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Tips for Teaching Values in the Primary Classroom

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I was a child who very much cared about pleasing my parents, and my earliest memories seem to involve the stressful or surprising moments when I did not please them. For example, I must have been around four years old and my family was at a restaurant having lunch. A child at another table was talking loudly and waving his arms. My response was to stare at that child, and I lifted my arm to point at him and asked my parents to look too. To my surprise, I was told clearly not to point at anyone and to stop looking at the child. The direct message was, “It’s not polite,” and I was not supposed to stare and point here or anywhere else.

Were my parents teaching me values? At the time, they would probably have said no, they were teaching me to be polite and to behave in a way that was acceptable in American society. They were teaching me basic etiquette and good manners. But through etiquette and manners, they were also teaching me values. In this case, they wanted to teach me to respect the privacy of others and to mind my own business.

Every year, I hear more and more about teaching values in the classroom. Some governments suggest that teachers do it. Some schools enrol students by telling parents that their teachers do it. Some parents specifically ask teachers to help them out by teaching values.

It might seem like you’re being asked to do too much when, on top of teaching English, you have to teach students to be kind, helpful, fair, polite and careful while learning about recycling, caring for the environment and respecting the world around them. You might shake your head and say, “It just can’t be done.”

I suggest it can and, chances are, you’re already doing it.

When a student throws trash on the floor, you probably ask the student to pick it up. It’s basic manners to clear up our own mess, but you’re also teaching about the value of respect for ourselves, others, the school, and the environment by asking a student to pick up some paper they left on the floor. You’re teaching values.

You ask a student to lend you a pen or to demonstrate an activity and as you ask, you say “Please.” You then say “Thank you” when it’s done. And you ask students to use those same terms with you and their classmates in similar situations. You’re teaching manners and basic etiquette, but you’re also teaching gratitude and respect for things others give or do. You’re teaching values.

These values start small. We can’t and don’t expect that picking up one piece of paper will cause a student to become an advocate for a neighbourhood recycling program. We can’t expect that saying “Thank you” one time will cause a child to be more respectful of another person’s time and energy. But it’s a beginning.

More importantly, just as I needed to be told not to stare and point at another child in a restaurant, our students need direct and clear coaching in what society expects of them. Yes, of course, children absorb values from what they see around them. If everyone in the car puts a seat belt on, a child will one day learn that people wear seat belts in the car and probably do it too. But asking a child to please put his seat belt on might be the first step. And parents might have to remind the child several times, if not hundreds of times before a child remembers.

Our job as teachers (among many other things!) is to reinforce what children learn at home and help create citizens of the world who are not only polite but who respect others, who care for their environments, and who care for themselves. And particularly in primary classes, we don’t start with bigger issues like climate change, immigration, sexual identity, or hate crimes. We start by asking students to say “Please,” to clean up their messes, and remember to wait for their turn. These small values grow and build on one another until students begin to understand the bigger picture.

There are lots of manners and values to work on, but teachers can start by reinforcing them slowly and individually. For example, have Please and Thank You Week. During this week (or month, depending on your schedule), suggest that everyone remember to say please and thank you. In the classroom, they can do this in English. And they can do it in their native language outside the classroom – in other classes, in their communities and at home. To wrap up, spend a few minutes practising the different situations where students might say please and thank you.

For children, learning explicit values can be lots of fun. They enjoy helping one another remember this week’s value and really enjoy seeing me, the teacher, occasionally forget to use it (we’re all learning together!). At the beginning of the next class, I can ask students if they used their polite words yesterday. Did they use them with other teachers, or friends, or their families? I’d ask students to volunteer success stories and ask the class to act out that story in English. We might even make a poster and at the end of the week, we can celebrate by drawing a big star to show that we’ve mastered please and thank you.

By breaking values into small, meaningful chunks, stating our expectations, following up during the week and rewarding students for good behaviour, teaching values becomes not only manageable, but also incredibly helpful to your image as a teacher. Imagine being a mother whose child suddenly starts saying please or sharing with his little sister? If that mother finds out it’s because his English teacher suggested it (and she will), you’re a star!

So here’s a challenge: Besides Please and Thank You Week, what other “values weeks” could we plan? I’ve made a poster, stuck it to the wall beside my computer and will write your suggestions on it. Get yourself a star and share your ideas!


Turn your students into citizens! I’m running a free webinar on teaching values on 15th and 16th May, so if you want to find out more please do join me! Click the button below to register. 


Teachers play an important role in a child’s awareness of politeness, kindness, sharing etc. Susan Banman Sileci, co-author of the new Primary course, Everybody Up, shares some of her ideas on how to bring values into the classroom.

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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11 thoughts on “Tips for Teaching Values in the Primary Classroom

  1. This is a very interesting post but it does raise a number of related issues which haven’t really been touched upon here.

    With the example you suggest of “please and thank you” week I can see how this chimes in well with morals and standards for a country like the UK. It seems normal and reasonable to expect this in the UK and for classes there I’m perfectly at home with this.

    But what about classes in other countries? You suggest that students can use please and thank you “in their native language outside the classroom”.

    In my experience teaching in places like Greece I found that 90% of the people simply did not use these words in the same way as in the UK in everyday life.

    This raises a number of questions such as how far we go as teachers to not only teach the subject we are teaching but also try to change the common manners of the country we’re in.

    Of course the example of “please” and “thank you” is trivial but does lead on to other attitudes which may be less so. Alongside teaching the manners we grew up with, are we also to stray into teaching the morals of the country? I’m thinking here of teaching more contentious concepts such as freedom and democracy and equality. Whilst the primary class in the UK will no doubt be treating boys and girls the same, is it up to the foreign teacher in the Middle East to try and teach the same?

