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.



Hi Carol,There was an article recently on the BBC website called Shouting out in class 'helps pupils to learn' which reported on the results of research that suggests that pupils who shout out the answer in class do better than their counterparts who are better behaved and quiet. So my question is: how can I  deal fairly with both vociferous and quiet students in my class? How can I make sure that the quieter students are not dominated by the more vociferous ones? And how can I do this without squashing the enthusiasm for English that the vociferous ones have?Best, Ann 

Hi Ann Thanks very much for pointing us in the direction of this interesting article on the BBC website. From what the article says, it seems that there is no conclusive evidence that higher achievers are necessarily those who can't be restrained from calling out in class as opposed to the quieter more attentive ones. I think that, as when dealing with any of the unique personality and attitudinal traits in the children we teach, the most effective approach - and especially with large classes - is to ensure that we provide a varied and balanced range of activity types which cater for different learning styles. This means that we include some activities, such as certain types of games and quizzes, which include spontaneous responses and calling out as a built-in part of the procedure, and other activities which require more considered reflection and individual thinking time. At the same time, however, I do think we also need to be careful not to let vociferous ones dominate proceedings. This is obviously important from a classroom management point of view. As well as this though, there are often issues of a lack of self-control and self-awareness on the part of children here. We need to convey that although they all have the right to participate equally - and we value their instant, spontaneous responses -  they cannot be protagonists all the time, and also have the responsibility to respect and listen to others, and take turns as well. Interesting topic and would be great to know what other people think! I think different cultural educational settings, expectations and norms will also hugely influence responses here.  

Hi Carol,Thanks very much for your advice – and the reasoning behind it. I agree that a variety of activity types that call for different types of responses and an atmosphere of mutual respect in the classroom should help me to keep the problem in perspective. Best,Ann

you are a great Dr i 'm at the beginning of teaching English as my career but i cant pass any interviews for private schools what are the necessary steps to follow to be an excellent teacher 

Dear Carol,Thank you for the article, it is very informative and useful. I tend to agree with you when you say that we should influence a child's behaviour. It all depends on our attitude and if we provide support and positive feedback. Even if the student is weak, a little encouragement will make him/her go a long way.

Hi Carol Thanks for your great article. I particularly like this bit about positive self-esteem: 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.' I think that to have our three wishes granted, communication between parents and teachers is vital. Parents need to know what their child is doing in class, how they are behaving and what they are expected to achieve(e.g., an eight-year-old doing 2 hours of English a week can play ‘memory’ and sing songs but can’t chat in English or do the First Certificate exam). The child’s English teacher needs to know as much about the child as his or her regular class teacher does – especially if there are any behaviour or learning problems. Sally

Hi Sally Many thanks for this - you make two great points with regard to children's self-esteem and possible learning problems: the importance of parent-teacher communication and information exchange with the regular class teacher. Communication with parents can be done through regular meetings, letters home about learning objectives and what's going on in the English class, inviting parents into lessons to help, showing them DVDs of lessons so they can see what's happening (especially as it's like to be very different from when they learnt English), as well as more formal Parent Training Classes which help parents develop children's literacy. The British Council also has a lot of useful information, help and support for parents too - perhaps you could give people a link? Many thanks. With the regular class teacher, as much communication as possible, is desirable - although in some contexts - language academies for example - teachers don't have access to the regular teachers at all.


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