If asked, most adults would tell you that they have goals in life. For example, I have a personal goal of visiting every continent in my lifetime. Up to the point of writing this article, I have visited four of seven continents; I am more than halfway there!

Goals help us to focus on where we want to be in the future, be it financially and professionally, or personally, such as learning a new skill or fitness-related goals. Having goals is motivating.

When we set goals, we have not only identified what we seek, but also the steps needed to accomplish those goals. It is the same with our students; by helping them to set goals, we can support them in reaching those goals.

English learners and multilingual students can benefit greatly by setting goals on a variety of topics, including learning and acquisition of a new language, while at the same time maintaining and strengthening their native language.

Why create goals with students?

Students, just like adults, likely have long-term goals they would like to accomplish. However, some students may never have been asked what they are or been guided to develop goals. Through the development of goals, students can not only identify what they want to accomplish, but also the necessary steps they will need to accomplish that goal.

Breaking down longer-term objectives into smaller, manageable goals allows students to take steps towards longer-term success. Goals help students focus on and record the journey they are on, which in turn helps build motivation.

As students work towards their goals, they can monitor their progress and make adjustments along the way. This process helps students see the movement they are making in reaching their goals and helps to keep them accountable to themselves and to others to continually make progress.

This does not assume that students will not face setbacks or perhaps get off-track. Rather, monitoring goals helps students to celebrate the successes they are making along the way, and learn to make the needed adjustments when they face setbacks or get behind on their goals. This life lesson is important for everyone, as setbacks are an inevitable part of life, and learning to deal with them appropriately will build the skills needed for future success.

What can and should student goals focus on?

Student goals can focus on any number of topics, from academic to personal goals. Depending on the age and grade level of the students, you can guide them in a brainstorming session on goal topic development by posing some questions, such as, “What would you like to be able to do one year from now?” or, “What would you like to be able to do one month from now?”

If students are not sure, you can share some sample goals with them surrounding personal topics as these may be easier for students to identify early on. For example, students may consider goals around sports, such as “be able to make more goals/baskets/accurate throws, etc.,” or around cooking, “learn to cook a new dish/a dish that my family enjoys,” or around a particular hobby, such as “play the guitar (or other musical instrument.”

Sharing ideas with students about what they would like to accomplish in their free time and having them consider personal goals can be an effective way to lead them to consider academic goals.

For English learners and multilingual students, language development and the retention and development of their native language are worthy academic goals. As English learners and multilingual students develop skills in a new language, it can be challenging for them to see the progress they are making.

When they have goals, they can see their progress towards learning a new language as well as increasing their proficiency in their native language. For example, students may develop a goal around increasing their score on a language proficiency assessment based on the data available to them.

Alternatively, they might develop a goal of learning new vocabulary in the target language and/or in their native language. Another goal could be around reading new books in the target language and/or in their native language. Students in upper grades may also consider generating goals around study habits, assignment completion, or other academic topics.

How can we support English learners and multilingual students in developing goals?

When beginning to develop goals, students may be tempted to create life goals that are quite broad and reach far into the future. These longer-term goals are important and ultimately helpful.

In the introduction to this article, I mentioned my own goal of visiting every continent in my lifetime. From a longer-term goal, it is helpful, especially for youth, to develop shorter-term goals that will help students ultimately reach their desired destination.

For example, for my long-term goal of visiting every continent, I have a goal to visit a continent I have not yet visited within the next three years. This shorter-term goal allows me to begin the planning process and make concrete steps including choosing a destination and saving the money needed for the trip.

One way to support students in developing goals is with the SMART acronym. The acronym is likely familiar to you, and depending on where you learned it, may have some slight variations in terms of what each letter stands for. Begin by sharing with students what the SMART acronym stands for:

  • S – Specific
  • M – Measurable
  • A – Attainable/Achievable
  • R – Results-driven/Realistic/Relevant
  • T – Timed

Once students are familiar with the acronym, share examples with them, and then lead them through each step of developing a goal that makes sense to them.

As our focus is on English learners and multilingual learners, we will begin with sample goals that relate to language learning:

  • Read three children’s books each week in my native language.
  • Create 15 vocabulary flash cards this week, and study them for 10 minutes each day.
  • Write one paragraph each week this month.
  • Write a journal entry each day that focuses on the events of the day as well as tasks I need to complete.
  • Engage in a conversation with two people each day in the target language.

S: Specific

Begin with helping students identify specific areas of need. When students are specific, they are targeting a specific behavior based on their long-term goals.

It may be helpful to provide specific examples for students. In addition, teach and help students choose active verbs that relate specifically to what they are working on.

Verb-noun combinations can be helpful in this regard. For example, if students want to increase their vocabulary in their native or target language, a goal might begin with “Record five nouns, five verbs, and five adjectives….”

Alternatively, a student may say, “create 15 vocabulary flash cards” or, “read three new books” as a way to specify exactly what they want to accomplish.

M: Measurable

As students develop goals, help them to build in a measurable aspect. In the above examples, note that a number was included as part of the goal to help build specificity. In this way, students will be able to determine if they met the goal by recording their progress and reflecting on the activity, and if they completed it or if there was something that prevented them from meeting it.

A: Attainable/Achievable

The goals that students develop should be achievable or attainable. This relates to having specificity in the goal but should also be something that the students can actually attain or achieve in a set amount of time.

Success builds upon itself, so hep students develop goals that are attainable for them in a relatively short amount of time, especially as they begin the process. As students are successful in achieving their goals, they will be motivated to continue to develop goals, and can build the complexity of the goals over time.

R: Realistic/Relevant/Results-driven

The R of the SMART acronym can represent a variety of concepts, depending on your preference and the grade level of the students you are teaching: realistic, relevant, or results-driven/oriented.

Students should choose goals that are realistic and that they can reach. This is related to the achievable section above. In addition, or as an alternative, have students focus on goals that are relevant in that they represent something that they want to focus on or improve.

As previously mentioned, you might provide guidance for this or you might provide a variety of options that students can choose from, especially as they are starting out. Results-driven refers to the measurable aspect of the SMART goal and helps students to focus on how the goal will actually make a difference or a change for them.

T: Timed

Having a specific timeframe helps keep the goal focused and students working towards it. Begin with goals that have a short timeframe; this may help keep students motivated as you help them to build success.

Timeframes are not necessarily meant to be written in stone; if needed, have students adjust the timeline slightly. Note that this relates back to the achievable and realistic aspects of the SMART goal. Each of these areas works in tandem to support students as they work towards meaningful change.

While student goal development is not necessarily a part of current teaching standards, the practice can benefit students in the long run, and can help language learners focus on developing language skills. When building goals and reflecting on them consistently, students can see the progress they are making, and determine how the journey they are on is helping them to fulfill their goals over time.