ETp 4 – setting goals and monitoring achievements

Encouraging learners to set goals and monitor their achievements.

My eldest son, Jack Foord, is learning to the play the piano. He is 21 and took up the piano about six months ago. He has a one-hour lesson each week and practises for about three hours. I wonder why with English learners, adults and children, the reverse is often true: they tend to do one hour of homework (or less!) for every three hours of class with a teacher – like my younger son, James, in fact. He started learning the piano when he was nine. His one-hour weekly piano lesson was supplemented by about 20 minutes practice a week (or less if he wasn’t cajoled by his parents!).

In this series of articles on learner coaching, we propose a paradigm shift in language teaching. We think the teacher’s primary role is to help learners help themselves to improve their English as much as they can. So how do we move them from the James to the Jack situation?

Keys to success

There may be some crucial differences in the way that James and Jack approach learning the piano. Firstly, James felt more obliged to attend classes, whereas Jack made the decision on his own. Secondly, Jack’s relationship with his teacher is more equal, and therefore he wants to reward the investment his teacher has made in him through the progress he’s making. Thirdly, Jack seems to be keeping track of his own progress because he’s learning quickly and can see his progress better than James can. His teacher encourages him to practise and master specific pieces, so he can more easily feel a sense of progress.

These three differences translate into three key ingredients for success, which we have incorporated in the activities below: choice, accountability and results.


The first activity lets students plan what they want to do outside class to practise their English. The checklist will help raise awareness of the wealth of options open to them but, more importantly, it invites them to choose how they would like to practise their English, when, who with and for how long. Learners are more likely to see something through if they have chosen it themselves.


In all the activities we present here, the learners reflect on what they have and haven’t achieved and report to a fellow student. In our experience, learners benefit from sharing ideas and what we might call ‘peer pressure motivation’. In other words, they would like to have something to share with their peers, a success to recount.


Activities 2 and 3 incorporate ‘scoreboards’. By this we mean concrete and objective results. Students are invited to list the things they have learnt, score their motivation out of ten and count the number of hours they have spent practising English. This allows them to understand clearly and celebrate what they have achieved – and also revise their goals, if necessary.

Activity 1: Planning your English practice

Step one

Mishka, a B1-level English learner from Russia, is planning to spend 200 hours on her English this year to get her to B2 level. Look at this example table completed by Mishka, showing how she plans to spend those 200 hours.

How many hours Comments/details on how, when, who with, what resources …
Attending English classes 90 Three hours per week of classes in the university.
Reading English books/magazines/websites 15 I have the BBC website as my homepage. I will read some news there in the mornings.
Watching films in the cinema 20 I will try to see one film in English each month in the cinema.
Doing language exercises in a workbook 15 We usually have 30 minutes of homework exercises each week from the class, using the workbook.
Listening to songs in English and reading the lyrics 15 I like this. I want to do one each week for about 30 minutes each time.
Talking in English at work or elsewhere 10 My friend Olga has agreed to practise with me once a week for 20 minutes in the university café.
Writing emails 15 I will write to Giovanni, my Italian friend, in English.
Watching TV/DVDs in English 10 I will watch CNN News on Saturday morning and each week watch one episode of Friends. I have the DVDs.
Using websites 10 I will practise listening at There are lots of exercises which are good for my level. I will also use the British Council site for general practice:
Participating in a blog or forum ? Maybe I will try this.

Step two

Complete the table below for you, indicating the possible ways you can practise your English this month or this year. The total number of hours is up to you, of course. Be realistic! There is space to add other ways. Think about the resources and opportunities that you have.

How many hours Comments/details on how, when, who with, what resources…
Attending English classes
Reading English books/magazines/websites
Watching films in the cinema
Doing language exercises in a workbook
Listening to songs in English and reading the lyrics
Talking in English at work or elsewhere
Writing emails
Watching TV/DVDs in English
Using websites
Participating in a blog or forum

Step three

Discuss your plan with a friend, family member or teacher. This will help you think more carefully about it and get more ideas. Make changes and write a new version of the plan if necessary.