    • What great issues you raised! As an American teacher and author living in Brazil for 24 years, I recognize that not all of the values that are relevant to the UK and the US cross borders so well. You mentioned a few of them.

      However, I believe that most parents around the world, independent of other differences, agree on a few basic things. We want our children to be respectful. We want them to be healthy. We want them to be polite. We want them to wait their turn. We want them to share. The way these values are interpreted by each culture may differ. For example, being polite in one country may take a different form from being polite in another. But we’d all like our children to be polite, whatever that means for a particular time and place.

      This is where your job as teacher is so crucial. You’re working on two things really. First, you’re supporting the work parents are doing at home (and some parents do better than others!) by reinforcing basic values. But, because you live and work in an EFL environment, it’s your job to interpret these values so they make sense to that particular culture. If Greeks don’t use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ very much, is that because it’s really not needed or has it just become a bad habit that parents would like to see reversed? If, in fact, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ isn’t a value that’s stressed, you can discuss that with students. “Some cultures express themselves this way. Do we? No? Why not? What would happen if we did? What do we say in these situations?”

      Which leads to the second issue that teaching values helps you work on: preparing your students for a life where they might need to use English. That day will come for many of them – either through travel, exchange programs or work – and they need to get used to these concepts because that’s what English speakers expect (albeit unconsciously, much of the time). Why not start the habit in your classroom?

      As for straying into the morals of the country we teach in, I would say that most primary students start out much more concerned about overturning the toy box than overturning the government. Freedom, democracy and equality are subjects that you, the language teacher, need to know how to approach (or not). At this age level, I’d suggest sticking closer to values that will help children with what they need right now: learning the basics of generally expected good behavior so their lives at home, at school and about town run more smoothly.

      • Oh, I very much agree with you when it comes to basic manners! My main concern really stems from seeing teachers in the classroom who were putting forward their moral beliefs and attitudes to the class which I felt were entirely inappropriate for the culture we were working in.

        And here’s the problem: those cultural aspects we teach which outside the language per se run from basic polite behaviour at one end to extreme cultural imperialism at the other. (Ha ha, I realise we are talking about a primary class here so there won’t be much cultural brainwashing going on there!)

        Where is the line drawn? Is a teacher right in having their students stand up when they enter the room as they used to do at school? Should the boys allow the girls through the door first and so on?

      • Susan, you raise an issue here which is very important and sadly neglected. Let me add a couple of points, if I may:

        1. There is a risk here of portraying values education as an optional extra. It isn’t. To appreciate how fundamental it is we have to go back to a reconsideration of what education is all about. It cannot just be about kids learning individual subjects. It must be about preparing children for adulthood, so they can take a full and active role in adult society. If that society is not some sort of Hobbesian nightmare, the children will have to acquire the habits and values of that particular civilisation. The school is an institution that creates a fairly formal public space in which children can start to find their way in public life – something that can’t be achieved in a family or neighbourhood setting. In a vibrant democracy, finding your way in public life would involve developing the skills of listening, critique and debate. Democratic ideals would have to be part of even the EFL/ELT classroom, e.g. with pupils participating in framing class and school rules. In a society without a vibrant democratic culture, of course, things would be very different and the values to be cultivated would be different.

        2. TEFL World Wiki’s anxiety about the risk of foreign teachers acting as cultural imperialists has nothing to do with the basic importance of cultivating values in school. Of course teachers who go abroad have to be prepared to fit into and work with the local culture (which is not to say that they cannot tactfully raise questions there and spur debate). It is for the teachers who are in a country for the long haul to keep the dialogue going about what values should be cultivated in that society and how. What is being discussed here is not some silly idea of a right of individual teachers to flex their cultural muscles in class. The process of advancing civilisation is a collective achievement.

      • I love your respond.

  2. I am a Greek and I don’t think that “please” and “thank you” is something that doesn’t fit to our culture. When you are a good teacher, you can find ways to teach these value, even though some the children seem not to use these words . Maybe you can give some stickers or other recompenses for achieving that.
    Some values , as Susan said, are global and i think that they things that you ask don’t make sense. If you don’t want to teach values, don’t teach them. Don’t find excuses for not doing it.

  3. Pingback: Teaching values is nothing new! « Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching Global Blog @OUPELTGlobal

  4. Pingback: ‘Teaching values is nothing new!’ – ‘OUP ELT Global’ Blog - English Teaching Daily

  5. I’m a nigerian teacher! I want to dash my appreciation,at first to the poster. Having gone through the write-up and the indispensable contributions by the experts,I can tell you that;moral and social upbringing at the preliminary stage of the children is as very important as teaching english alphabet. Permit me to use a yoruba proverb(ati kekere lati n peka iroko,ko ma baa gbebo lowo eni bo dagba) contexual meaning(we train a good and morally behaved adult,right from his/her childhood). Nothing indeed, is bad in impacting early moral and social education on the children,as they tend to be the leaders of tomorrow and which might eventually touch people lives on the basis they grew with. ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ ,I personally, don’t think it should be rejected any where in the world,because of its powerful moral and ambigiuties.

  6. Amazing blog. As we all know, teachers play an important role in student’s life. Primary school students are at the age where teachers have to model them. These tips will definitely help teachers to enhance the values in them.

  7. It is important to make sure the values are shared and ‘valued’ by all and not just imposed. I worked in Nigeria where the value of respecting elders was demonstrated by pupils having to bow whenever an adult walked passed in the school corridor or grounds. The pupils hated it and it became counter productive as they did not value elders because of it.

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