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Social-Emotional Learning in ELT: 3 Takeaways From Action Research

by Özgehan Uştuk |

This blog is part of the TESOL Research Professional Council (RPC) Blog series

I have been teaching EFL at higher education institutions in Turkey for more than a decade. One thing that became apparent to me over the years was that it can be very stressful to be a young adult language learner. The year 2019 was a particularly challenging one for those working and studying at Turkish universities. In Turkey, there was a sudden rise in the suicide rate, particularly among young people, according to news reports. This phenomenon did not leave the university unscarred. A conversation that I had with a colleague was particularly thought-provoking for me. She told me how powerless she felt and she had had no idea what her students had been going through.

Revising the Language Classroom Ecology Through Action Research

Reflecting on her words, I decided to increase my understanding of my students’ experiences and emotions by creating a classroom ecology where learners were motivated to speak about their own lives. Social-emotional learning (SEL) provided a blueprint for me in designing my English as a foreign language (EFL) speaking module. According to SEL, designing programs and lessons that promote learners’ social and emotional competencies are of critical importance. Accordingly, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning proposed five competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

I used these competencies to design a participatory action research intervention that included speaking tasks related to my students’ everyday challenges — these activities urged students to scrutinize stressful social situations and work together to find solutions. Overall, participating students reported that they felt more respected and engaged once they had opportunities to speak about their lives in the target language. I share findings from this practitioner inquiry experience here.

Three Takeaways as a Language Teacher

Overall, engaging in this study helped me to learn about my students’ lives and afforded me three takeaways as a language teacher:

  1. Awareness: We teachers need to have a way to systematically take learner emotions into account in our teaching. An SEL framework helped me to do that.
  2. Authenticity: The topics and concepts I ask my learners to engage with need to be relevant to their lives.
  3. Achievement: Doing practitioner research helps me become a better teacher (such as making my lessons more engaging). It also makes language teaching more fulfilling and less stressful as I better understand what is happening in and around my class.

If you are interested in making research a part of your teaching as well, please consider attending the TESOL 2023 convention in Portland, Oregon, USA and the three Research Professional Council events at that convention: The Research Mentoring Workshop – Connecting Teaching and Inquiry (a ticketed event that focuses on classroom-based research), TESOL in Focus Colloquium (on understanding the importance of language learners’ psychological experiences with respect to engagement, motivation, and anxiety, among other issues), and the TESOL Research Agenda Fair (in which teacher-researchers highlight emerging research trends and priorities in TESOL). In addition, the Research Professional Council Blog Series supports TESOL professionals accessing research to inform practice.

About the author

Özgehan Uştuk

Özgehan Uştuk (PhD) is an EFL teacher, teacher educator, and trainer in MAXQDA data analysis software. He currently works at Balikesir University, Turkey as a research assistant. His research areas include drama-in-education, TESOL teacher education, professional development, identity, and emotions. He has participated in several action research projects and conducted his own action research studies.

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