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Establishing Learner Goals

At the beginning of every tutoring session we have one obvious goal: Teach and learn English. It is probably one of the most complicated missions any person tries, because it involves layers of communication and engagement that we don’t encounter normally. Even harder, learning is a never ending process of continuously trying to remember, trying to reflect, trying to... make sense.

So if your goal in tutoring is just “help this person learn”, you’re going to be making your job more difficult than it has to be.

A tutor is essentially a guide for a learner to help them navigate the learning targets. Their main target might range anywhere from adult level literacy, fluency in a second language, guidance for ESL training or even test preparation. These goals may seem clear at first, but you’ll soon find that these large goals can be a struggle to manage. Even worse, they can leave you confused on how to tutor them and check if you’re both making progress.

To help guide your learner through their learning goals, it’s important to start by setting manageable goals that you can both accomplish within the time you have. Goal setting is a key skill to learner independence and a critical skill for setting future accomplishments up. Let’s take a look at using Goal Setting Strategies for learner support and see how they can help guide you in accomplishing your shared goals as learner-tutor.

Fundamentals of Goal Setting: SMART Goals and the ABCs of Goal Setting

There is a whole genre of positive psychology dedicated to goals. Goals are used for long and short term gains so it’s important to understand some very basic ideas.

George T. Duran: S.M.A.R.T. Goal Rules

Once good way to look at goals is to break them down into five S.M.A.R.T. Rules:

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Attainable

  • Realistic

  • Time-Bound

Which basically means keeping your goals simple, sweet and within a very specific timeframe. An even easier way of looking at goals is by taking one goal your learner has and breaking it down into something simpler:

Smoll’s ABCs of Goal Setting:

  • Attainable

  • Believable

  • Committed

Both of these theories promote looking at goals in two very basic ways: Big goals and small goals.

Whenever you start making goals with your learner, be sure to divid them into big and small goals. Big goals are your Outcome Goals, those broad achievements that take a long time to achieve. They are also often difficult and hard to manage if you focus on a distant and difficult to keep up at if you don’t see yourself progressing enough. This is why we start managing our big goals by breaking them down into smaller, more achievable goals.

Think of small goals as progress levels in a game. If you can accomplish a small goal, you essentially “beat” each level until you accomplish the desired goal. Each small goal should progress within a certain time frame and be slightly more difficult than the last. This keeps the challenge in each of your sessions up and easier to manage, while also keeping the lessons more engaging when the content is more difficult from the last goal.

Here are some examples of ways to cut a big goal into a smaller goal:

Example one: I want to pass my GED.

Small goals -

1.Learn the basic vocabulary I need.

2.Pass an online test.

3.Write a short essay.

4.Apply to take the GED.

Example two: I want to get into my local college.

Small goals -

1.Decide what I want to study.

2.Take a tour of the college.

3.Develop a reading list.

4.Talk to a counselor at the college and a career counselor about your goals.

5.Apply for the college.

Example three: I want to pass my TOEFL.

Small goals -

1.Take a practice test to see what level I’m at.

2.Look at the structure of the test.

3.Develop a reading list for practice materials.

4.Take and pass a practice test online.

5.Apply to take the TOEFL.

Now that we’ve addressed what goals are and why we need to break them down into manageable chunks, lets get into HOW we can do this. Since goal setting is a collaborative structure, be sure to plan ahead with your learner and get their feedback from the plan.

Setting goals

This is best done during your first session or once you’re about to update the content you’re using. Sit down for an hour with your learner and discuss what they want in the future. How will these sessions help them achieve what they want? What can the two of you do together with time that you have to achieve these goals?

The best way to make your learners’ goals achievable is by setting them up into smaller goals. A timeline of goals that start small and then build into higher achievements make a huge contribution to your lesson planning. And it helps your learner develop a clearer vision of how they can manage their study time as well as have an outcome that personally motivates them.

