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Making connections: Using stories to recognize emotions and grow emotionally

November 21, 2022 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy | 2 comments

When we thought about the past year, both on this blog and in our daily lives, one thing stood out as being especially important – the connections we forge and keep. So this year, we have decided to delve deeper into the theme of CONNECTIONS, looking at it from twelve different perspectives. Each month, we will explore the connections in stories, learning, relationships, and many other aspects of our lives, and we will show you how to develop them with your students. We will do this through language-based activities and stories so that you find plenty of opportunities to develop your students’ English language skills while guiding them in establishing connections and supporting their own learning. 

When we think of connections, E.M. Forster’s famous line ‘Only connect…’ comes to mind. What exactly does this line from the 1910 novel, Howards End, mean? The full quote goes like this: ‘Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.’ Reading these words in the context of the novel, we realize that the real value, and often difficulty in life, is making healthy personal relationships. This basic human need to feel connected gains special significance today. The more time we spend in digital environments, the more we need to make connections, and the more we realize that they come in many shapes. 

In January, we focused on connections in stories and the literary concept of intertextuality. In February, we looked at connectedness in reading, thinking, and well-being. In March, we focused on connections between different types of knowledge: abstract ideas/concepts and experiences. In April, we have a special interview about environmental education with ELT materials writer and trainer Harry Waters. In May, we focused on connecting people through sharing ideas. In June, we recommended 30 ways of connecting school and holiday learning. In July, we talked about connecting places through reading. In August, we showed you how stories build communities. In September, we focused on connecting disciplines and recommend multidisciplinary projects for language lessons. In October, we looked at ways of developing listening skills while reading.

In this post, we focus on connecting emotions through stories.

Social-emotional learning is often central in young learner education, but it is just as important in adolescence and adulthood. Social-emotional skills help us recognize our emotions, show empathy, and maintain healthy relationships. Reading is among the top five most effective social-emotional activities.

Feelings in focus during reading

There are several benefits to using stories in the language class: students learn new expressions, see examples of real language in context, explore topics in history, culture, science, and a lot more. Stories also help students grow emotionally by showing how people feel and behave in different situations. Students might be familiar with some of these life events, but they might see some as distant and unimaginable. Stories can help them ‘trial run’ situations before they are faced with them in real life, allowing them to prepare both psychologically and emotionally. This is how stories open windows not only onto the world but also into the workings of the human heart and mind. 

When we read stories in class, discussions often revolve around what we can learn from a text in terms of language or subject knowledge. Such an approach is based on questions like: 

  • What does this story mean?
  • What have you learnt from this story?
  • What new words do you remember?

We suggest that you expand the potential of stories and add these simple questions to this list: 

  • How do the characters feel in this situation?
  • How would you feel?
  • How does reading this story make you feel?

By shifting focus onto feelings, students will be able to recognize and reflect on them more easily. As well as growing emotionally and becoming more empathetic, they also build essential soft skills.

Ways of working with emotions in stories

Here are some general tips on using the three questions listed above to work with emotions in stories.

How do the characters feel in this situation?

Finding the right words to describe emotions seems like a psychological task, but it also demands good vocabulary. By asking students to identify different feelings, we expect them to use precise words. Here are some ways they can develop their lexical skills.

  • Ask students to grade feelings, encouraging them to think beyond using popular or extreme words to say how the characters feel. Get them to build emotion trees where words of similar meaning are collected together and ask them to identify the subtle differences between each term.
  • Ask students to identify what is said and what is implied in the words and actions of the characters.
  • Ask students how the characters' emotions change in relation to other characters or events.
  • Observe how the description of the environment and weather influence the characters’ feelings.

How would you feel?

By asking students to imagine being in that situation, you inspire their creative imagination and encourage a kind of role-play. How would you feel? How would you respond in a certain situation? Such simple questions will help students connect more with the characters and help develop all-important empathy.

How do you feel reading this?

Explain to students that distancing themselves from the fictive world of the story is an important skill in and out of the reading class. By identifying the impact of a story on their own feelings, they will learn to give a more effective analysis and form a better evaluation of the text. Simply ask students to finish the sentence: This scene/story made me feel… .

When you have done this with a number of stories, you can ask students to see if different stories evoked similar emotions, and also to compare their reactions to their classmates’ ones.

Tip: In the Helbling Readers series (both Red and Blue readers), you'll find Reflection boxes in each chapter. These boxes either focus on an important aspect of the story or the students' critical or emotional response to the text. Give students enough time to think about and discuss these in class. They can also use these boxes for the reading diary. Here is an example from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Alice in Wonderland page 17 box


Stories to support emotional growth

We believe that classic literature has the potential of illustrating a wide range of feelings and you don’t need special stories designed specifically to teach certain emotions. Let’s take some time to reflect on some classics from this perspective. To get you started we have collected some of our favourite books, indicating some of the main emotional themes in each one. You may start working with this list and then add other stories to it with your students. When you are reading these stories, we recommend using the three questions listed above to work with selected scenes.

Red Readers Classics:

Blue Readers Classics:

  • Frankenstein: excitement, happiness, loneliness, anger, resentment, guilt, depression
  • Wuthering Heights: passion, isolation, jealousy, love, cruelty, anger (IWuthering Heights is a study of heightened emotions)
  • The Great Gatsby: dissatisfaction, scorn, sadness, greed, impulsiveness, stress, sympathy

What other stories have you worked with? What emotions would you add to these lists?

If you’d like to see how you can use illustrated young readers to work with emotions with young learners, check out this post:

Stay tuned for our blog about emotions in picture books. Subscribe to our Readers Blog! 

Blog Comments

Submitted by Eva-Maria Lerch (not verified) on Sat, 11/26/2022 - 06:57
I also love stories of the „Thinking Train“ series for younger learners.

For example - „The Bully“:

feeling lost,

It‘s astonishing, how many different feelings arise and how engaging these stories are for all of them.

Thank you HELBLING


Submitted by n.nagy on Sun, 11/27/2022 - 16:24
Dear Eva-Maria, thank you!
We also think that the Thinking Train stories are great choices for both thinking and emotional development. Your collection of feelings for The Bully is spot on. We'll have a post about working with emotions through young readers!
Thank you

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