavior are connected.

  • Students who feel that they belong and that their teacher cares for them tend to be more motivated to read.
  • And students who want to read also tend to have more motivation to be kind and helpful in their classrooms.

 

Expressing ourselves through writing promotes well-being.

 

Poetry is powerful.

  • Using a poetry therapy model (reading and writing responses to others’ poems as well as writing one’s own) in literature classrooms shows promise for engaging with emotions and improving well-being; studies have shown that use of this model may reduce anxiety, depression, and stress in young people.
  • Early evidence also indicates that reading and writing poetry may be helpful for increasing empathy, especially for others from different backgrounds than one’s own, or when empathy is challenging.
  • For some students, performing poetry, such as in a poetry slam, may offer additional community-building benefits.

 

Writing about prosociality encourages us to be more prosocial.

  • Whether it’s elementary schoolers writing reports of peers’ prosocial actions or adolescents completing a written exercise affirming their values, writing about prosocial topics has been shown to increase students’ own prosocial behavior in a lasting way.

Practices

Level
Duration
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Students write a letter or poem to express their gratitude to something in the natural world.
PreK/Lower Elementary
Multiple Sessions
Students identify the many ways that exist to express gratitude.
Middle School
≤ 1 hour
Students read a text slowly and reflect on its personal meaning for them.
Middle School, High School, College
≤ 30 minutes
Students explore their thoughts, emotions, or ideas by freewriting on a topic of their choosing, an academic-related question, or an ethical dilemma.
Upper Elementary, Middle School, High School, College, Adult
≤ 15 minutes
Students reflect on how the Earthrise photograph instills a sense of awe and wonder towards our planet.
Middle School, High School, College
Multiple Sessions
Students define gratitude and name things they’re grateful for.
PreK/Lower Elementary
≤ 30 minutes
Students reflect on acts of kindness and how they often require intention and effort on the part of the person who does them.
Upper Elementary
≤ 30 minutes
Students interview an older person about gratitude, deepening their own understanding of gratitude.
Middle School
≤ 30 minutes
Students write a letter of thanks and deliver it in person.
PreK/Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, Middle School, High School
≤ 30 minutes
Students interpret and role-play a variety of quotes about gratitude.
Middle School
≤ 1 hour
Students learn that when someone does something kind, it takes time and effort.
Middle School
≤ 1 hour
A daily mindfulness and poetry appreciation practice for the whole school or a single classroom
Upper Elementary, Middle School, High School, Adult
≤ 15 minutes
Build trust and understanding among students by exploring questions of wonder.
Middle School, High School
Multiple Sessions
Students learn how kindness and gratitude strengthen friendships through Splat the Cat.
PreK/Lower Elementary
≤ 30 minutes
Students identify what gets in the way of expressing gratitude.
Upper Elementary
≤ 1 hour
“Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.”
–Malorie Blackman