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What's the Best Way to Learn English?

Create an Action Plan

May 3, 2017 0 comments

You don’t want to waste any more time studying English. You just want to know what’s the best way to learn English so you can become fluent.

You want a fast answer.

Life is short and want to be fluent in English already.

It seems like every time you learn something new, there are thousands of other words, phrases, and expressions you still need to know.

Well, I got good news and bad news.

Let me give you the bad news first…

English is hard.

It’s going to take time for you to reach your goal of fluency.

The good news…

You can become a much more effective English language learner who stays motivated to learn the language for weeks, months, even years if you know how to develop an action plan.

What’s an action plan? 

An action plan is a document that lists what steps must be taken in order to achieve a specific goal. The purpose of an action plan is to clarify what resources are required to reach the goal, formulate a timeline for when specific tasks need to be completed and determine what resources are required. Margaret Rouse, What Is 

An action plan is usually used in business.

When a business invests in a new project, it wants to make sure that it’s successful.

Just like you, you want to make sure you successfully learn English.

A business wants to lay out a specific plan with timely goals that can be measured in order to judge whether the project is on schedule.

Just like you, you want to have timely goals that you can measure so you can continue to motivate yourself to learn and progress in English.

A business wants to see a return on investment (ROI). If they put money into a project, they want to get more money back than their original investment. Profit is a business’ motivation.

If you are going to invest time and money into studying English, you want to get something back in return, an ROI. You may want a more lucrative position at work, a better education, an international network of friends or a better life for your family.

Think of studying English like a business. 

You can become a much more effective student when you think of your English studies as a business, and every business needs an action plan.

So, the best way to learn English is not to start speaking with native speakers or reading books in English or going to more English classes, but, instead to develop a well-thought action plan that you can use to track your progress, reach your goals and reflect on your experience.

Most people don’t take the time out to lay out their English language learning plan because they don’t know where to begin.

Don’t worry.

I’m going to take you step-by-step through the process of creating an action plan.

You must reflect on your past, identify your present and plan for your future.

Be sure to download the handout that accompanies this article, SMART Goals for the English Language Learner that you can download here.

Step 1 – Identify Your Motivation

The best way to learn English starts with motivation. Your motivation is not the same as your goals.

Your goals are what you want to achieve.

Your motivation is the reason why you want to achieve these goals.

Think of your goals as a car. Your goals get you where you need to go. However, your car can’t move without gas. You need energy to drive the car forward. It’s the same with goals. You need some force to push you forward when times get tough.

And any goal worth a damn is going to be a challenge to achieve.

The first step in any new endeavor is to discover the reason behind what you’re doing.

English fluency must be what you want.

Not what your father wants.

Not what your teacher wants.

Not what your boss wants.

Not what the world expects.

But what you want.

If you are studying English because you feel like you have no choice, then you won’t be successful.

For me, learning Japanese is the hardest undertaking I’ve ever endeavored to achieve. I fail, a lot. I make mistakes. I’ve been studying off and on for a couple of years now and I’m still not satisfied with my ability level. My wife is Japanese. I have two children and one is three years old and already speaking at a similar ability level as me and it can be frustrating.

Sometimes, to be honest, I feel just plain old dumb.

I’m not progressing the way that I want.

But I’m driven to press on.

Why? Why would I put myself through such struggle and strife?

Because I have very strong motivators that I’m reminded of every day.

  • I’m learning Japanese so I can have a stronger connection with my new family.
  • I’m learning Japanese so I can earn more money as a Japanese translator.
  • I’m learning Japanese so I can discover more about my own culture and grow as an individual.
  • I’m learning Japanese so I can become a better English teacher.
  • I’m learning Japanese so I can live in Japan without relying on my friends and family as a translator.
  • I’m learning Japanese so I can have a stronger connection with my children who are progressing in their Japanese fluency every day.

As you can see, I have very strong motivators that keep me focused on my long-term goals. I make mistakes and have setbacks, but I look at them as learning experiences and quickly move on.

All I have to do is look at my list of motivators and I get realigned to my purpose.

Now, take the time to do it for yourself. Think how English can enhance different areas of your life. You can think about:

  • career
  • finances
  • education
  • family life
  • artistic goals
  • attitude and personality 

This first step should take you the longest amount of time. Going back to the car metaphor… the more gas you put in the car, the farther it will take you.