Step four

Keep a check on your plan. At the end of every week or month, look at the plan and see how many hours you have done. Be prepared to change your plan. You may find new ways to practise your English which you can add. You may want to do more hours of some activities and fewer of others.

Activity 2: Looking back and looking forward

Step one

Think about the English practice you have done over the past week/month and make notes in the tables below about how much you have done and your level of motivation.

Step two

Talk to another student about what you have written, and listen to what they tell you.

Step three

Think about what activities you have enjoyed most and least, and why. How will this affect your plan for next week/month?

Looking back

How many hours of English did I do?
My motivation level (out of 10) is …because … __/10
The best activity for me this week/month was …because …

Looking forward

Next week/month I am going to do more …
Next week/month I am going to do less …
These are the things I plan to do to practise English next week/month: How long?




Activity 3: What have I learnt?

Step One

Think about the English practice you have done over the past week/month and make notes in the table below about the language you have learnt and the skills you have practised.

(Note: students could, as an alternative or in addition, use the CEF ‘can do’ statements for their level as a checklist. The Cambridge ESOL and Wikipedia sites are good reference points for the CEF:

Step two

Talk to another student about what you have written, and listen to what they tell you.

Step three

Think about what activities you have learnt most from. How will this affect your plan for next week/month?

My language knowledge

I have improved my vocabulary by …


I have improved my grammar by …


I have improved my pronunciation by …

My language skills

Now I’m better at …reading about …
listening to …
talking about …
writing about …

Teacher tips

  • You may want to let low-level students do the activities in their first language.
  • These activities can be done once a week or once a month, depending on the intensity of the course you are teaching and the goals of your students.
  • The activities needn’t occupy more than ten percent of class time, but they need to be done regularly if they are to be effective. The investment will gradually pay dividends as students start to practise English more.
  • Your students will appreciate encouragement from you, their teacher, as well as from their fellow students.

5 Responses to ETp 4 – setting goals and monitoring achievements

  1. It sounds as if you’re already doing a grand job motivating them in the classroom. But as you say, their basic attitude to English may not be ideal from your point of view. Remember that it is their responsibility, not yours, to study and make progress. As long as you use the time in class to really explore their motivations, to help them see that it’s up to them, not you, to learn English. Start with small commitments from them, perhaps by doing ‘Operacion Triunfo’ ( and helping them set realistic goals for the next week. Then follow up in following lessons. ‘Did you do what you said you would?’ ‘Why not?’ OR ‘What helped you achieve it?’ ‘Do you want to change your goals for the next week?’ ‘Stick with the same?’ ‘Try something different?’ etc…

  2. James says:

    This is an amazing way to do this. I am thrilled about this idea and I can’t wait to use it with my students (adult students, that is). My only issue at the moment is I am having trouble trying to motivate my teenage learners to do more outside the classroom. They receive English lessons at the company where they work, and as their trainer I try to push them to do things outside the classroom as much as possible. They have school in addition to work and probably have quite a bit of studying to do for those classes as well. I don’t think that they would do any of these activities. I can understand them, too. They are still young and any free time they have I’m sure is devoted to having as much fun as possible. Could these be adapted to teenagers in anyway? Or is it an issue to make this more of a requirement and not a voluntary activity?

    • Hello James,

      Your students sound extremely busy if they are both working and studying. Have you talked to them about their time commitments and priorities? How important is English to them right now compared to everything else?

      • James says:

        Hi Daniel,

        They work 3 days a week and have school 2 days a week so it’s not school and work on the same day. The English lessons take place during their working time so no lost time there either. However, they are young so their priorities lie elsewhere. They enjoy English with me because I’m not their typical school teacher throwing grammar lessons at them or telling them to translate something with the aid of the dictionary while I sit behind a desk and grade papers. In any case, they still see English as a chore because they are required by the company to attend English courses unlike their older colleagues who attend courses voluntarily.

  3. Pingback: Giving your Coursebook the Coaching Twist | Learner Coaching ELT

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