As teachers of children, we often have three wishes. We want children to: 

  • be happy and enjoy our lessons 
  • behave in an appropriate way 
  • learn as much English as possible.
Carol Read

These wishes reflect three ingredients which are vital for teaching and learning success.

Developing positive self-esteem
For children to 'be happy' cannot not refer to spheres of their lives over which we have no control, such as what may go on at home. Nevertheless, we can play a key role in developing children’s positive self-esteem during lessons. Self-esteem is based on:

  • a sense of security – feeling safe and not threatened.
  • a sense of identity – knowing who you are.
  • a sense of belonging – feeling part of your community.
  • a sense of purpose – having reasons for doing things.
  • a sense of personal competence – having a belief in your ability to do things.

Young children are still in the process of constructing their self-image. The significant people in their world have a vital role in influencing this. If children feel they are respected and valued, this finds reflection in the positive way they see themselves. If children meet a negative response from people in the world around them, this similarly finds reflection in the negative way they see themselves.

Teachers have a vital role to play in this process and, as Andrés (1999, p.88) says, although 'parents hold the key to children’s self-esteem, … teachers hold a spare one.'

Influencing children's behaviour
Developing children's positive self-esteem in our classes links directly to the way they behave. Children have a deep-seated need for the important adults in their lives to appreciate, like and value them. This is one of the main factors which drives and influences their behaviour. If children have a strong sense of the five components of self-esteem outlined above, they are much less likely to need to seek attention in a negative way and to misbehave in class.

Creating a sense of achievement
The third wish, 'learn as much English as possible', relates directly to both positive self-esteem and to behaviour. When children learn English in a way which is enjoyable, relevant, purposeful and challenging, and feel that they are making progress, they experience a sense of achievement and personal satisfaction. This has a direct impact on their self-esteem and behaviour in class.

A triangle of influences
In general educational terms, these three factors - self-esteem, behaviour and achievement - form a commonly accepted triangle of influences. They affect the academic performance, social and emotional well-being of individual children. However, the way in which they do this may be either positive or negative.

Three things that, in my experience, help to maximise positive influences are:

  • the use of Multiple Intelligences (Gardner,1999) as a pedagogical planning tool
  • the inclusion of content from other areas of the curriculum, and
  • the role of culture.

Multiple Intelligences
Gardner's well-known theory of Multiple Intelligences identifies eight different intelligences: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, musical, kinaesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalist. One of its contributions has been to give us a practical pedagogical framework and organisational tool for planning lessons and units of work which meet the diverse characteristics and needs of the children we teach.

By 'opening windows' on to the content of our lessons through tasks and activities which engage different combinations of intelligences, we have an opportunity to engage individual children in areas where they are strong. Equally, we have an opportunity to nurture and build on these strengths in order to help children develop in areas where they may be weaker. One of the key applications of Gardner’s theory to everyday classroom life is the way that different intelligences can provide, in his terms, 'entry points' (1999, p. 169) to learning.

Two further examples of 'entry points' to learning in the context of children learning English are the inclusion of real content and the role of culture.

The inclusion of real content
In foreign language classes, unlike other areas of the primary curriculum, language is strictly speaking both the content and the medium for learning. However, if language is both the means and the end, there is a danger that the ways in which it is used, and the things which it is used to do, may be meaningless, purposeless and ultimately trivial. This is amply borne out if we consider, for example, some types of de-contextualised substitution practice tasks or language drills.

In order to engage children's Multiple Intelligences and provide an 'entry point' to learning, we need to inject real content into our language lessons. This ensures that cognitive skills and linguistic demands are integrated. It makes reasons and purposes for doing things using the foreign language relevant and significant. It also reflects real life language use. In many ways, this is what primary CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) courses also set out to achieve.

The role of culture
This refers to culture with a small 'c', that is, the culture of our everyday lives, for example, our social customs, the way we spend our free time and the food we eat. It also refers to children's culture as in traditional stories, rhymes and games (as, for example, described in Opie & Opie, 1967). This often transcends national or linguistic boundaries and has specific realizations following similar fundamental patterns in different cultures.

One example of the way in which culture may provide an 'entry point' to learning a foreign language is through the strong rhythm and sounds in traditional children's rhymes such as Hickory Dickory Dock or Humpty Dumpty. These naturally draw young children into participating and using language. This is interestingly explored in Cook (2000) in relation to first language acquisition, and arguably may well apply to foreign language learning as well.

