It’s the new year and with that comes a new academic year for some, a new school term for others, and also new courses.

Students beginning a new course are enthused with the novelty of a new language or new classmates, a new teacher and a new learning environment, and are full of motivation. 

Students who are the intermediate stage of learning and/or continuing an existing course might feel annoyed at having to come back to work/school after a nice break. These students might feel like a boat adrift in a huge ocean, and no matter how much they try, there seems to be no way they can conquer the large expanse of water. 

Very often, students in my new courses say to me ‘How long does it take to learn English?’ or even ‘How long does it take to learn all the words in English?’

There is no easy answer to that question, and an incomplete or misleading response might result in the motivated newcomer slowly getting demotivated and disillusioned with their learning process. 

Now, we all know that even the most expert users of English do not know all the words in the language and cannot profess to be an expert in all English discourse communities. But simply saying ‘It’s impossible to know all the words in English.’ is just not a very motivating reply to that question. 

Many of us teachers end up saying, ‘It depends. It depends on what English you want to learn. It depends on what you want to do with the language.’

That answer, although true in many ways, is ambiguous, and on its own does not fully address what the student wants to know: ‘How long till I become a competent English user?’


It is therefore important that we set goals with our students instead of merely ploughing through coursebook after coursebook. We might be moving from an Intermediate book to an Upper-Intermediate book, but if students don’t truly feel like an Upper-Intermediate English user, then the books are merely decorative. 

So how do we go about setting goals with our students?
In order to set relevant goals with our students, we need to truly understand their individual needs and lacks, and their long-term goals. Through a process of negotiation, we can decide upon the best short-term goals that can help our students get to where they want to go.

Use the ‘SMART goals’ to help make the goals you set more powerful.

Time Bound



Long-term Goals

Here are some questions (and example answers) that could help you elicit some long-term goals from students. 

Remind your students of the SMART goals as they formulate their answers. Students who simply reply with a ‘I want to speak good English’ are not being specific. Saying ‘I’d like to speak like the Queen of England’ is not that easily attainable for an elementary learner learning English in Korea, and might not be relevant to what they need be doing with their English (e.g. writing emails to clients from South-East Asia).

What do you hope/need to do with your English? 

e.g. To talk to my European colleagues about our projects without worrying or thinking about my language skills; To be able to do a university course in the UK; To be able to manage a virtual team in English; To be able to listen and take notes during an English meeting.

Where do you see your English in a year’s time?

e.g. I’d like to feel confident at parties where I have to speak English; I’d like to sound like Penelope Cruz when she speaks English (said by a Spanish student); I’d like to be able to write emails and make phone calls in English without spending too much time preparing; I’d like to be able to understand most films and TV shows with only English subtitles on.

What are the different parts needed to achieve those goals?

e.g. Doing a university course in UK: getting the needed score in the IELTS exam, having the ability to listen and take lecture notes, the ability to participate in discussions, the ability to write essays, awareness of UK university culture…

Feeling confident at a party: the ability to ask questions, the ability to listen and understand, the ability to make small talk and break the ice, cultural awareness and sensitivities…


What therefore should be your short-term goals?

Short-term goals

Based on the breakdown of your long-term goals, decide on your short-term goals. Start with the goals for this month and the week, and remind your students of the ‘SMART goals’. Start with the most motivating and attainable of goals. And remember that the more specific the goal, the more clearly attainable it can be.

What is your goal for this month/fortnight/week? (depending on the frequency of your lessons)

e.g. To get better at listening to short five-minute talks and taking notes; To learn to make small talk with people I just met; To  learn to write emails asking companies for product information; To practise participating in small group discussions about topics I know about.

When these short-term goals are achieved, refer back to your long-term goals and set new short-term goals that take you and your students closer to achieving their long-term goals. 



Some prefer to use the mnemonic SMARTER when setting their goals, with the E standing for Evaluated and R for Recorded.

Remember to evaluate students on the tasks they perform, always relating the feedback you give them back to the short and long term goals they have set with you. Remember to not only give constructive feedback about how they can improve, but also to recognise them for their achievements and their successes.

It is essential that you record the goals when you set them with your students. Print out the negotiated goals and put them somewhere visible in the classroom for you and the students to refer to as and when necessary.

You can also get students to record their daily progress after each lesson, leaving time at the end of the class for students to write in their learning diary what they have learnt that day and how they have come closer to their goals. This provides a clear record of how a goal is being achieved. 

Keeping a teacher’s diary can also show you what worked and what needed more work, and how a journey towards achieving certain goals can be replicated with future classes. 

But most importantly, have students record and celebrate their successes when their goals are achieved (short- and long-term). Refer to the goals you have set together and enjoy the satisfaction of getting to slowly tick off a checklist of short-term goals. Don’t hesitate to look back on their journey and remind them how far they have come!

Happy goal-setting and Happy New Year!



Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London. 


Fascinated by the interplay between culture, language and thought, Chia is also an intercultural skills trainer and materials developer, and is now based in York. 

She is also the voice of @ETprofessional on Twitter. You can find out more about her on her blogsite www.chiasuanchong.com