How to Set Goals for ESL (English as a Second Language) Classes

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While many students and teachers alike may believe the goal of ESL classes is simple -- to learn English -- ESL teachers must learn to properly set classroom goals and facilitate student goal-setting to accomplish practical objectives for language learners. Learning how to set goals for ESL classes requires teachers to set concrete and achievable goals for the students and to teach students how to conduct their own long- and short-term goal-setting. The better students are able to envision and communicate their own goals, the more effective teachers can be in planning instruction.

Discuss the purposes of learning English as a second language with the class, asking students about their desire to learn English to increase their access to resources or opportunities, exercise their own voice in their interactions with English speakers, take specific action requiring proficiency in English, or establish skills that they anticipate they will need in the future.

Create role maps, in which each student identifies how learning English as a second language fits into his or her roles as an individual, a family member, a community member and a worker.

Ask students to identify skills that they will need to learn to achieve their specific purposes for ESL learning across several roles.

Identify goals for the class as a whole that are SMART, as identified in the EFF HOT Topics Spring 2001 issue: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely.

Choose a specific objective for each session of ESL classes, focusing on helping students accomplish a single, discrete task that matches their personal goals and is a high-priority need in the lives of most students.

Select specific grammar, vocabulary, reading and pronunciation skills that will be necessary to accomplish the objective for each session and determine how you will measure progress. For instance, students may need to learn a certain number of words or read a passage of a certain length in order to accomplish the objective.

Divide students into ability levels so that you can match the objective difficulty with the level of each student to provide goals that are realistic and achievable for each student every session of ESL classes.

Assess student outcomes every session, either with a formal assessment like a quiz or test or with a performance-based evaluation of students’ accomplishment of the objectives for the lesson, and set goals for the next session accordingly. Revisit topics as needed until related objectives have been met.

Have students revisit their personal goals, as well as their roles and skills, throughout the course as these factors change.

  • Remember that a primary goal of ESL classes should be to facilitate students' comfort level with using the English language, so setting short-term goals that correspond to students' interests and ability levels is important for creating a classroom environment in which students can succeed learning English as a second language.

Lesley Graybeal has been writing articles for internet content since 2006. Her work can be found on a range of hobby and business resource web publications, including and, as well as several academic journals. Lesley earned her B.A. and M.A. degrees in English from the University of Georgia, and is currently completing her dissertation in Social Foundations of Education.