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.



Thank you very much for the article! You've managed to sum up the crucial components of any successful learning.Unfortunately, in my place very few teachers realise how important it is to support children's self-esteem. Maybe it's the Soviet legacy with its total disrespect to one's personality, maybe lack of prefessionalism  - but most of the teachers don't take into account psychological aspects of teaching. So I wonder whether there are any ways to change teachers' attitude to the kids? How can it be done? Maybe there exist some seminars or trainings or even courses?I am very eager to promote communicative (humane) approach in ELT in Russia but I badly need the tools...Thanks once more :)

Thank you very much for the brilliant ideas, I think we need to plan every lesson with the taking into concederation your theories.

Thank you for this. I was particularly interested in the section on culture. I have used traditional stories and rhymes from around the world because children like these and because of the language they contain. However, I had never really considered the role of traditional children's stories in communicating culture, or their 'universal significance'. I will be doing some follow up reading!

Interesting stuff. Seems obvious that fostering a positive environment stimulates learning but it's sometimes easy to forget how important it is. Links well with the part about body language in the SECRET workshop. Many thanks for the input.

Thank you for an insightful and practical article for this fundamental aspect of teaching young learners. I sometimes find it overwhelming, bordering on demotivating, to recognise problems with self-esteem or the effects of difficult home situations, in the children in my classroom; I feel powerless. Your article provides a positive and realistic solution: for those 90 minutes I can do my best to create an environment that supports the development of positive self-esteem, an interest and enjoyment of learning (English), and a safe place to be. I may not be able to change society, but I am doing my part with the influence I have as an English teacher, which I may have taken for granted before. Thank you again for the practical tools.

Thanks for your insightful article, especially the discussion of using 'real content' with YLs.

Thank you for a short article jam-packed with ideas and hope! =]
I really liked that you mentioned how beneficial CLIL can be in the primary language classroom. Primary students need reinforcement from all sides, and the more we incorporate real (but fun!) material into our courses as language teachers, the better for all involved. As you pointed out, teachers play an important role in children's lives when it comes to developing self esteem. Through the inclusion of real content in our lessons we can boost their sense of personal competence both in our classrooms and elsewhere.

Since it is not possible for (V)YLs to reach our level of developmental abilities as adults, I believe teachers should make the effort to understand their ‘little world’ and work towards gradually building up their cognitive, social, moral and motor skills in a meaningful, engaging and fun way that ultimately leads them to develop linguistically.

I would also be worth considering Carol Read’s article, The Seven ‘R’s: Managing Children Positively (, which presents an integrated framework for classroom management and creating a positive learning environment with YLs.


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