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,

Thank you very much for your article. I also have the same wishes and I agree with you that they are vital for teaching and learning success.

See you soon.

Best wishes

In fact, I also have these three wishes and I wish that my students feel secure in their classroom, for I think , as Carol Reads points out, it is very important to the child to feel secure. From my point of view , if a child does not feel secure in his class with his Teacher and his colleagues, he won´t learn anything in those classes. I think the feeling of security in the classroom is one of the basis for success in education.
Thank you very much, Carol Read, for your post. It is very interesting and important too!


(TeresaPadrão, Portugal)

Dear Dr. Read,

Thank you so much for your insightful article! I found that what you wrote about the relationship between self-esteem, behaviour, and achievement was enlightening. I did research on language learning motivation and found an interesting relationship between confidence in English and motivation. My participants were adult English learners from China as well as young learners of English (year 5 students) from Singapore. For both of these groups of learners, when their confidence in their English increased, their motivation toward learning English also increased. When their motivation toward learning English increased, so did their confidence in their English. When you referred to the book by de Andrés, I was reminded of another book by this author and Jane Arnold called Seeds of Confidence: Self-esteem Activities for the EFL Classroom which I found to be so practical and inspirational. I had my young learners do the Coat of Arms activity where they had to think of positive adjectives to describe themselves. Then, their classmates, teachers, and parents wrote positive adjectives about them to build their self-confidence. As I was reading your article, I was thinking that designing lesson plans that address the multiple intelligences of learners, include real content and culture are the keys to motivating them intrinsically. I will definitely keep this in mind when designing lesson plans for young learners of English!

This sounds like a great idea! Students thinking of positive adjectives to describe themselves and teachers reinforcing this.

Dear Carol,
Thank you for the article, it is very interesting .
I personally think children have two personalities, one at home and the other in the class. Therefore, I totally agree with you when you say that we can/should influence a child's behaviour. Each and every child has different capabilities, and and a lot depends on our attitude towards them by having an open mind of dealing with each student differently. We should observe them, and give positive feedback which goes a long way in developing their self esteem.

I completely agree with you. I only think that your recipe can also be applied in the adult classroom and still work perfectly. The only thing that I wanted to say is that there must be some differences in the way you do this with YLs because you can never tell how well the things will go.

Hi Carol,

I just read this article and watched your presentation on The SECRET. It's made me much more aware of the link between positive self- esteem and learning. Your insights into the importance of giving specific praise and catching students being good (CBG), are especially good learning points for teachers. Only if a student feels positive about him/her self will he be open to learning and to being influenced. Additionally, adding relevant context and content, help students relate to new language and to remember it.

I'm a little unclear about how popular poems, rhymes songs etc help students develop their own cultural identity. For example, Humpty Dumpty, Hickory Dickory Dock & Jack and Jill. Their origins might be British but they really don't refer to the Queen or a famous British landmark. So is it really, because these help students familiarize themselves with British popular traditional poetry, stories etc ? Or is it because it helps them, on some sub-conscious level to relate to their own cultural identity and the songs they hear while growing up. They see the distinction and therefore, realize they are different and unique.

What are the disadvantages or advantages of using English translations of popular songs, rhymes and stories from within their own culture? Specifically from the point of view of learning a language.

Thanks and looking forward to your response.

Hi Carol

I find your insights about the link between self -esteem and learning especially useful. Children learn when they feel good about themselves. I just read this article, and watched The SECRET, and your comments about catching children being good (CBG) and giving specific praise are very helpful for teachers. I’m also much more aware of the importance of teaching language in context and using appropriate content. Thank you for this.

I am a little confused about how culture plays a role. I understand that introducing traditional English rhymes and songs, for example Hickory Dickory Dock, Humpty Dumpty etc., help kids develop a cultural identity. They understand the differences between their culture and the English culture because, on a sub-conscious level, they compare what they hear growing up to what their English counterparts hear. However, what are the pros and cons of using translated versions of their own traditional poems and songs? Would that not help them in helping them learn the language better? They probably have a familiar cultural character or poem, could we not use that to our advantage to teach them English? I would appreciate your comments.



Thank you for such an informative article. It made me think how complex human beings are, no matter how young or old. It seems that there are so many layers that a teacher needs to consider. I truly believe in the power of positivity and the way it helps to improve the channels of communication. I agree that, through the use of multiple intelligences and the use of real content, along with the universal themes in culture, "entry points" can be established. I am looking forward to practising what I've just learned.

Kind regards,

Hello Carol

It's a real relief to read this article and also watch your video about The Secret. I am at odds with one of my classes and, to make it worse, I know that a lot of the problem is to do with me. Being mindful in the classroom is a help at times but it doesn't always get me to a long-term solution. Once I’m out of the classroom I find it difficult to make the space to reflect on my teaching and the problems at hand. I hope reading and watching more things like this and my upcoming TYLEC help me to improve my reflection habits.

Do you also address the importance of developing positive self-esteem for teachers in any of your material?

Thank you!


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