One of the trickiest challenges for the EFL teacher is helping non-native learners understand verb tenses that do not have translatable equivalents in the host language.
In fact, most languages structure verb tenses differently than English. Hence, teachers cannot rely on comparisons to the host language to explain these concepts, and they have to develop original, cross-cultural methods to explain. Here are some tips for teaching five unique English verb tenses that probably do not exist in your students’ first languages.
Use These Ideas to Teach Non-equivalent Tense Forms
English has more than four variations of talking about the future, which can be extremely confusing for EFL learners. They will especially struggle with how to pick which version to use in which situation. Break it down into situations by creating rules, and teach the most basic concepts first. Use plenty of action-oriented examples and create an interactive worksheet to pick which versions to use in which situation. First pick one action verb in English and explain how it can have different future meanings depending on the situation, like “leave”.
- Auxiliary “will” for predictions and statements of facts. Explain that will is often coupled with a future timeframe, i.e. tomorrow, next week, in a year. Example: I will leave tomorrow. She will leave next year.
- Auxiliary “going to” for intentions. Differentiate that intentions are something you want to do, but are not 100% facts. Example: I am going to leave tomorrow. She is going to leave tomorrow.
- Present progressive for arranged events. These are facts too, and have almost the exact meaning of using will. This tense is more conversational than will. Example: I am leaving tomorrow. She is leaving next year.
Create a worksheet asking students to select between the three tenses and explain why they chose that tense. Pick apart the language and analyze!
These can be difficult for some EFL learners. Explain it simply, as in “tell someone or something to do something”. Follow that pattern with a worksheet by providing the 1. Verb, 2. Someone or Something, and then 3. Other something (use simple prepositional phrases to start).
- Eat, mom, at the table.
Then break it down that this is the only instance in sentence construction that you do not use the subject noun, so mom is erased from the end result. The command is: Eat at the table. To help them understand, you can add on the subjects at the end: Eat at the table, mom.
The past tense is hard enough, but past progressive can be even more difficult. Focus on teaching signal words, like when and while and continuous action indicators like every day, all of the time, etc., and explain that it is mostly used to describe something you were doing while doing something else or something you did habitually. Have a worksheet to pick between past and past progressive.
- He (ate/was eating) spaghetti when the phone rang.
- She (ran/was running) to school every day.
It is tricky because there is no right answer, just answers that are more correct! Again, analyze and deconstruct the different choices. Act out the difference of ran versus was running, etc. Try to make it as real as possible.
Present vs. Present Progressive
EFL students struggle with choosing between the present and present progressive even more so, because the rules are even less defined. It is best to explain that they can always use present tense, but that they cannot always use the progressive tense. The progressive tense is for immediate or immediately future actions. Again, have them pick between present and present progressive and analyze the nuanced differences between the tenses.
- He walks/is walking to the park.
- They climb/are climbing the mountain.
Conditional tenses rely on parallel structures and can be esoteric and difficult to teach. Only move on to these after students really understand the future and past tenses. Break it down into categories and explain rules the best you can to help them seek out patterns in the language.
- Real situation conditionals. Compare future fact situations with “will” to if clauses. Example: A. We will go to the restaurant if they leave work on time. B. He will go to the restaurant when his girlfriend leaves work. Explain that “if” indicates uncertainty in the future and the first event in the sentence relies on the “if” happening. B is a classic of one thing happening “when” another thing happens.
- If they understand that, move on to “unreal” conditionals. These are “if” clauses imagining a different reality. “If I had a million dollars, I would move to an island.” These again use “if” clauses, but with past tense plus would. Explain that would is will in the past tense which is used here because you do not actually have a million dollars and the action is not present or future. This is tricky! Practice a lot with worksheets.
- The conditional expression of what could have been is extremely challenging. Explain it like how you had wished you had done something to have had a better result. “If I had eaten a lighter lunch, I would not have had to take a nap in the afternoon.”
The amount of auxiliary verbs is confusing in these tenses, but it helps to explain all three together at the same time to compare meanings.
Verb tenses can be really hard to learn, especially if they do not exist in the student’s first language!
Break it down simply and use real life examples to keep the grammar interesting and applicable. In addition, analyze the language; break it down into components and turn it more into a math equation and logical reasoning puzzle than a memorization exercise.