I have strong motivators and I expect you are not in the same situation as me, I just used it as an example for you to learn from.

Are you starting to see how this is the best way to learn English?

It’s not about studying pronunciation.

It’s not about speaking to native speakers.

This is all about getting into the right frame of mind so you know exactly what it is you need to do and why you want to do it.

Step 2 – Reflect on Past Learning Experiences

Be proud of yourself.

If you’re reading this, then you understand quite a bit of English. You have come a long way in your language learning journey. You’ve accomplished a lot. Espresso English says:

“Sometimes when you’re studying English by yourself, it can be discouraging because there’s nobody to say “Nice work!” or celebrate your successes. But if you give yourself challenges and rewards, it can give you the motivation to keep going and not quit.”

It’s important to recognize your achievements.

This is something I struggle with as well. As soon as I complete a project, I’m in a hurry to move on to the next one without ever really celebrating what I have done. You know you need to go further, but you’ve done a lot.

Reflect on what you have done in the past and be proud.

If you’re not at the level of English fluency you want, you may feel like a failure. You’re not sure why you failed, but you think it might have had something to do with your goals.

When you reflect on your past, it’s important for you to identify your strengths and accomplishments. This will subconsciously influence your behavior. If, for example, you look at your past as a series of achievements, you will approach new goals with more enthusiasm because you feel like a winner. However, if you reflect back and feel like a failure, then this will have a negative impact on your subconscious thoughts and make it more likely that you will fail in the future.

Let’s change the name from failure to learning experience.

We are going to take those past learning experiences and use them to carefully craft specific goals that will sustain your motivation to continue to pursue your dreams over the long run.

Reframe your past in terms of accomplishments.

So think back on your past, identify how you’ve succeeded, and use that information to help you set your goals.

But wait…

Before you set your goals, there’s still on more thing you must do…

Step 3 – Assess Your Current Level

You must diagnose your current ability level in English and determine what you would like to improve upon.

Most people are in such a hurry to create their future goals, that they don’t stop and reflect on where they are now. And this is crucial if you want to create a successful plan for the future.

The only way we can reasonably decide what we want in the future and how we’ll get there is to know where we are right now and what our current level of satisfaction is. So first, take some time to think through and write down your current situation; then ask this question on each key point: Is that OK? Jim Rohn, Success 

Again, here, in step three, you are going to identify what you need to improve on.

Don’t worry about what you’re going to do. Here, just focus on what you would like to improve upon.

There are a couple of different ways for you to diagnose your current ability level:

  • You can take an English language proficiency test to see how well you score
  • You can record your voice and self-diagnose your speaking ability
  • You can read a chapter from a book and then answer questions about the reading
  • You can write an essay and ask a teacher to give you feedback
  • You can listen to a video on Youtube and then transcribe every word you hear

It’s best if you have a teacher judge your reading, writing, listening and speaking abilities because, usually, they are trained professionals that have helped students just like you in the past. An English teacher will notice certain problems that you wouldn’t be able to discover on your own.

So, just a quick recap of the first three steps (I easily forget things)…

  • Step 1 – Identify Your Motivation
  • Step 2 – Reflect on the Past
  • Step 3 – Diagnose Your Current Ability Level

Now it’s time to set your goals. Download here.

Step 4 – Create SMART Goals

Setting clearly defined goals is one of the best ways to learn English because you have a specific vision of what you want to accomplish.

“Goal setting is powerful because it provides focus. It shapes our dreams. It gives us the ability to hone in on the exact actions we need to perform to achieve everything we desire in life. Goals are great because they cause us to stretch and grow in ways that we never have before. In order to reach our goals, we must become better.”  Jim Rohn, Success

But wait.

You’ve set goals in the past, right?

And what happened?

Well, if you’re reading this sentence, then they probably didn’t turn out the way you liked.

Tell me if this goal sounds familiar:

“I want to be fluent in English.”

This is a terrible goal.

To put it more eloquently, this goal sucks.

Here’s why.

It’s not SMART.

S.M.A.R.T is a popular acronym that has been around for a few decades. It stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

I’m going to go through each aspect of setting up SMART goals so you can use these guidelines whenever you decide to take on something new.

