Table of contents
I’m an English teacher, and one of the biggest challenges I see my students have is staying committed to learning. Learning English happens slowly. It takes time.
One of the reasons it can be difficult to stay committed is that we often aren’t able to really see our progress. Since learning English is a slow process, it can often feel like we’re not actually getting anywhere.
Maybe we see glimpses of our progress every once in a while. Maybe we get a pun in English for the first time, or we understand the majority of a news video clip. But a lot of the time it can feel like we’re stuck in one place.
In this guide, I want to help you set goals for your English learning and then develop strategies so that you can track your English progress. If you can track it, you will see that you actually are making progress, even when it doesn’t feel like it. This will be motivating and it will also help you adapt your learning strategies to be more effective.
So let’s go: here’s how to measure your progress when learning English.
The importance of setting (realistic) goals
The first step to tracking your progress is setting a goal. Goal setting is essential.
Why set goals?
Setting goals requires you to think about what you want to achieve and how to get there.
Goals help us determine an action plan to accomplish something. They ensure that we’re working in a way that’s effective to what we’re trying to achieve. And they also help keep us motivated.
I like setting SMART goals: goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable (or “realistic”), Relevant, and Time-bound.
- Specific: Make your goal specific by clearly identifying what it is that you want to achieve.
- Measurable: Make your goals such that you can assign numbers to your progress.
- Attainable: Make your goal challenging but not too challenging. Choose something that is doable for you.
- Relevant: Make sure that your goals align with what you care about and are interested in.
- Time-bound: Specify a time period for your goals.
One of my current language goals for Portuguese, for example, is: “I want to achieve a C1 on a Portuguese test by December.”
This is specific, I can measure it (with a test score), I believe it’s attainable for me at my current level, it aligns with what I care about, and I have specified a time period.
Try to use this formula for your own goals.
Why it’s important to measure your progress
To actually accomplish your goals, it really helps to track your progress. There are a few reasons for this.
- It’s motivating. When we track our progress, we are able to see it. Seeing our progress helps us stay determined to put in the effort to continue. If we can’t see our progress, it’s a lot harder to continue trying to learn English, especially if you are learning on your own.
- It helps us choose effective methods. When we track our progress we are able to see more easily what is working for us—and what isn’t. For example, if you notice that you watch English shows on Netflix for years and don’t improve, then you know that’s not an effective strategy for you.
- It focuses our attention. When we set goals, we engage in a process of prioritisation; we decide what is important to us and what is not. Focusing on what is important helps us direct our attention and our action. This helps us be more successful.
One of the first things I do with my clients when I am starting an English programme with them is to ask them what they want to be able to do with English. Then, I help them design an English learning programme for accomplishing those goals.
And, after that, we talk about how they can measure their English progress. Here are 9 of my favourites, and one that I tell everyone not to do.
9 ways in which you can measure your English progress
1. Take English tests
This is one of the easiest ways to measure your progress: with high-quality tests.
I know, that doesn’t sound super fun, does it? But tests are really a great way to see where we are. If you can take a big, official test, like the IELTS or the TOEFL, amazing.
However, they can be expensive, often around $200 every time.
And you don’t need to take an IELTS or TOEFL test just to see your progress. Even free, online tests can be useful.
The University of Lancaster has one that is not too bad. Language trainers has another. Keep in mind that none of the tests you find online will be perfect… they tend to focus on reading and listening, and ignore writing and speaking.
Still, even these limited online tests can give you a good sense of your level. Try taking the test again every couple of months to see your progress.
2. Use tools and websites with metrics
I don’t take ‘official’ Portuguese lessons, but I do a number of activities and use a bunch of tools for learning it.
One of the tools I use is Brainscape. It’s a digital flashcard application, and I am using their course on Portuguese verbs. Brainscape’s platform builds in a “mastery” indicator and provides a bunch of metrics that show your progress.
You can see that I’ve “mastered” key verbs and the Present tense, but am still learning the other tenses.
This is a great way to see how far you’ve come. You don’t have to use Brainscape, either—there are tonnes of similar kinds of apps to learn English: Anki, Memrise, Quizlet, and a bunch more. You can try any of these and see if it works for you.
The benefit of each of them is that they provide you with metrics that you can use to see how much you’re learning.
3. Record yourself speaking
This is a strategy that comes highly recommended by a friend of mine. She found that she never really felt like her English speaking was improving. Since she lived in a place where there were few opportunities to talk with native English speakers, she decided she would just talk to herself. And then she started recording it.
She noticed that months and years later, when she listens to old recordings of herself, she can see the massive improvements she has made. She can now hear her mistakes and notice how much less fluidly she spoke in those recordings than she does now.
Recording yourself is a great way to practise speaking when you don’t have a conversation partner… but it’s also a great way to see your progress.
4. Keep a journal
This is similar, but for writing. Sometimes I look back at the texts I sent to my friends in Brazil from years ago and I am surprised at how bad my Portuguese was. I see very clearly how much better I am today at writing in Portuguese.
