Turning wishes into goals: from failure to gold.

“A goal without a plan is only a wish.”

From the first moment I read this quote, I knew it hit home very accurately and beautifully. It articulates the simple truth behind success and failure and touches on something profoundly true about language learning and why some learners fail, and fail to feel they have made any real progress, no matter how hard they try.

I’ve been pondering the problem of adult False Beginners and how to help them. Why they often feel dissatisfied with their progress or unable to penetrate the invisible glass ceiling hampering their efforts.

What the quote so very elegantly expresses is that the essence of making progress in language learning lies in making a shift from a mere wish into a goal.

wish n.
1. A desire, longing, or strong inclination for a specific thing.
2. An expression of a desire, longing, or strong inclination.
3. Something desired or longed for.
goal n.
1. The purpose toward which an endeavor is directed. An objective.
2.The finish line of a race; a specified structure or zone into or over which players endeavor to advance a ball or puck; the score awarded for such an act.
3. Linguistics – a noun or noun phrase referring to the place to which something moves.

Making the shift from a wish into a goal is key – while the former is passive, an expression of a hope, the latter is active, dynamic, involves development, directed effort, as well as failing and trying again.

I may wish to be in Paris now, but no matter how hard I wish I was in Paris, if a wish stays a wish, I will stay where I am, typing away at my laptop (and I am not in Paris). I may wish to be able to speak a foreign language (Chinese, for example), but no matter how hard I wish I could speak it, if a wish stays a wish, nothing will change and I won’t know a word of it.

This is where the teacher comes in – by helping the learner become aware of the processes and challenges, as well as rewards and landmarks on the way towards achieving their realistic goal. A teacher can help in turning the sense of failure into motivation, a desire to move on, by planning out a practical, realistic and tailor-made set of objectives which the learner may use to keep track of where and how successful they are and where they are headed.

This is especially relevant in situations where a learner has been trying – but failing – several times, becoming the dreaded False Beginner, carrying the weight of past failures on their shoulder, making any new efforts seem impossible or futile. It can be expressed in attitudes like this:

“I’m hopeless. I’ll never learn the language well. There are so many exceptions and rules. It’s too difficult.”

“I want to speak, but I make stupid mistakes, no matter how much I learn. I’m embarrassed and frustrated. I give up.”

“I can understand, but I’m too embarrassed to speak. I can’t remember the right word or I forget new words too quickly. Everything just bounces off me.”

The more I reflect on why some of my adult learners fail, the more I reailise that the problem often lied in my inability to establish a solid sense of direction and achievement throughout the whole process of learning. My failure to set specific, realistic objectives and landmarks on the way towards the desired destination.

A learner might have a vague idea what they want (or wish) to achieve, but no idea about which routes to take, how long it’s going to take them, and so on. They even might be making gradual improvement, but they simply might not be aware of it, having unrealistic expectations, having no real sense of measuring and relying on their present abilities, or lacking sense of the whole. They might feel overwhelmed, taking mistakes as proof of inadequacy and, in spite of the hours, the effort, and the progress, they might feel they are getting nowhere.

When someone comes to me with a wish to improve their foreign language skills, they are usually motivated, looking forward to the learning process and, most importantly, looking forward to achieving measurable results. This is where their initial motivation comes from – a strong wish to improve – and there’s usually lots of it.

However, abundant motivation and a very strong wish to improve are just the beginning. Staying motivated is the real challenge and it’s up to the teacher to pick it up from there and turn the wish and motivation into a success.

I decided on these steps with my adult learners:

1. Do a Needs Analysis

The learner will get a sense of where they are and what they want.

NOTE: These thoughts were the reason why I suggested the #ELTchat topic Your experience using needs analysis with adult learners in EFL: The ifs, whys and hows. I was thrilled to see the topic got your interest and most votes, although I was unable to join the rest of #ELTchatters on the actual chat itself. There’s a fabulous summary by Sue Annan @SueAnnan on her blog here .

2. Help the learner formulate specific main goals

Not more than a couple of sentences. The big picture. E.g. What would you like to have achieved by the end of our course?

