S.M.A.R.T Goal-Setting for Language Learners

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If you’re a language teacher (or learner) then you’re probably aware of the dreaded ‘plateau’ that your students hit, usually once they’ve reached B1+/B2- level.

According to K. Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist, hitting these plateaus is a common occurrence in skills development.

Ericsson believes that mastery comes in bursts and doesn’t happen in a steady linear progression over time, as we would like to think.


Ericsson suggests that one of the major causes of ‘hitting the plateau’ seems to be routine and sticking to the same habits often results in failing to progress, despite investing a lot of time.

So Ericsson believed the reason for this is that after a lot of deliberate practice (consciously trying to get better at something and working on one’s evident flaws), as a language learner would do in the early stages of language development, we eventually reach a phase called the “autonomous stage,” when our subconscious decides that we’ve become as good as we need to get at the task and so begins to run on autopilot.

During that autonomous stage, we lose conscious control over what we’re doing. That’s what some call the “OK plateau,” the point at which we decide we’re OK with how good we are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.

But our students are not OK with this plateau and as teachers, we need to support them in turning off their autopilots and getting them out of their rigid learning routines.

Ericsson found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern, developing strategies for consciously keeping themselves of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things:

  • focusing on their technique

  • staying goal-oriented

  • getting constant immediate feedback on their performance.


S.M.A.R.T Goal Setting –

Help your students achieve their goals next year by using this S.M.A.R.T model.  SMART










What exactly in your language development do they want to achieve? The more specific they are, the more chance they’ll have of achieving their goal.

Many students say ‘I want to speak fluent English’ but how about breaking it down to a more specific goal such as ‘I want to focus on my speaking and be able to tick off the B2 ‘can do’ statements for  spoken interaction (with confidence) by March’.

Questions students may ask themselves when setting goals and objectives are:

  • What exactly do I want to achieve? – as above
  • Where? – in my lessons but also in the evenings at home
  • How? – by focusing in class and revisiting each lesson in the evening with help
  • When? – One hour each evening
  • With whom? – host family / friends.
  • What are the conditions and limitations? – If I am working / going on a trip with friends, I will make that hour up during the week.
  • Why exactly do I want to reach this goal? What are possible alternative ways of achieving the same?
    To communicate more fluently with clients in work. Alternative way would be to take private lessons to focus on this goal (one goal at a time).



They need to identify exactly what they will see when they reach their goal by breaking it down into measurable elements.

They’ll need concrete proof. ‘Improving’ in your language learning is not evidence but ‘making fewer errors when using the target language in spoken production (presentations, debates)’ is.

Defining the manifestations of their goal or objective makes it clearer, and easier to reach.


Is their goal attainable? That means taking the time to consider whether the goal really is worth the effort. They need to weigh up all the factors (time, effort, cost) against their other personal/professional obligations and make a decision; if it is attainable, then they must commit to it 100%.

If they don’t have the time, money or commitment to reach their goal, they won’t succeed.  That doesn’t mean that they can’t take something that seems impossible and make it happen by planning smartly and going for it!

There’s nothing wrong with reaching for the stars; if they aim to reach C1 from A2 by December 2016 and work hard towards achieving that goal, it wouldn’t be too bad if they reached B2-, would it?


Is reaching their goal relevant to them? Do they actually want to reach C1 level, or do they need to? Maybe they’ll find that reaching a B2+ level would suffice in finding the job they want.   Get them to ask themselves these questions:

Why do you want to reach this goal?
What is the objective behind the goal?
Will this goal really achieve that?


deadline_319441511 (1)Time is money! Everybody knows that deadlines make people switch to action mode. So encourage your students to plan deadlines for themselves and commit to keeping them.

Explain to them they should keep the timeline realistic and flexible, that way they won’t become demoralized if they’re not moving as quickly as they had hoped.

Remind them to Inform you (teacher) of your plan and to show you an outline of what they hope to achieve.  Monitor them from time to time and give them that extra push if they need it.  Remind them that being too strict on themselves can have a detrimental effect on their own morale and motivation.


Do you have any other ideas for helping students reach their goals?


6 Responses

  1. Students might not know what to do after setting their goals. So they turn to teachers. I’m convinced it is the teacher’s job to organize the process after the SMART stage. Not easy I should say as these goals can be reconsidered later 🙂

  2. faryal faiz

    student should be balanced by all aspect.

  3. Hmm, I like this breakdown, and I also like the idea of Cheryl working through it with those plateauing students!

    In all seriousness, I do suggest movies/tv/reading for them at this stage – lots of opportunity to assimilate phrases, sounds, slang, etc, and be able to incorporate their interests in fun ways that don’t feel so much like study.

    Also, some serious recognition of their fossilised mistakes that belong to the lower levels but aren’t going there. They really need to identify them with the teacher’s help, then go home and just basically *learn* the right option and stop with the lazy repetition of the mistake and ignoring the correction. I don’t mean to sound harsh, I just think at some point you have to stop being taught it, and go home and actually just learn it on your own once and for all, with intent!

  4. I normally use SMART, to plan my classes. They are a reminder of what we want our students to achieve their goals!

  5. Hi great advice and great visuals too. Could you tell me what your sources are for the graphics on the blog (i.e. photos etc.)? Thanks!

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