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.



Great - many thanks for this, Sally. I know that many parents (and teachers) find these pages very helpful. Letting parents of the children you teach know about them is also a good way of starting and/or keeping up an active parent/teacher dialogue.By showing parents how much you value their input and involvement in their children's learning, there is frequently a positive knock-on effect to their children's motivation and self-esteem. You do need to be slightly wary though of 'over keen' parents who would have their children doing endless grammar exercises or similar at a very young age and need to be gently coaxed into an awareness that other more global activities that they can share with their children, such as watching animated stories, may be more valuable in the long run (and again there are some great examples on the learnenglish kids site). 

Many thanks for your contribution. I completely agree with you about the importance of support and positive feedback and that a little encouragement goes a long way.I sometimes think that as teachers we need to change our 'chip' and look for things children are doing 'right' rather than what they are doing 'wrong', which often tends to get most of our attention. If we do this over time - and bearing in mind the 3 'P's (Patience, Perseverance and Persistence!) - we convey the message that we value children's positive behaviour and that they get our attention when they're on task and behaving acceptably rather than the opposite.  

i have a question if you can help me how can i make it easyer for the kids  to learn english i'm a english teacher in Albania  ? 

Hello Carol,Thank you very much for this article.Very useful.I took notes of many points.Thank you,   

Thanks for your article. All of us wishes for thier students to be happy and enjoy thier lessons and your advices are really helpful.

I enjoyed reading this article. It's really useful for me as a fresh post-graduated on the start line of teaching.I am sure with these ideas, make it a clear messege for me what I have to do.The 3 wishes and the triangle of influences I won't forget them In sha' Allah. I am looking to listen to the Secret form the comments sounds great moments I am about to live, enjoy and learn.Thanks Carol Read.

Dear Carol,Thanks a lot for the article.  I also believe that teachers have a vital role to play in the process of constructing their self-image. And Andrés's words 'parents hold the key to children’s self-esteem, … teachers hold a spare one.' are always with me, i just can add that nowadays teachers hold the key to children's self-esteem, but parents don't care. yea,  that's another topic to discuss "How to involve parents in teaching process?"Best, Dilora

Wow thats great way I instictivly know that this is the best way to learn anything and to practice anything, moreover, consistency and states helped me to achieve big goals such as mastering English so we really truly to get into a peak emotional state before and during and after every class. To be effective we have to be honest and doing the hard work using productivity by stimulating creativity right.. So finally we need to enjoy the platues as much as the spurts of learning and we sort of mension that in the class and tell our success stories to realy inspire or convince somebody to take a kind of action as action is what we need to live in the path of mastery and help other ppl do the same thing and I think thats the biggest benifit of mastery right, to pay it forword don't pay it back, take what you have got, what you have learnt and bring it to someone else, as you bring it to someone else, it continues the cycle of fullfillment of joy of meaning of yourlife everything works..I think thats the best way to learn by integrating body and mind both are very very important starting with your body and the way you use your body and changing your focus..Good Luck teachers 

Excellent article, very interesting.I have been teaching YLs for a while now and I sometimes have problems teaching students with multi-intelligence identities. What is the best way to deal with a group of students who have for example; logical identities during a kinaesthetic activity?I find myself with a group of students engaged and a group of students not engaged. What is the best thing to do without giving them two different activities? Can anyone help???  


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