The first thing you want to do is make sure your goal is specific. The more specific your goal, the more likely you will be to achieve exactly what you want. One of the many problems with the goal “I want to be fluent in English” is that it’s not specific.

Let’s make this goal more specific. Let’s say, for example, you want to learn more vocabulary, a more specific goal might be:

“I will learn 50 new vocabulary words a week.”

Or if you want to improve your reading…

“I will read for 15 minutes a day and answer comprehension questions to measure if I understood what I read.”

These goals are much more specific. You may also notice that when your goals are specific, they provide a framework that you can use to organize your study schedule.  (If you want to find out more about setting reading goals, check out our other post, Books That Improve Your English)

Your goals must also be measurable.

If you go back to my previous reading goal:

“I will read for 15 minutes a day and answer comprehension questions to measure if I understood.”

It’s crucial that I will answer questions about the reading. I will answer questions to measure whether I understood what I read.

How many times have you read something you didn’t understand?

Or how many times have you been reading and then realized that you have no idea what you just read!

Many goals fail simply because students don’t use any metric to judge whether they’ve actually understood and retained the material.

This happens in my English class all the time.

I teach students a new vocabulary word. We talk about it. We practice it together. At the end of class, I check to see whether they remember the meaning, and more than half of the class usually does. I leave the class feeling good about the lesson I taught. However, if I give them a vocabulary pop quiz a few days later, only a handful of students will pass.

Many students don’t follow up on the material at home. They forget. You must test yourself. Give yourself a way to measure what you learn and you will retain more English in your long-term memory.

You must test yourself to ensure progression. Give yourself a way to measure what you learn and you will retain more English in your long-term memory.

Achievable.

Many people who just start out learning English set unrealistic goals for themselves.

“I’m going to be fluent in English in six months.”

I, too, fell into this trap. In the fall of 2015, I was living in New York and I told my wife that I would be fluent in Japanese in just six months. I had a full-time job, a daughter, a soon-to-be-born son and a one bedroom apartment I barely could afford, but somehow I would read a couple of textbooks for approximately one hour every day and become fluent.

Of course, this is an unreasonable goal. According to the Foreign Service Institute, a government agency with a lot more data than my ego, says that it takes approximately two years of concentrated study for a native English speaker to achieve fluency in Japanese.

So, it’s important to properly assess your own ability level and set realistic goals that you can actually achieve.

The next aspect of effective goal setting is relevancy.

You already did this part when you identified your motivation, but I will just reiterate the point here.You want to create goals that are relevant to your life.

How will your English ability improve your life?

If you never plan to travel. If you want to keep the same job. If you want to live in your hometown and never meet people from any other area of the world, then maybe you shouldn’t focus on trying to be fluent in English.

And finally…

Timely

3 months. 90 days.

That’s your time frame.

Yes, I’m giving you your deadline.

I don’t want you to set goals five years, from now, two years from now or even six months from now.

I want you to have daily and weekly goals with your only one long-term goal being 90 days from today.

Why only 90 days?

Success fuels motivation.

You need to keep your motivation high if you’re going to keep studying English. When you see your goals met, they energize you and keep you moving in the direction of achievement. Three months is a long enough time for you to achieve a lot without having to wait so long to see the results.

If you have a five-year goal, it’s too far away. You never appreciate it as you continue on the path toward that goal. However, 90 days is within your reach. It’s not too far away. And once you get to the 90th day, you can reflect on what you’ve learned, and adjust the next 90 days so you can achieve even more.

Here’s a quote from Life Coach Spotter backing up my point:

“The correct process of goal setting allows you to set goals that are sharply and clearly defined. Well-defined goals will provide you with a sense of achievement. This is because as you reach each of your goals, you will get a feeling of accomplishment. Properly set goals can provide you with more opportunities to acknowledge your success, which is a key factor in future motivation.”

90 days. Do it. See your goals accomplished and get the energy to continue to grow.

90 days.

Take your first step and download the English Language Learners SMART Goals handout.

Chart out what and how you are going to achieve your 90-day goals. Make sure they are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely. SMART

But you’re still not done, there are a few more things to consider when creating your action plan.

Step 5 – Plan Your Schedule 

After you write out your SMART goals, the next step is to plan how you will incorporate English into your everyday life.

You may already be busy.

