Teaching social values in the primary language classroom

The incorporation of a values syllabus has become a staple feature of primary ELT coursebooks. I’ll be honest and say that, as a commissioning editor and now as a writer, I’ve sometimes felt sceptical about the inclusion of values pages, which – let’s face it – can often feel twee, clumsy and a bit preachy. So, as teachers and publishers, how can we do better in this area? And why is it important to tackle these topics anyway? In a packed curriculum, what, you might ask, is the value of teaching social values?

I recently attended a webinar led by Susan Banman Sileci on the subject, which has inspired this blog post and made me want to focus on some practical suggestions.

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Why teach social values in ELT? 

As an ELT professional, do you consider it your role to actively promote social values? In the past, I may have hesitated to answer that question. After all, we can feel a bit cautious about moralising and about stepping onto parents’ territory. To remind ourselves of why this might be important, let’s recap recent events which tell us something about the spirit of the times.

When I started writing this, I was reflecting on the previous year and the kind of role-models it provided. I was thinking about the Brexit referendum and the U.S. presidential election, and all the ways in which the mud-slinging which characterised those campaigns promoted the sort of behaviour we’d shudder to see in a playground. I was thinking about the fact that Oxford Dictionaries announced that ‘post-truth’ was the word of the year, defined as describing circumstances where “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals”. I was thinking about the fact that in November 2016 the Equality and Human Rights Commission went as far as to urge British politicians to ‘tone down’ political rhetoric that, it argued, had ‘legitimised hate’. And I was pondering the widespread shift towards insularity which makes the idea of border walls win votes, and which inspires British Prime Minister Theresa May to claim that “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”.

So far, so depressing. Right?

I wondered how and when this changing political climate will impact on the lives of students of the books I write and edit, in Spain, Mexico, Turkey, China and around the world.  And then I remembered other news stories I’d read recently. That in Mexico, about 200,000 people have been murdered and 28,000 “disappeared” in the last ten years. (For context, the number of “disappeared” alone is considerably bigger than the population of the town in which I live.) Another shocking story: suicide bombings in Cairo leave 24 dead. I’ve conducted research trips to both Mexico and Egypt, and talked to many primary students and their teachers there. I’ve visited the cathedral in Cairo where praying women were blown up. And yet, even when you’ve travelled extensively, it’s surprisingly easy to lose sight of the fact that this kind of horror is a fact of life for some students. We mustn’t.

I don’t know about you, but this brings me to the conclusion that we have a responsibility as teachers and publishers to think about possible correctives to the dishonesty and intolerance we see all around us. Hard as it might be, and unnatural as it might feel, we need to find ways to meaningfully integrate in our lessons the values we want to see reflected in the world.

 “I truly believe the only way we can create global peace is through not only educating our minds, but our hearts and our souls.”            Malala Yousafzai

How can we teach social values in an effective way?


In ELT coursebooks, values teaching is often tied in with story comprehension. This has the benefit of presenting the value in a meaningful context, through characters children often already know and are already emotionally invested in. Stories allow us as teachers to heed the old advice ‘show don’t tell’, since, if you present children with a narrative, chances are that they will be able to identify examples of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour themselves. In this way, stories allow us to explore rather than preach. We can ask probing questions: What did the character do? Why? What happened? How do the people feel?

Too often, however, stories in ELT course books are written solely as the vehicle for a values presentation, at the expense of plot and humour. Worse still, values are sometimes grafted onto existing stories as an afterthought by publishers. My advice to teachers would be: choose stories carefully, and include an evaluation of how engaging the values sections are when making coursebook selections. I’ve written more about choosing picture books here.


The teachable moment

Few would argue with the point that teaching primary-school students is a holistic process, rarely confined within limits of one clear-cut subject area. This means there’s an opportunity to explore values as they arise. You may find discussions about values spring quite naturally from your topic area if you’re willing to exploit links which move the conversation beyond the nuts and bolts of the language syllabus.

