Learning English and running a marathon at home

learning english from homeI’ve been trying to improve my German during lockdown. It’s hard to learn a language at home, and I get distracted by the TV. Last week, the news said that the Tokyo Olympics will happen in 2021, or never. I thought about the athletes who have been trying to train at home during the Covid-19 “lockdown”: how do you practise throwing a javelin, playing tennis or swimming, at home? And how do marathon runners train for their 42km race in their living rooms?

The marathon is a good example of what learning a language on your own is like. Can you imagine a remote Olympic marathon? Each runner would set off from their own homes, at different times, and run for 42 kilometres in whichever direction they preferred. Some would go along flat roads, but others would find hills going up and down. How would they know if they have run exactly the right distance, and reached the finish — if there isn’t a finishing line? It would be a disaster!

This explains why, when we’re learning a language at home, we need to set ourselves learning goals. To avoid the problems of those imaginary remote runners, the first thing we need to know is where we’re starting from. Then we need to know where we want to get to. It would be good to have some markers on the way, so we know how far we’ve come, and that we’re going in the right direction. And finally, we need to know how we’ve reached our goal.

In business, people often talk about “SMART” objectives, and that doesn’t just mean they’re clever or elegant goals. SMART stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timed.

Specific goals

So let’s start. What do we mean by “specific”? Well, what it doesn’t mean is “I want to learn English”. How are you going to know when you’ve got there? So let’s make our goal a bit firmer; something like “I want to achieve a B2 in the Oxford Test of English before my summer holiday”. That’s specific: it really means something very clear.


Now that we’ve got a goal, we need to think about your starting point, and how you’re going to measure your progress. Do you have a clear idea of what your level of English is already? Have you recently finished a B1 course for example? If you’re not sure, you might like to speak to your teacher about doing the Oxford Placement Test. It’s one thing to take a B2 course, but what if your level now is A2? That means you have quite a long way to go. (Actually, maybe that’s why I’m finding German hard to learn — I’m not as good at it as I thought!)

Next, you need some way of measuring how far you’ve come. Most children on long car journeys learn to read distances from road signs, and enjoy seeing how the number of kilometres to the seaside — or home — goes down gradually: it helps them feel they’re getting nearer where they want to be. Otherwise, when you start learning a language, your goal may seem “a long way away”, and after many hours and weeks of studying, it will still seem “a long way away”! Don’t miss out those end-of-unit tests in your enthusiasm to progress — they will show you how well you’re doing, which will encourage you to do more. Materials such as the Oxford Test of English Practice Tests are also helpful tools to use to measure how much you’ve improved.


So far, it sounds easy! But is it? The important thing is to set yourself a goal you can achieve. Maybe you’re being a bit too ambitious? So be honest with yourself: is this the right objective for you, or would it be a better idea to set yourself a nearer, easier goal first? That doesn’t mean you’re being weak: it means being sure you can do it. The same goes for the material you’re studying with. If you want to read something in English, you would be better with graded readers like the Oxford Learner’s Bookshelf, than trying to read Charles Dickens or Shakespeare.


So now we’ve got a route map for our learning marathon! Now what? Well, the big question now is: does it make sense? If you want to get a B2 level of English before summer, does this make sense for what you want to do in life? This matters, because if you’re not really going to need to use your English afterwards, you might get tired and bored in the middle of your learning. So be clear with yourself: when you’ve got your B2 certificate in English, what will you be able to do, that you can’t do now? Will new doors open for you — to study, travel or work? This will make sure that your goals are relevant, and will help you not to give up.


Now that we’ve created a map with a start, an end, landmarks along the way, and it is all achievable and in line with what you want in life, all you need to do now is decide how much time you’re going to need. You can decide this by looking at how much time you have every day or week, and then you have an idea of when you’ll reach your goal — this summer, September, Christmas…? Or if you can’t change the date, because you need a certificate by the end of July, you can think about how many hours each day or week you’ll need to spend studying.

Get set – Go!

So before you do anything else, take a pen and piece of paper, and write out your SMART objectives for learning more English now!

It’s a little bit easier to prepare for a marathon if you know where you’re going to start, how far you have to go, how far you’ve progressed, how you’ll feel when you’ve finished, and how you’ll know when you’ve reached the finishing line.

Finally, the most important thing about running a marathon isn’t coming first: it’s completing it. Enjoy the run, and be proud of everything you achieve.

On your marks… get set… go!

For more practice materials, and to find out more about the Oxford Test of English, visit oxfordtestofenglish.com.

Simon Ferdinand is Head of Market Development for ELT Assessment at Oxford University Press, where he is in charge of launching the Oxford Test of English worldwide.His career spans 26 years in the field of English Language Teaching, first as a teacher of English and French at a language school in Madrid, then as a sales rep and product manager with Oxford University Press working on English File and exams material.

Simon speaks six languages fluently and  he is also the author of ‘Cómo negociar en inglés’ (How to Negotiate in English) which was published in Madrid in 2006 and has sold 27,000 copies.




Author: Oxford University Press ELT

Every year we help millions of people around the world to learn English. As a department of the University of Oxford, we further the University’s objective of excellence in education by publishing proven and tested language learning books, eBooks, learning materials, and educational technologies.

Leave a Reply