Whether students are enrolled in a course or studying independently, language progress largely depends on how much they invest and how consistent they are with good study habits.
However, before habits are established, a learner needs to develop awareness and add a dose of realism to their aspirations. What exactly are their language goals? I’ve recommended ways to start this discussion. (Click to view ideas for a Goals Sheet.) Are the goals realistic? What resources will the learner use to reach these goals? (Click to view a list of study tips.)
Goals are often set with a feeling of determination. There’s a genuine desire to gain fluency in the language, so self-study begins optimistically. Is motivation enough to sustain a student on the path to greater proficiency? Perhaps motivation is only needed initially.
I watched a TEDx Talk recently in which the speaker claims that motivation for long-term change isn’t key. If you have a quarter of an hour, listen to B. J. Fogg’s talk “Forget Big Change, Start with a Tiny Habit.” From flossing one’s teeth to exercising, one can implement long-term change by breaking big goals down into easy-to-do tasks and making them systematic. For example, can you start with one push-up a day, as Fogg did?
Actually, all that sounds familiar. I had viewers read and reflect on my short text “There Is Much to Do” from my Oral Reading Fluency series. A student summed up his advice by stating, much like B. J. Fogg, that one must divide large goals into smaller ones.
In the context of ESL, I see the potential of Fogg’s theories if applied to study habits, that is, what a learner can do on their own to increase their use and mastery of English. Too often a learner begins to study in a new, positive way, but then after some time the habit is lost and old ways creep back in.
Fogg claims that reliable change develops not through will power, but through systematic behavior. He encourages people to strive toward automaticity and allow tiny habits to grow into long-term change. This way, there won’t be regression. In fact, with these achievable tasks, the doer can easily repeat and increase the habit. At the time of the talk, Fogg had increased his number of daily push-ups to 56.
This approach could help keep self-study on track. What small habits can be added to the learner’s daily or weekly schedule to increase their use of English and put into practice target words and structures? I’ve often recommended that students keep a journal. I tell students to write at least one sentence a day. It’s realistic and doable. Some days they may want to write more, but they can at least write one line even on the busiest of days. Although I’ve suggested a consistent time of the day, for example, after dinner or before bedtime, I never thought about tying this writing practice to an existing behavior. That’s Fogg’s suggestion.
Fogg recommends that we use an existing behavior as the trigger. He himself has established new habits by deciding what behavior the habit will follow. This way, whether it’s after having your morning coffee or going to the bathroom, you will begin to make the new behavior automatic. He even suggests we put our plan in writing, using the simple statement: After I…, I will…. I noted that one TEDx viewer on YT, Eva Yu, wrote: “After I watch a good video, I will leave a comment.” How wonderful. We should encourage our students to do the same. They watch clips on YT and other social media sites. Why not make posting a positive comment in English a regular habit?
I see Fogg’s talk as food for thought. Perhaps we should give his ideas consideration the next time we recommend ways students can practice English on their own.