When working together, you can both manage the levels of difficulty and challenge you want to put into each learning session depending on the goals you each choose. And since goal setting with help guide each session, it will give your learner the empowerment they need knowing what each lesson is leading up to.

Here are a few tips for setting up goals during your lesson with your learner. You can write them down and print them out with pictures to reflect on during each lesson or when you’re planning your learner content:

1. Making a time line of what goals your learner wants to accomplish. Be sure to put actual dates and deadlines so you both have a forward progressing mindset when planning and studying.

2. Setting up accomplishments and targets to hit along the timeline. These are your smaller goals that can be anywhere from “100% on an online test” at the end of the month to “apply for an interview” in three months.

3. Practice, deadlines and rewards.

Every small goal should have a deadline, which includes practice instructions to help them meet that target. At the end of each goal session, be sure to include a reward session to celebrate an accomplishment. Work it out with your learner to see what would motivate them to try their best to accomplish this smaller goal, whether its going out to a movie for a night, dying your hair or even a silly prank.

Keeping Goals

Goals are only useful if you can keep continuously practicing the habits to accomplishing them. It’s important to establish good habits in practice and studying to make these goals reality, so we have to help our learner adopt clear studying habits together.

Look at the time your learner has in their day and determine how much time they are willing to put into practicing. It can be anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour everyday, but it has to be regular. Negotiate what times they can put aside for learning, how long they will spend and workout what they will do everyday. Always emphasize that this is done outside the time they spend working, cooking and working on their other responsibilities. This HAS to be done by itself, and without disturbance.

You can work together to determine what they’ll have to do during this time by what their goal is. It can be writing in a journal, reading online with a timer, taking a quick test or going over flash cards. Just be sure that the materials you use are at their level and conductive to the goal they have. Always remember that you will also have to adjust this practice as the goals get harder, which will make the practice of the habits even more engaging.

Revising Goals

You will meet obstacles as you progress through the goals. It can be anywhere from a time commitment challenge to a sudden change like an accident or move. This is when you will have to work together to revise the goals put down together.

Revising goals is important when you meet challenges or can’t succeed at a smaller goal at the determined time. Perhaps you need more time to practice and to re-try at a smaller goal. Maybe you need to increase the difficulty of your practice materials. Or it’s time to change a smaller goal and replace it with something else in order to meet your overall outcome.

Revising can be very frustrating for your learner, so be sure to sit down and take plenty of time to reflect on it together. Always remind yourselves that everyone can accomplish the same things, but everyone succeeds at different rates. Changing and revising goals does not mean it is impossible to accomplish what you want. You’re just making a clearer path towards success.

Celebrating Milestones

Rewards are an important key component in keeping up the momentum! Every time you both succeed at a smaller goal, find ways to celebrate together. It can be as small as a social media post congratulating them, a celebratory coffee break in the middle of the day or even a surprise gift of a brand new journal.

Find a way to remind your learner that what they did was difficult and that they deserve to feel accomplished. Because every time they accomplish one thing, the next goal will be harder. Celebrating the small wins will help keep their confidence up in the long run, and give them the reflective memory of how far they’ve already come.

Always remember that goals can encourage us to try new things and be prepared our future. Working together to accomplish something will make the biggest difference in your learners’ life, and also help you connect more with your own goals.

We wish you good luck in helping to succeed on your learning journey! Be sure to ask BRL staff for advice in how to accomplish short term goals or for ideas on practice content if you’re having trouble finding ways to meet your learning outcomes.

About the author:

Coquina is an educator in Shanghai, China and Roanoke local who grew up speaking two languages with her family. She currently works as an early childhood educator and reading specialist as well as a freelance writer. Her current clients are design firms and education organizations such as Bright Design Studio, Bright Minds, ESL Passport and Compass Review. When she’s not writing, she draws comics and organizes events for the teacher community in Shanghai through her own organization Good Thoughts.


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