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Social skills shown to lift literacy levels

TEACHING children ''old-fashioned'' behaviours at the same time as they learn to read can dramatically improve literacy levels, particularly among students who had been struggling, an Australian research project has shown.

Teachers at two disadvantaged Victorian schools were trained in how to integrate positive attitudes and behaviours for learning into literacy lessons, in a project run by Michael Bernard from the University of Melbourne.

Compared with a control group, the primary school students taught positive behaviour showed ''significant improvements'' in reading comprehension.

''This research shows that, if we equip our teachers with methods for developing students' positive attitudes and behaviours for learning, the students actually become better learners. This in turn makes it easier for teachers to teach the subject content,'' Professor Bernard said.

"I have always believed there was an artificial separation between academic learning and social and emotional learning. In fact, the two are linked and teachers need to be good at teaching both."

The study builds on previous work by Professor Bernard, focusing on social and emotional learning, which has been used at 6000 schools in Australia and overseas. Ann-Maree Kelly, who introduced the system to Morisset Public as principal five years ago, says there is an expectation that students arrive at school with the skills they need to learn.

''But it's exactly the same as literacy: if children come from a literature-rich environment in which people have been reading to them then their literacy skills are going to be better,'' she said. ''Some students don't come with good social and emotional skills.'' Traits taught such as work confidence, persistence, working in teams and getting along with others are all ''old-fashioned behaviour,'' Mrs Kelly said, adding that, before Professor Bernard's program, You Can Do It! Education, there had been no single resource that pulled it all together.

''Teachers know we can explicitly teach things like literacy and numeracy but what Michael's research has done is show we can teach the attitudes and behaviours students need to maximise their learning,'' she said. ''The techniques work on preparing children for the challenges they will inevitably face - even learning something they might perceive to be boring,'' Mrs Kelly, now on leave from Morisset school, said.

''Some students, even some really talented and competent students, when they confront something they perceive as being challenging will often go 'this is hard, I can't do it' rather than 'I know this work is going to be a bit hard but if I put my mind to it I can do it rather than giving up'. ''I say to them 'sometimes things are boring: shopping and washing and cooking are boring, just do it'. Sometimes learning your spelling words and your times tables are boring but you need the mindset that not everything we do in life is going to be fun and entertaining.''

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