Goal-setting is incredibly important. Mistakes with goal setting are a big reason why English learners don’t reach their study goals. When we meet new students at OOE, the first thing we do is talk about goals and help students set clear study targets. We often hear students say things like:
“I want to be fluent in English.”
“I want to speak English like a native.”
“I want to speak without making pronunciation or grammar mistakes.”
Here’s the thing: these goals are no good. If you say things like this, you’ll create problems for yourself. Let’s think about why that is. Firstly, these goals are too big, and too unclear. What does “fluent” mean? How will you know when you’re fluent in English?
Ask ten different people what “fluent” means, and you’ll get ten different answers. Because you have this goal which is huge and unclear, you don’t know where to start. You know you want to do something, but you don’t know what. Even if you do make some progress, you don’t feel like you’re getting closer to what you want. Then, you feel discouraged.
“Why can’t I learn English?” “Why is my English still so bad?” “Why am I spending all this time studying if my English isn’t getting better?” At this point, many people give up. But, it doesn’t have to be like this. There’s a better way: SMART goal setting. SMART is an acronym; it stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, timebound. First, let’s look at SMART goals to improve English learning in more detail.
1. What Are SMART Goals?
The ‘s’ in SMART stands for ‘specific’. Your goals need to be specific. “I want to speak English like a native” is not specific; “I want to be able to talk about everyday topics without hesitating”, is better. “I want to improve my English grammar” – not specific enough. “I want to learn how to use past verb forms accurately” – better.
Sometimes, you might need to talk to a teacher or an expert to help you make your goals specific. Alternatively, you might need to do some research to set specific goals.
‘M’ stands for ‘measurable’. There needs to be a way you can check your progress. So, here’s a better goal: “I want to be able to talk about five everyday topics for one minute without hesitating.”
‘A’ stands for ‘achievable’. Your goal shouldn’t be too easy, but it also shouldn’t be too hard. If you say something like, “I want to speak perfect English,” that isn’t achievable.
That doesn’t mean you can never do it, but it’s a goal which will take years (or decades) to reach. You need a goal you can achieve in a relatively short time period.
So, if you have a bigger goal, like “I want to speak English fluently,” you need to break that goal into smaller, more achievable steps, like, “I want to be able to talk about five everyday topics for one minute without hesitating.”
Next is ‘R’, which stands for ‘relevant’. This means that your English-learning goals need to connect with other parts of your life. If you want to improve your pronunciation, think about why you need this. What will it help you to do? What will change in other areas of your life if your English pronunciation is better? You need an answer to this, because it’s almost impossible to stay motivated if your studies don’t make a difference in other parts of your life.
Finally, the ‘T’ stands for ‘timebound’. This means you need a time limit on your goal. You need to set a date where you can say, “I did this!” or “I didn’t do this” – Hopefully, because your goals are specific, achievable and relevant, you’ll be able to say, “I did this!” more often than not!
So, let’s add a time limit to our goal:
“Within two weeks, I want to be able to talk about five everyday topics for one minute without hesitating.”
Now you know what SMART goals to improve English are. Let’s look at how you can set yourself SMART goals to improve different areas of your English.
2. Use SMART goals to Improve Your English Speaking
Do you want to improve your English speaking? Of course you do! Everyone we meet wants to speak English better. Here’s something we often hear from students:
“I want to express myself better. I feel like I don’t have enough vocabulary when I speak English.”
Let’s make some SMART goals from this idea. First of all, what do you want to talk about? Everyday topics, like your home, your family, or your hobbies? Or, do you want to talk about more abstract topics, like history, psychology, or love? Choose something. Everyone’s different, so we can’t choose a topic for you, but choose one for yourself.
Next, make your goal measurable. Adding a time element is a good way to do this; for example:
“I want to be able to talk about Van Gogh’s life and paintings in detail for three minutes without running out of words.”
Next, you need to ask yourself: is this achievable and relevant? Is this realistic for you, and does it connect to other areas of your life?
Looking at our example goal (talking about Van Gogh’s life and paintings) the answers will probably be “no”! That’s because it’s an example which we gave you. But, when you make your own goals, you should ask yourself the same questions: is it realistic, and does it connect to other areas of your life? If you don’t do this, you’ll waste time working towards goals which are unrealistic or irrelevant. This will hurt your motivation.