Start keeping a journal. Journals are a great way to practise your writing skills, practise your grammar, and expand your vocabulary. Then, every once in a while, look back at your previous journal entries and see how far your writing has come.
5. Read and reread books
This is a similar strategy as the last two, but with reading. Pay attention to how difficult articles or books are for you. Maybe even make a note of the number of words you don’t know and have to look up.
Then, months or even years later, reread the same articles or books. Does it feel easier? How many words did you need to look up this time? If it feels way easier, that indicates you’ve made a lot of progress.
6. Listen (and re-listen) to podcast episodes
You can try a similar strategy with English podcasts. I do this with TED talks in Portuguese. When I came to Brazil, I found it very difficult to follow or understand these. Now, when I listen again, I understand most of what the speaker is saying.
Try this yourself. Choose a podcast that you’re interested in (I, of course, highly recommend the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast) and start listening. Use it to learn English, as you normally would.
But also pay attention to how difficult it is for you at the beginning of the series compared to when you start to get to the later seasons. You might even go back and re-listen to earlier episodes. Are you understanding more of the content? Do you get more of the dialogue?
If you do, it’s an indicator of your improvement.
Or, if you are the kind of person who really wants to measure the numbers, you can count the number of times you have to press pause and rewind. If you find that you are pressing pause fewer times, then that’s a good indication that your listening is improving.
7. Keep a list of the vocabulary you learn
One way to measure your English progress is simply to see the number of words you know increase. While learning English isn’t only about vocabulary, a large vocabulary certainly helps you use and understand English.
I encourage you to keep track of the words you’re learning.
I typically do this in a paper journal, but you can do it using a number of apps online, including the ones I mentioned before (Brainscape, Anki, and Memrise) as well as a bunch of others. You can even build your own vocabulary app for free.
The growth in the number of words you know is one indicator of your improvement in English.
Note, make sure you aren’t just testing yourself on vocabulary from English into your native language. That’s the easy part. Make sure that you are also testing yourself from your native language into English. If you can do that, this means you can reproduce the words, not just recognise them.
We’re not always the best judges of our skills, but we’re usually not that bad, either. So you can simply assess your own English progress. This is actually the strategy that I use the most. It’s not very objective, but it’s easy—and free.
What I do is I make my goals based on the CEFR framework levels. Then I read the description for each one and decide where my skills fall. I do this for each skill, separately. So for example, my self-assessment might look like this:
- Speaking: B2
- Listening: B2/C1
- Reading: B2
- Writing: B1
I compare my self-assessment to my goals… and if I’m not there yet, I know I need to work harder!
9. Take an English class
If you’ve spent some time on this blog, you may know that even though I am an English teacher, I don’t necessarily recommend taking English classes. While English classes can be the right choice for some people, there are lots of reasons you shouldn’t learn English in a classroom.
Still, one benefit of an English course is that they often give you a grade or some other metric to show you how you’re doing. And, they often have levels that you can progress through. So classes can provide you with a way to measure your English progress.
You don’t need to be in a classroom to measure your progress, but it is one way to do it.
How not to measure your progress: stars, streaks, points, or gems
There are lots of fun language apps out there. These try to keep you motivated by “gamifying” language learning: they give you points, gems, stars and other little rewards to keep you interested in learning.
There’s nothing wrong with that: these features can really make learning English fun. But they don’t represent your progress in a language.
Make sure you’re not using these fun, gamified rewards as a true indicator of how much you’re learning. That’s not what they do.
How to use the data you collect
Great, you’ve been measuring progress. You have some data that you’re keeping track of. You can see you’re improving.
Here’s how you can use the data on your progress that you’ve collected.
- Celebrate. Be proud of your progress. You’ve put in a bunch of hard work—and it’s paying off! Let that feeling of achievement feed your desire to keep going. You can even make it visual by graphing your level on your wall, your fridge, or in a bullet journal.
- Switch activities. When you see you’ve improved significantly in English, it might be time to revise your language learning programme. For example, I started learning Portuguese with Duolingo until I was about an A2 level. Then I found it wasn’t helping, so I stopped using it. Now I listen to more podcasts and read more in Portuguese. Seeing my progress helped me switch my activities to be more appropriate.
- Revise your goals. When you’ve progressed so much that you achieve your goal… make a new one! Think about what the next step for you is. Then work towards that next step.
Measure your English progress to see your improvement
You’re putting in a bunch of effort to learn English. You’re doing something hard. But sometimes it can feel like you’re not getting somewhere.
That’s why it’s useful to make goals for your learning and build in ways to measure your progress. This will help you stay motivated to work on English, help you decide what learning strategies are working for you, and show you how close you are to achieving your goals.
The good news is that almost all of these strategies aren’t only helpful for measuring your progress, they also help you improve at the same time. So start putting these into action today, start measuring your progress, and when you look back at this in 3, 6 or 12 months time I’m sure you will be surprised to see how far you have come.