You have other responsibilities to take care of and you don’t know when to study. However, if you’re serious about improving your English fluency, then you are going to have to figure out a way to make English a part of your life.

If English is going to add more stress in your life, maybe now isn’t the right time to move toward your goal of fluency. Personal enjoyment of the learning process is a big part of how much you will learn. According to Lindsey at Lindsey Does Languages,

“The more language learning is crowbarred into your daily life, the less enjoyable it’s likely to be. Identify times when you’re not doing labor-intensive tasks, such as washing up; or you’re doing something that could also include language learning, such as driving.” 

Remember, you’ll be much more likely to achieve your goal if you enjoy the process.

My schedule with short term and long term goals

Also, make sure you write down your schedule.

It’s very important to lay out your schedule in an app on your phone or just with a plain old pen and a piece of paper. You can’t have your schedule in your head. You’ll be much less likely to follow your schedule if you don’t write it out and prepare to include it in your daily routine.

When you write something down, you are more likely to actually do it.

Step 6 – Envision the Obstacles

When you imagine your future goals, you almost always imagine your success.

You imagine ordering at a restaurant in English with ease.

You imagine having deep philosophical conversations with your college professors.

You imagine the romantic things you’ll say to your future lover (wink wink).

But before you get to your goals, there will be a lot of obstacles along the way. You might fail a test, miscommunicate or be made fun of because of your accent. There will be times when you feel just embarrassed. Obstacles are part of the learning process.

Think about your future obstacles.

Remember the past and instances that frustrated you.

Expect to encounter those very same instances in the future.

I really want you to do this. It’s important.

This shouldn’t be depressing. This is going to make you stronger. If you have a realistic picture of your future and the road ahead, you will know how to overcome any obstacle.

In reality, obstacles are lessons. Future problems will become past learning experiences. If you meant to say “sheet” but it sounded like “shit” and all your American friends laughed you just learned two things.

  1. You have to hold the middle “e” sound in “sheet” or it sounds like another word
  2. Americans think the word “shit” is funny.

The obstacles will make you a better English speaker. Don’t ignore them or try to avoid them, but embrace them. In Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle Is the Way draws attention to the idea that obstacles are what make us who we are.

“What matters most is not what our obstacles are, but how we see them, how we react to them and whether we keep our composure.”  

When I prepare a lesson for class, I don’t just prepare the lesson, I think about the possible questions students might ask during the lesson. There’s one question, in particular, I prepare to answer before every lesson:

Why do we need to learn this?

I know how to answer that question in an instant because I thought about it beforehand.

Do the same with your English language learning action plan.

Prepare for obstacles because they will come. Create a plan for overcoming those hardships so you can easily move on toward your goal.

Just to review so far, because we talked about a lot, you have to:

  • Step 1 – Identify Your Motivation 
  • Step 2 – Reflect on Past Learning Experiences 
  • Step 3 – Assess Your Current Level 
  • Step 4 – Create SMART Goals 
  • Step 5 – Plan Your Schedule 
  • Step 6 – Envision the Obstacles 

And next up is my favorite step…

Step 7 – Create Social Pressure

One of the problems with personal goals is that they’re personal. If you don’t tell anyone else your goals, then there’s no consequence.

Let’s say you want to lose 10 pounds in three months.

You followed all six steps we already discussed.

However, you never tell anyone about your goal to lose ten pounds in three months.

After a couple of weeks, you lose your motivation and stop trying.

Nothing has changed.

That’s the problem, nothing has changed.

When you create social pressure, you add a consequence to your action. If you don’t lose ten pounds in three months, you should be “punished” in some way.

This is another reason why I think testing is a good measurement of learning because failing a test is a consequence that can have major repercussions.

For better or worse, consequences motivate us to push forward.

Try adding consequences for your own future goals. For example, you can ask your friend to be an accountability partner. In other words, you ask someone close to you to monitor your progress and guide you back to your goals if you lose motivation. Leah Stringer, a contributor at Quiet Revolution says,

“I’m a fan of Dr. Robert Cialdini, a well-known social psychologist, who has written a great deal about “social influence” and decision-making. His studies show that peer pressure is powerful, especially when the decisions we are making are complex or ambiguous.”

Having a friend or family member check in to see if you’re on your way to achieving your goals is powerful, but there are other ways to create social pressure.