Finally, you need to make your goal timebound; for example:
“By the end of this month, I want to be able to talk about Van Gogh’s life and paintings in detail for three minutes without running out of words.”
To reach your goal, you may need to set yourself additional, minor goals, such as:
“By the end of this week, I will learn the English names of ten of Van Gogh’s paintings.”
“By the end of next week, I will be able to describe ‘Sunflowers’ in detail, without forgetting any words.”
“By tomorrow, I will have read this English article about Van Gogh’s life, and I’ll underline twenty words and phrases to learn.”
In this way, a big, vague goal becomes specific, and you have clear steps which you can follow to make progress and improve. Let’s do another example to see how you can use SMART goals to improve English pronunciation.
3. Use SMART Goals to Improve Your English Pronunciation
Here’s something we often hear from students:
“I want to sound more natural when I speak English.”
Let’s see how you can take this goal and make it SMART. Especially with pronunciation and other linguistic knowledge, you might need some help to make your goal specific.
Often, when we teach people pronunciation, they need our help because they don’t really know where to start. If this is your situation, then you either need help from a teacher, or you need to do your own research.
You need to do something, because a goal like, “I want to sound more natural when I speak English,” isn’t enough. Let’s see how you could make this more specific:
“I want to improve my intonation and stress in English, so that I sound more natural.”
Maybe, for you, this will be different. Maybe you need to learn more about consonant sounds, or long versus short vowel sounds, or syllable stress, or something else.
Whatever your goal, you still need to make it measurable. This is more difficult with pronunciation goals, but you still need to try.
You could add something like:
“I want to study these five units from this pronunciation book on intonation and stress, and practice with the audio until it feels easy.”
Then, you need to ask yourself if your goal is achievable and relevant, like you do with every goal. Finally, set a time limit:
“Within two weeks, I want to study these five units from this pronunciation book on intonation and stress, and practice with the audio until it feels easy.”
Your time limits should always be as short as possible. Can you see why? You know what happens if you have a deadline far in the future? You won’t do anything until the deadline is close. You need to feel that you don’t have enough time, so that you start working towards your goal sooner.
Let’s do one more example together, to see how SMART goals can help you to improve your English grammar.
4. Use SMART Goals to Improve Your English Grammar
Again, let’s start with something we often hear from students:
“I want to be more accurate in English, and make fewer mistakes when I speak or write.”
What should you do first? We hope you know the answer by now. Hopefully, you’re thinking, “That goal needs to be more specific!”
So, you need to know: what mistakes do you make now? And, what exactly do you want to learn to improve your grammar?
Again, maybe you need some help at this point; you might need to find a teacher to show you where you make mistakes, and what you need to study. Or, you can do your own research to find exactly what to focus on.
However you do it, you need to set a specific goal, like this:
“I want to understand the difference between the present perfect and the past simple.”
“I want to make fewer mistakes with grammar I’ve known for years, like forgetting to add ‘s’ to a verb in the 3rd person present simple.”
Next, you need to make your goals measurable. The best way to do this is in writing. For example, if you write something for your teacher, and your teacher shows you ten mistakes with the present perfect and past simple, your goal could be:
“I want to write a 300-word essay with fewer than three mistakes involving the present perfect and past simple verb tenses.”
What’s next? You should know the answer to this question, too! Hopefully, you remember that you need to ask yourself if your goal is achievable and relevant. These are questions that only you can answer! Finally, set a time limit:
“By the end of next week, I want to write a 300-word essay with fewer than three mistakes involving the present perfect and past simple verb tenses.”
Again, you might need to set minor goals to help you reach your major goal; for example:
“Today, I will study this unit on the present perfect tense, and repeat the exercises until I can get every answer correct.”
“Tomorrow, I’ll review the mistakes I made in the last three things I wrote, and make the mistakes into Quizlet cards, so that I can remember them.”
This might seem like a lot of effort at the beginning, but it’s worth it. Once you get used to setting SMART goals to improve English learning, it’ll become more instinctive. The clearer your goals, the more chance you’ll have to reach them and get what you want. If you get better at setting goals, you’ll feel a sense of progress. This will give you motivation and confidence, which will make it easier to continue learning and improving.
Thanks for watching this lesson from Oxford Online English!