 Going beyond the course book – some ideas for teachers:

  • With older students, make a class ‘contract’ eliciting and collaboratively agreeing expected behaviour from students, and the responsibilities of a teacher.
  • Use authentic children’s stories and videos with a message to explore.
  • Even with the youngest students, teach adjectives to describe feelings and develop empathy by encouraging learners to identify the feelings of characters in stories.
  • Personalise. Use the students’ own ideas. Ask for and exploit anecdotes. Talk about your own experiences.
  • Identify the values you want to focus on each month. Display the value on the wall and refer to it regularly.  (This idea comes from Susan Banman Sileci. I love it.)
  • Brainstorm and agree a ‘class motto’ for the year or a ‘school motto’ to propose to the head teacher – what values do your class want to be known for?
  • Consider having reward charts on display acknowledging and rewarding examples of the behaviour you’re focussing on. You could involve learners taking responsibility for keeping their chart updated. (There is some research which points to the long term ill effects of reward systems like this, however, as there’s a danger of developing an ‘I’ll only do it if I get a sticker’ attitude. What do you think?)
  • Involve parents – do they know what the values focus is this month? How can they contribute? How are the values promoted in class carried through at home? Include parents in simple homework tasks (eg Help your parents cook dinner this week. / Read your parents the story and talk about what you like/don’t like about it. etc)
  • Make a kindness calendar (you can see a lovely example here). You could link this to religious events such as the contemplative periods of Advent or Lent in Christianity or Ramadan in Islam, if appropriate in your context, or you could have one linked to your values theme of the month.
  • Get students to do a research project about a local charity.  (What does the charity do? Where do they work? How can we help?)
  • Create a ‘buddy bench’ in the playground or cafeteria, and agree the ground rules for using it. (More information here)
  • Teach functional language associated with social values and display this prominently in your classroom (eg Can I help you? It’s your turn. What’s the matter?)
  • Have class conservation projects, such as planting flowers needed by bees.
  • Decorate your walls with inspiring quotations.
  • Do class research projects into people who have made a difference: humanitarians, reformers and inventors.
  • Create class projects that require students to take turns looking after something, for example watering plants or looking after a class mascot, or, if you’re feeling brave, a class pet.
  • Create opportunities for collaborative inter-age group learning. Encourage older learners to look after and encourage their younger schoolmates.
  • Strive to create a class culture where being a good friend is prized as highly as getting top marks or being great at sport.
  • Make real intercultural links. Team up with a partner school in another country so that learners can have conversations and make presentations via Skype and learn about another context. This also creates an authentic need to use English to a real audience which is hugely motivating.


Class culture

Finally, it’s worth thinking about what examples your students see around them.

  • Consider representation and stereotypes. Do the materials you use in class have an ethnically diverse mix of children, playing equal roles? Do they show children with disabilities? Do they paint a picture of gender equality? What kind of role-models do they show that the children in your class can relate to?
  • Consider the culture in your class and your school. Make a point of saying please, thank you and sorry, and expecting it from your students.
  • Use positive reinforcement when you can: praise examples of kindness, cooperation, patience and generosity.

In summary, I think it pays to make values teaching as authentic and meaningful as you can. Bring it off the page, so this becomes part of daily classroom life, not a section in a book seen once per unit, at most.

Is values teaching a topic you feel strongly about? I’d love to hear your about ideas and experiences.

7 thoughts on “Teaching social values in the primary language classroom

  1. Hi Emily, great post! I couldn’t agree more, and the post was, as Jennifer says, lovely 😊 I teach in it’s up in a different context from you because I work at a university but social values, such as mutual respect, which often seem to be lacking in our greed driven world, are just as important in my classroom too.

    What your post made me think was the importance of authenticity. I really think that any activity like the ones you’ve mentioned that have real meaning on relevance both to teachers and students are essential and help both learners and teachers to listen to and to respect each other.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Sharon! Yes, I think authenticity is at the heart of it. I was wondering about how teachers of older students felt about this topic (I’ve taught lots of teens and young adults too, though not recently, and I think I’d be quite cautious about seeming “preachy”). The class contract idea works with all ages though, and is quite a nice way to kick off the start of the year.
      Anyway, thanks again for the positive feedback!


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