3. Draw up a more detailed road map and, if agreed, a time plan

Draw up a tailor made road map towards the main goal, use the information from Needs Analysis and help the learner decide very specifically on the objectives along the way, and how you’re both going to check on the progress. This is the birth of your lesson plans, if your learner, or you, prefer to work in this way. Or, do the D-word (nudge nudge, wink wink).

4. Have classes 

Planning the content of the lessons is akin to making a tailor-made suit. You may use a one-size-fits-all coursebook, or not – in any case, make an intuitive decision as to what will suit your learner and you best. There’s no need to follow a routine or copy what other people do. Your heart and mind will tell you what’s best. You have a lot of experience to build on!

This is a road plan leading the student through the whole journey towards reaching the desired goal and, very soon into the process, you may help them navigate their own way towards it, so that they can do so independently and permanently, on their own.

5. Reflect on the progress

Take stock. Make sure the learner is aware of how they are improving, by any possible means – tests, reflection, teacher feedback, etc. Assess where we have moved on the road towards the main goal, make sure the learner knows what is behind us and what lies ahead.

More inspiration:

#ELTchat summary on Teaching false beginners – (not sure who wrote this one.. will update shortly)

Also, in the light of the current debate on subsequent #ELTchats I see these topics are beautifully connected: How to help slow learners inside and outside of the classroom #ELTchat Summary of Jan 11th #ELTchat by Vicky Saumell @vickysaumell

I wrote this post based on my recent experience with one my friend and colleague, who wished to improve his English, but felt he wasn’t getting anywhere. When we met for our class, I was surprised – his English was far better than what he had me believe from his own description. What he lacked was not so much the skill, but the sense of his own abilities and achievements. I realised that these feelings of inadequacy in language learning are quite prevalent among many of my adult learners. 

Wishing something is the beginning. In order to turn a present wish into a reality, we may help by turning a wish into a goal. Failure into gold.

Do you have similar experiences, thoughts, feedback, suggestions? I’d love to hear from you!

[Picture credit:  courtesy of FCIT http://etc.usf.edu/clipart]


5 Comments on “Turning wishes into goals: from failure to gold.”

  1. Hello Marian,
    I’ve been teaching General English for a year now, and whenever I have a new class I try to do all these things you beautifully and clearly mentioned above..

    What I observed so far is that especially my adult students lack confidence. They are not aware of what they can achieve if they really work for it. And yes, the key to success is having goals..

    Setting up the goals, planning, challenging them and all are good and important! they are the starting points.. And then ‘motivation’ takes control..

    Even though I sometimes have doubts about it myself as well, I try not to show it and instead show them that I really believe in their achievement. When they fail, they get really close to giving up. As teachers, we should encourage them to think that ‘failing only means try again’.
    That really pays off! :)

    Well maybe I should stop, or I’m gonna end up with a story here. sorry.

    Such a great and inspiring post.. really enjoyed reading it :)


    • Dear Nihal, I’m so glad that you can relate to my post and that you feel the same way about teaching your adult students. For some reason, I wasn’t entirely sure if it would be something other teachers could relate to, or if they would feel in a similar way about their adult learners, so having received your feedback is wonderful.
      You’re very right about us believing in our learners’ achievement – even if we sometimes seem to ‘lose all hope’ ourselves, because, as you write, it really pays off :) and the process of learning is about trying and trying again – we get better each time, and we can help our learners who need a little confidence to “fail” – or, to take failure as a necessary part of learning. If we don’t see making a mistake as something ultimately bad, but we accept is as normal, or even as part of the fun, we’ve already won! :)

      Thank you for your lovely comment and, please, do not hesitate to write me a whole ‘story’, however long it might be! :) I’d love to read your thoughts and experiences – it’s the best kind of feedback I can hope for. :)


  2. mikecorea says:

    I really enjoyed this post!
    I like your emphasis on the NA.
    I also like the emphasis on goal (not wish) setting and reflection!
    By the way, my recent blog posts were about my experience with false beginners (with a bit of a story as well). The post can be found here: http://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/dogme-with-false-beginners/


  3. […] wishes into goals Posted on 28 January, 2012 by Simon Thomas Marián Steiner reflects on why some false beginners don’t seem to progress.Share this post:Bookmark on DeliciousDigg this postRecommend on FacebookGoogle Buzz-up this […]


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