Many people post their progress on social media.

My brother, for example, hiked the Appalachian Trail last year. The Appalachian trail is a 3500-kilometer scenic hiking trail that stretches across the American east coast. It takes between four to six months to complete. He had to hike for at least eight hours a day, every day, for over four months. He analyzed his past performances, assessed his present conditions and set out on a SMART goal.

However, nothing could prepare him for the physical and psychological pressure that accompanied walking in the woods, alone, day in and day out. He said he would have given up if it weren’t for his Youtube channel.

He filmed while on the trail. He released a new video every couple of days and amassed a following of thousands. He really did want to give up, but every time he considered it, he knew he would be letting down thousands of people who trusted that he would finish his journey.

Don’t doubt the power of social pressure. 

Step 8 – Plan Constant Reflection 

Look back at the goals you wrote out in your SMART goals PDF handout.

As you go through your goals, ask yourself the following questions:

Were these goals too easy?

Were these goals too difficult?

Did I enjoy the process?

Is there anything I can change?

How can I improve my schedule so I can achieve more in less time?

Do I need to readjust the timeline for my long term goal?

Were there any unforeseen obstacles?

Are these still the goals I want to pursue?

Most people believe that their goals are static. While it’s important to hold yourself accountable to your goals and make sure that you complete them in the time frame you originally planned, life has a way of ignoring your plans. What you imagined in your head is different than reality. That’s okay. There’s a quote I often think about when setting goals:

Remember, obstacles are not roadblocks, but learning experiences. Be open to the idea that things are not always going to go according to plan. Keep that in mind as you move toward your English goals. Constantly assess yourself. Celebrate your accomplishments and readjust when needed. Life is change, and you must be responsive to it if you wish to achieve your goals.

If you’re reading this sentence right now, you are one of the few individuals who are actually committed to becoming fluent in English.

Celebrate.

Congratulate yourself for reading over 4000 words in English.

I hope you enjoyed the ride because…

Step 9 – The Journey is the Destination

Any worthwhile goal is going to take a long time to accomplish.

A reoccurring theme throughout my teaching is that students must enjoy what they’re doing. .

Your goals must be your own if you wish to achieve the highest level of fluency.

One of the reasons why I stopped working in schools is because many students are sitting in class because they must.

Maybe it was their parents.

Maybe it was their boss.

Maybe it was society.

Something pushed these students into those chairs and there were only a select few who really were committed to learning and being better.

But what I loved about teaching in the class was the challenge.

I wanted to inspire students to want to learn, to realign their motivation, recognize why they had come up short to achieve their goals in the past and become reenergized to learn the language in a smarter and more effective way.

And the only way to inspire students to get motivated to achieve their goals is to enjoy the process. I strove to make the class both enjoyable and educational. However, classes aren’t always the best fit for every student.

You must find what works best for you. You know yourself better than anyone else. The best way to learn English depends on you, the student. Be prepared to develop your own action plan. Become responsible enough to hold yourself accountable when you fail and willing to rise up and overcome when you encounter an obstacle.

You determine your success. 

There’s a big gap between the achieved goal and the journey to achievement. 99% of your time will be devoted to the process of achieving a goal. The goal itself, if and when achieved, may only last a moment. Be sure that you enjoy the process.

Remember your motivation. Set up an action plan filled with activities you enjoy. Reflect on what you learned. Celebrate your accomplishments. Test and readjust your studies and I guarantee future success.

So just to recap, the 9 steps are:

  • Step 1 – Identify Your Motivation 
  • Step 2 – Reflect on Past Learning Experiences 
  • Step 3 – Assess Your Current Level 
  • Step 4 – Create SMART Goals 
  • Step 5 – Plan Your Schedule 
  • Step 6 – Envision the Obstacles 
  • Step 7 – Create Social Pressure 
  • Step 8 – Plan Constant Reflection 
  • Step 9 – The Journey Is the Destination

Be sure to download the SMART goals PDF so you can start working on your goals today.

Setting up an action plan is a long process. Come back to this blog post multiple times to reevaluate what you have learned and what you plan to achieve.

Do you think I missed anything?

Or do you think there is a better approach to learning English?

Be sure to let me know in the comments section below.

Till next time.

-Josh

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