Integrating Goal Setting into Instructional Practice
Staff at the Center for New Americans
Our program offers ESOL classes from
the beginning to advanced levels to adult immigrants and refugees
in Franklin and Hampshire counties in Western Massachusetts. In
this article we'd like to share our
approach to learner goal setting in the hope that other programs
will find it useful.
Goal setting at intake
During the intake interview, Massachusetts adult education programs
ask learners about their reasons for wanting to study. Among other
things, this activity supports a Department of Education reporting
requirement. At this stage, students usually have only a broad idea
of what they want to accomplish. Examples of goals frequently mentioned
at intake interviews are: "to speak English," "get
a job," and "learn about the U.S." However, if students
are to feel successful and motivated in class, and to persist in
adult basic education classes in the face of the many obstacles
in their lives, we believe it is necessary to make these general
goals clearer and more specific.
At The Center for New Americans, we have developed a successful
classroom-based approach that helps students explore the goals they
reported at the intake interview so that they become more specific,
measurable, achievable, and realistic. Teachers then link these
goals directly to classroom activities. Connecting learners' goals
and class instruction helps teachers meet students' needs and allows
students to experience success in meeting their goals, which contributes
to their increased motivation and persistence.
Goal-setting activities in the classroom
The general goal that a student reports at intake is recorded on
the Student Goals Form, which is passed on to the teacher. During
the first two weeks of a new class session or tutorial, the teacher
presents activities that help the student break the general goal
into smaller steps, or mini-goals. In accomplishing the mini-goals,
students experience success and personal satisfaction. Mini-goals
also help students to realize the amount of time needed to achieve
their larger goal. These activities are the heart of a successful
class and must be viewed as part of instructional time, not separate
from the curriculum. In addition, they are crucial to the development
of our learners as co-negotiators of the curriculum.
By the end of the second week, students are able to outline several
smaller, more specific steps toward their larger goal. In class,
each student thinks about what he or she wants to study the following
week and reports to the group. These student requests become the
basis of the curriculum for the week ahead. The teacher plans lessons,
activities, and materials that respond to these requests. The teacher
might include other elements that are needed based on learning assessments.
At the end of each week, students reflect on their learning in their
logs, and again make requests for the following week-in essence,
setting new mini-goals. The reflection time allows students to self-assess
what they have learned and how well they have learned it. Both reflection
and planning take time and are considered part of instruction as
well. The teacher always responds to the new requests the following
week, and assesses past lessons by observation, evaluation of performance
tasks, quizzes, and other formal or informal modalities. This process
progresses in a spiral, with the goals directly informing instruction,
followed by assessment by both students and teachers and the setting
of new mini-goals as the class continues. (See
How does it really work?
Let's think about a beginning ESOL class of ten learners. The primary
goals set by these students at intake were to communicate more effectively
in English, get a job, learn about U.S. culture, and become a U.S.
citizen. A goal-setting activity might begin by using pictures to
teach the names of several places in town, including town offices
and schools and other places used by the learners. Students could
also draw pictures, and a list could be put up on the wall in the
classroom. Once these places were identified and could be recognized,
the teacher could ask the students if they needed or wanted to use
English in these different places. The teacher could ask each student
to prioritize which three or four he or she wants to focus on during
the class cycle. A calendar is useful here to emphasize the finite
amount of time available for a given topic. Students would then
write the selected places that interested them in their individual
Among other introductory activities, the curriculum for the initial
week of class might include teaching students how to name places
where they need or want to communicate in English. The following
week might include one specific place - for example, the doctor's
office - where
a dialog about calling for an appointment would be studied, practiced,
and role-played; a TPR (Total Physical Response) activity might
be performed to help students learn what doctors and nurses might
say; students might study a vocabulary lesson about the people and
things at the doctor's office - ailments and symptoms, for example.
The curriculum depends on what needs the students have expressed.
At week's end, each student would reflect on their learning and
discuss what they want to study the following week. The teacher
might need to narrow the focus of the requests by asking questions.
These ten student requests would become the basis for the teacher's
lessons in the upcoming week.
In our next example, students of an advanced ESOL class have set
similar goals at intake: to communicate more effectively in English,
get a better job, and learn about U.S. culture. An activity that
helps these advanced students develop mini-goals involves their
breaking into small groups and making lists of what they can do
in English. A follow-up activity is to have them develop a list
of what they want to be able to do in English. These lists can be
on the classroom wall to help the students remember what has been
One item on the second list might be "to speak fluently"
- a very broad and long-term goal. Students can work together to
explain their reasons for selecting this goal, and through this
process, their individual needs will become clearer. For example,
one student's goal of speaking fluently might actually mean being
understood by Americans. For another, this same goal might mean
being able to express feelings in English. By probing, the teacher
might discover that for the first student pronunciation of specific
sounds is difficult and for the other a lack of specific vocabulary
or cultural appropriateness is the area of concern. Calendars or
timelines work well with these students to break the goals down
into manageable steps. These mini-goals, different for each individual,
should be recorded in the students' learning logs.
The teacher again collects the requests and plans the lessons for
the next week based on the mini-goals developed. At the end of the
following week, students reflect individually on the activities
and on their learning and set new mini-goals, which become the basis
for activities once again. In each class, the challenge is to marry
all the requests or mini-goals in one week's time, to respond to
all of them to a reasonable extent. Once the students learn to reflect
and are able to recognize what they still don't know or don't know
well enough, they become adept at making more specific requests.
By the end of the semester, another round of formal assessment is
conducted and reported. Intake goals that have been met are recorded
at this time.
We believe this process of week-to-week curriculum design is feasible
all ABE classes, even those with more defined curricula such as
GED. If the subject is essay writing, steps that need to be mastered
can be identified and a timely plan set in motion. Students can
choose to write about topics that interest them.
Elsa Auerbach writes that "The essence of a participatory
approach is centering instruction around content that is engaging
to students."1 As a staff, we have found that responding to
specific requests from students for activities makes lesson planning
easier and increases students' motivation and retention, and that
students are more likely to be engaged and active learners if the
material is relevant to their lives.
This article was written by Nicole B. Graves, ESOL teacher (beginners
and high intermediate levels) and ESOL Program Coordinator, and
Peg Cahill, ESOL teacher (high beginner/low intermediate level)
and Support Services Aide, with input from other members of the
staff. The Center for New Americans teaches English to immigrants
and refugees in Amherst, Greenfield, and Northampton, MA.
1.Auerbach, Elsa. Ways In finding Student Themes in Making Meaning,
Making Change: A Guide to Participartory Family Literacy and Adult
ESL. University of Massachusetts, Boston:1990
Originally published in Adventures in Assessment,
Volume 16 (Spring 2004),
SABES/World Education, Boston, MA, Copyright 2004.
Funding support for the publication of this document on the Web
provided in part by the Ohio State Literacy Resource Center as part
of the LINCS
Assessment Special Collection.