The Uses of Emotional Literacy

The importance of Literature in Special Needs Education


I had only been working with pupils considered ‘Emotionally and Behaviourally Disturbed’ for a few years (they were called ‘Maladjusted’ in those days) when an ex-pupil came back to visit the school. She informed me that I had helped her to turn her life around. She had gone from being an angry, spiteful, no-hoper with few friends and no prospects to a contented young woman with a job, a steady boyfriend and a great bunch of workmates.

I wasn’t flattered; I hadn’t effected this change deliberately. I did learn something from her account of events however. She told me that, after I had remonstrated with her over some misdemeanour or other, I had explained to her that other people had feelings too. I had asked her to imagine how she would have felt if the things she had said and done had been said and done to her. She explained that, up to that point, she had never considered other people having feelings. It had never crossed her mind. She was fifteen at the time and had thought she was alone with her emotions. Once she realised that others may have similar feelings to her she was able to approach her life in a much more fulfilling way.

There have been various attempts to quantify our Emotional Intelligence. Some suggest that EI can be measured in much the same way as our IQ can. I think it was the psychologist E. G. Boring who said that, “Intelligence is what IQ tests test,” and I tend to feel the same way about calculating our emotions. Simply testing EI will simply test what the test tests. Emotional Literacy – the ability to recognise, understand and appropriately express our emotions – is perhaps less quantifiable than Emotional Intelligence but I believe it is has more meaning attached to it and is moreover, of paramount importance to everyone’s life.

The ‘Embodied Emotions Project’ explains it well,

“Just as verbal literacy is the basic building-block for reading and writing, Emotional Literacy is the basis for perceiving and communicating emotions. Becoming emotionally literate is learning the alphabet, grammar and vocabulary of our emotional lives. Emotions are an integral part of human nature. Through emotions, we respond to life in many different ways – with anger, happiness, fear, love and loneliness. Emotions influence our thoughts and actions; they inspire our needs; they affect our bodies and impact on our relationships.

Many of the problems in modern society are due, at least in part, to people being unable to understand and appropriately express emotion. Emotional Literacy is a preventive tool, which, properly understood, can help solve many social ills – violence, illness, drug abuse, dysfunctional relationships, and global societal conflicts.” *

Many professionals who work with ‘statemented pupils’ will be aware of the importance of an Emotional Education. Some however may suppose that thoughts and emotions are unconnected and should be taught independently of each other. Others may think that feelings, unlike cerebral ideas, are merely a product of nature and will develop naturally. It is a common assumption that emotions tend to fall into the same kind of areas as morality and religion and should therefore be taught by families or religious groups rather than in an academic setting. I am not saying that Emotional Literacy hasn’t got a place there too. It is simply not an exclusive place.

I was pleased to note that, amongst what may appear to be mundane changes to The National Curriculum 2014, ** there is a statement that,

a high-quality education in English will teach pupils to write and speak fluently so that they can communicate their ideas and emotions to others and through their reading and listening, others can communicate with them. Through reading in particular, pupils should have a chance to develop culturally, emotionally, intellectually, socially and spiritually. Literature, especially, plays a key role in such development.

In accordance with the National Curriculum, good stories should help pupils to recognise themes in what they read, such as the triumph of good over evil, loss and heroism, pain and suffering, the pursuit of happiness. They should give pupils the opportunity to compare characters, consider different accounts of the same event and discuss viewpoints within a text. As they advance, pupils will be able to draw inferences, such as inferring characters’ feelings, thoughts and motives from their actions, and justifying inferences with evidence predicting what might happen from details, not only those clearly stated but also those that are implied.

I am certainly not advocating a purely therapeutic approach. It is possible to teach children to think and talk about feelings without promoting the therapeutic. What I am suggesting is that perhaps the best approach is through literature.

To paraphrase John Stuart Mill, ‘Intellect and emotion should not have to be separated.’ You cannot have an emotion without a brain. But equally you cannot have an emotion without a mind. We think and explain ourselves in words, sounds and images, mainly in words, and our mental lives exist to us in the form of narratives.

Children who have Attention Deficit – those with ADHD, those who have suffered emotional trauma, and those on the Autistic Spectrum are likely to struggle; particularly with the understanding of and expression of emotion. Children with Autism, for example, invariably find allegory and metaphor extremely hard to interpret. And yet, without an understanding of metaphor we are only grasping a part of most of the novels we read, the films we watch (never mind the plays, paintings, sculpture, religious texts etc. that are available.) Without an understanding of metaphor we are not fully involved in what is being conveyed. We are missing out on a full and proper understanding of others’ experiences and subsequently our own.

In short, Emotional Literacy is essential if we are to lead a healthy, meaningful life – a life that is engaged with those around us and with our own responses to that life. Literature provides an invaluable key to the understanding of our emotions. It is surely one of its most important functions.


* ‘Embodied Emotions: History, Performance, Education’. The ‘Embodied Emotions’ project – University of London – is directed by Alistair Campbell:

** The National Curriculum (2014)




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