Back to top

Writing SMART Goals for English Learners

Find key criteria, case study findings, and examples for writing SMART goals for ESL students.

For educators of English Learners, rapid change is underway: 1) New standards for English Learners are being released and implemented; 2) State-mandated Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) must now include specific strategies for ELLs; 3) Educators must differentiate instruction for an increasingly diverse student body.

Additionally, more and more states are requiring educators to prepare individualized learning plan for ELLs to ensure that all educators – classroom teachers and ELL specialists alike – are collaborating effectively around student needs. 

Common to each of these trends: Educators will benefit from setting SMART goals for ESL students, and monitoring progress against those goals to ensure success.

In partnership with Allison Balter, an ELL leader from Lawrence Public Schools in Massachusetts, we delivered a national webinar in that provided a framework for setting goals. A full recording of the webinar can be found here. Leaders from more than 100 districts participated. Allison did a great job transforming the commonly used SMART goal-setting framework and making it directly applicable for EL educators. The chart below defines each part of the SMART framework and then applies the criteria specifically for educators to craft SMART goals for ESL students:

Criteria Description ...For ELLs
Specific target a specific area for improvement focused on a single language domain, very concrete skill
Measurable quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress tools exist, such as a rubric, to measure student progress
Attainable realistic and aligned to appropriate standards aligned with language development standards and proficiency levels
Relevant EL goals matter and are appropriate for this time and place relevant to what students need to be successful in content classes and move to next level of proficiency
Time-bound specify when the result(s) can be achieved specific to individual or groups of students

As with every Ellevation webinar, we learn by doing. Specifically, in this webinar we walked through a variety of case studies, reviewed proficiency level and domain data on students, and set goals that met SMART criteria and were aligned to ELD standards. Each time we set these SMART goals for ESL students, we walked through a series of steps. Once we had a baseline knowledge of the levels of the students and the desired target of the goal, we did three things:

  1. Specified a Verb. We used a variety of tools to help us find the best description of what we want the student to be able to do.
  2. Identified the Work Achievement. In the context of the content that is being taught, we called out what work a teacher should observe as evidence of student progress toward the goal.
  3. Projected the Timeframe. Once we had the description of what the student should do, and the work product that would indicate progress, we identified a time-bound date by when an ELD goal should be achieved.

By following this simple process, and keeping in mind the SMART criteria, we were able to write a variety of high quality goals for ELs and provide a roadmap that educators could use immediately.

The feedback was extremely positive. To help contribute to the broader ELL community we wanted to share the materials as widely as possible. We hope you enjoy the recording.