We and our pupils.
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.
These wishes reflect three ingredients which are vital for teaching and learning success.
Developing positive self-esteem
For children to 'be happy' cannot 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.
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.
The things that, in the 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.
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!
Andrés, V.de, (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