Another example is through traditional stories and fairy tales, which have a universal significance, as for example discussed in Bettelheim (1975). These often have deep cultural resonance which, although it is not usually appropriate to surface explicitly with children, extends and enriches the language being learnt.

A third example is through the beginnings of intercultural learning, whereby children’s recognition of the existence of other cultures, languages and ways of doing things, reinforces their own sense of identity. It also initiates them into the complex skills and attitudes that lead to the development of intercultural competence in the longer term.

In conclusion, Multiple Intelligences, content and culture all provide powerful 'entry points' for children learning English. These in turn develop positive self-esteem, ensure appropriate behaviour and lead to achievement and success.

Try for yourself, and who knows, your three wishes may come true!

Further reading

  • Andrés,, (1999) Self-esteem in the Classroom or the Metamorphosis of Butterflies in Affect in Language Learning, Ed. Arnold J, Cambridge: CUP
  • Bettelheim B. (1975) The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales London: Penguin
  • Cook G. (2000) Language Play, Language Learning Oxford: OUP
  • Gardner H. (1999) Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century Basic Books
  • Opie, I. & Opie P. (1967) The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren Oxford: OUP

If you enjoyed this, you can also watch a workshop by Carol: The secret of working with children

Find out more about children and learning in our teacher development module Understanding how primary children learn.



I always have these three wishes in my mind when I’m teaching. I once had a class full of bad-behaviored students. I found it so stressful to go into the classroom everyday. Every time, a teacher came into my classroom, they always described how naughty and playful my kids were. It was very heartbreaking. So, I started to change my technique. I didn’t scold them anymore. Instead I praised them for the little things that they made. To my surprise, they started to change their behaviour and became better students. One time, one of my students was always late from school. I always scolded him for being late. Later, I came to realize that he has a broken family and he was taken care by his aunt. The worst thing is that his friends bullied him at school for not having a mother. From these experiences, I realized that we also have to aware one of the most important facts that kids can be more fragile than adults. They may have problems at home like fighting with their siblings, witnessing the fight or quarrel between their parents and so on. We, teachers sometimes don’t seem to aware of it and try to find the fault in the students. That’s why in my opinion, we must be not only granting these three wishes but also seeing positive things in every student.

Thanks for this useful articleI agree with your citation of Bettelheim - the cultural value of stories has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to resonate. Children get significant value from this, and anyone who has seen how children interact with , for example, Disney movies, will see the value of incorporating narrative and culture into the classroom.

Dear Carol,
Thank you so much for the article. This has enlightened me highlighting the point that I have never thought about regarding classroom management. " Developing positive self-esteem" is the factor which is usually lack in my classroom. I often pay more attention to the inclusion of MI profiles of children and content from different areas in my lesson planning, but most of my classes end up with chaos such as pushing children to work hard without giving reasons for doing, shouting to those who are hyper active and not building up the confidence to draw their capabilities out. Now I have come to understand that it is all because I did not create opportunities for children to develop their positive self-esteem. However, I still have no idea of how to build this up in the class. Would you please recommend the articles or books relating to enriching positive self-esteem in class ?
As regards the role of culture, I am totally with you on that fact that introducing children to other cultures through songs, traditional stories , fairy tales and games because being exposed to intercultural learning can help children be aware of parallel existence of other cultures like theirs and respect someone's culture. However, introducing to cultural or religious topics from different countries in lesson ( eg. Christmas, Diwali, Iftar , Full moon day of Kason at etc ) usually bring conflicts from students and parents. For example ,in my class, some students do not want to study about special days from Islamic cultures and Christanity because they have been influenced by some prejudices told by people in their community. Their parents also blame that I am persuading them to change their beliefs rather than seeing it as a language skill lesson. As a result, students are not happy learning intercultural related lessons. Thus, I suppose that cultural topics can bring about different conflicts depending on the society we are teaching.
Chad Win

Dear Carol,
This article reminds me with essential learning points in my professional life. I completely agree with your valuable findings in teaching. We, teachers, are lively mirrors for kids. The more we show positive attitudes towards them, they have become well-behaved and improve their learning experience in class. From my experience in group work is that when I awarded more points to well-behaved group, naughty kids become noticed and changed their manners. Also, I have become to pay more attention in drawing my lesson plan to include multiple intelligence for arousing children’s diverse learning styles.
Ei Kay


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