How to Set Goals When Learning English


Learning English is like trying to find your way in a new city

Learning English is a complex process that can take years of study to reach the desired level of skill. There are a lot of elements in the English language. Besides obvious aspects, such as vocabulary and grammar, there are also nuances related to building fluency and understanding which words are appropriate in various situations. It becomes even more complicated the higher your English level grows. Needless to say, learning English isn’t straightforward and you can easily become lost if you don’t have a plan to help guide you and keep you motivated. To be more specific, learning English becomes easier and less complex when you set the right goals for yourself and in this article, we’re going to learn how to set good learning goals by using the S.M.A.R.T. method.


What are S.M.A.R.T. goals?



Always look at what you want to hit

S.M.A.R.T. is a method for making goals for anything in life, and that includes learning English. The acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based. By following the steps in the SMART goals method, you can make your English learning an easier process. The way it works is that it makes you think about the following:


  • Why are you learning English?

  • What does learning English help you do?

  • What do you want to use your English for?

  • When do you need to reach your goal?

  • Who will you be using English with?


Most people think of their English learning too broadly. This means that they end up feeling they need to learn everything and that ends up looking like a mountain that’s too difficult to climb. When you only see the peak of the mountain, it’s easy to become demotivated because your progress is so slow. SMART goals allow you to break your learning into smaller steps that will give you a better sense of progress and keep you motivated. In order to make SMART goals, you need to follow a five-step process, with each step being denoted by a letter of the acronym.


How to make your goals Specific



Everyone wants money and happiness. How will you get it?

When I ask my students why they’re learning English, the most common answers I get are the following:


  • It’s important for my job

  • I need it for school

  • I want to go to an English-speaking university

  • I want to travel and make friends


Let’s look at the first one, “It’s important for my job”. This sounds specific but in reality it’s still too broad. What kind of job do you do? What vocabulary do you use? How often do you speak with native English speakers? Do you speak over the phone or do you only use e-mail? At the heart of each of these questions is communication which is the main aim of learning a language.


In order to improve your English faster, you need to think about your own communication context. An engineer’s context is different from a doctor’s. Engineers might use e-mail more often whereas doctors regularly have to speak with patients face-to-face. That’s how you can make things more specific. To make their goal more specific, an engineer will want to focus on writing formal e-mails, use vocabulary that is related to their job, and be able to understand what people are saying when they reply. So, our engineer’s Specific goal could go like this:


I want to be able to write formal e-mails to clients, colleagues and managers to report on the work I’m doing. I also want to be able to use the right vocabulary to describe my work as well as understand the responses and requests I receive.

This might look like a small thing but if this person is able to achieve this goal, they will be able to use English effectively in their job. It allows them to focus on learning the things that are important to them. But we’re not finished yet as we still need to know how we’re making progress.


How to make your goals Measurable



How far do you need to go?

Imagine if you wanted to walk from your home to the nearest grocery store which is straight ahead of where you live. You’d know you were getting closer because every step you took would bring you a little closer and you would visually notice passing by the buildings around you. Now imagine you are blindfolded. How would you know you’re making progress towards your goal? How would you know you’re even going in the right direction. For a lot of people, learning a language feels like they’re the blindfolded person because they have no representation or evidence of their progress.


You’ve experienced this in school, even when you were learning English. Your teacher would test you every now and then, after which they would give a grade and then perhaps put you at a higher level. There’s a lot to be said about grades and how they help with progress but this isn’t how we will measure our goals. We need to treat our measurements like the buildings we pass by when we’re walking to the grocery store. We need to be able to see them and they need to be related to our goal.


Back to our engineer who wants to improve their vocabulary and writing. How can they tell they’re making progress? To make their vocabulary goal Measurable, they can set a specific number of words they will learn and practice every week. I typically recommend 10-30 words on a weekly basis. On the other hand, writing can be measured based on a few things. Our engineer can either aim to write one formal e-mail per day or practice a specific part of their e-mail. Whatever the choice, it needs to be something that can be counted and they have to keep reaching that limit.


Once more, this can seem like a small thing but we’re only just getting started as it all adds up. Time to focus on A part of our SMART method.


How to make your goals Achievable



This is an Achievement face

Remember when we talked about our English learning is like a very high mountain? I want you to imagine that the top of the mountain represents a famous native English speaker you admire and you want to speak English as they do. Can this goal be achieved? If you spend a lot of years studying, practicing and imitating this person, you might be able to speak English as well as they do. Because this goal is so far away into the future, though, it’s easy to lose sight of it or even change it at some point. This kind of goal is not Achievable.


An Achievable goal is something we can do within a shorter amount of time. Think of the 10-30 words I mentioned for the engineer in the previous section. Can you learn 10 words a week? You most likely can learn them and you will probably be able to use them quite well. What about writing one e-mail a day? That’s also possible, even for busy people. Now, let’s think about the overarching goal for our engineer who wants to become better at writing e-mails for their job. With enough work and by following their goal process, this engineer can become better at writing e-mails within a reasonable amount of time.

Whatever your goal is, it has to be something that you can reasonably accomplish because every time you reach your English learning goal, you become more motivated. You feel a sense of completion and achievement which is like putting more wood in the fire that keeps you moving forward with your learning.


How to make your goals Relevant



Your goal has to fit your life

Let’s talk about our engineer again and their goal of becoming better at writing work e-mails. If you remember, we said that our goal needs to come from our own context. That means that when we decide what we’re learning English for, it needs to be something Relevant to what we do in life. An engineer might have very little use for words that are used by doctors or fashion designers so making a goal to learn such vocabulary isn’t Relevant to them.

Relevance is directly connected to interest. I love video games and when I was learning Chinese, I wanted to use it to make friends who had the same interests as me. A lot of the books I used and the teachers I had, however, were teaching me a lot of vocabulary from Chinese literature. This wasn’t relevant to what I wanted to do with my Chinese. What I needed was to learn words that I could use with people I met at gaming events and parties.

You’re probably thinking that all words in a language are important. I don’t disagree and it all has to do with timing. Keeping your interest in the language is the most important thing when you’re learning English. It’ll be a lot easier to do that if you focus on the parts of English that are directly related to how you will use it first.


How to make your goals Time-based



You don't have infinite of it

The final ingredient to our SMART goals is related to Time. Your goal so far is specific, it has a way to track your progress, it’s something you can achieve and it’s directly related to your reasons for learning English. But this goal is only a small part of your learning journey so we need to set a specific time by which you will complete it. It can be as short as a few weeks or months to as long as a few years. Without a specific time by which you will be finished with your goal, you will find yourself stuck with it endlessly. Without a deadline, you might also not put the regular effort you need in order to learn English well.


For our engineer’s goal, I feel about a month of persistent practice should be enough to improve their e-mail writing skills. At the same time, their vocabulary should be at a good level to be used at work within 2-4 months depending on how many words they need to learn.


Adding Time to your goal is like your boss or your teacher giving you a task or homework. You can’t finish it whenever you want because you may never complete it. You should have the same discipline with yourself.


Putting it all together


Now that we’ve gone through the whole process, let’s write up our engineer’s SMART goal as a whole:


I want to be able to write formal e-mails to clients, colleagues and managers to report on the work I’m doing. I also want to be able to use the right vocabulary to describe my work as well as understand the responses and requests I receive. This goal is relevant because I’m learning English in order to be better at my job because I interact with English speakers a lot. I will study examples of formal e-mails every day and write one practice e-mail. At the same time, I will learn 5 new engineering words every day. I feel that it’s possible to be able to write better e-mails within one month and I should have enough new vocabulary within 2 months. This goal is achievable because I can spare enough time every day to work on my English.

This is what your SMART goals should look like once you’ve put all the pieces together. Once you’ve completed it, you can create a new one that is based on your current skills that can move you forward in your English learning improvement.


Setting SMART goals is an important step not just for your improvement but also for managing your learning. As we said in an earlier part of this article, learning English takes a long time and it can feel very complicated. By dividing your learning into smaller pieces you can control how fast you move onto new things to study. At first, you will feel that doing this limits what you learn but once you complete a few goals you will realize that you’re actually making progress in your English learning.

There you have it! I hope this has been useful. If so, share this article with someone who wants to learn English, follow us on Instagram and try making some examples in the comments below!


See you in the next lesson!

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YANNIS ONLINE ENGLISH TEACHER