How to Teach Past Simple – Regular/Irregular Verbs
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How to Teach Past Simple – Regular/Irregular Verbs

How to Teach Past Simple – Regular/Irregular Verbs

We're often told we should put the past behind us, not dwell in the past, etc…However, ESL students must do just that…to learn the simple past tense. As they learn that regular verbs simply need an –ed suffix, they jump for joy. 'This is not so hard!', they think. Then we hit them with the endless lists of irregular verbs to study, and their enthusiasm deflates like a balloon before your very eyes. Don’t add to the confusion.

Follow these steps to teach the past simple and keep your students right on track:

How To Proceed

  1. 1

    Introduce the Past Simple of regular verbs
    Give an example in Present Simple: I talk to my sister everyday. Lead in to past simple: Yesterday, I talked to her. Write this on the board. Give more examples with regular verbs and write each verb in its past form on the board.
    T: I visited her. We watched TV. She cooked lunch. We listened to music.
    Make sure students understand that the past form is the same for all persons. Give as many examples with regular verbs as needed.

  2. 2

    Practice Past Simple of regular verbs
    Go around the class and make statements in present simple, which students must change to past simple:
    T: I sometimes walk in the park.
    S: You walked in the park yesterday.

    Now’s a good time to practice the different pronunciations of the –ed past form. Try this worksheet where students are required to group verbs according to their pronunciation.

  3. 3

    Introduce the Past Simple of irregular verbs
    Give an example in present simple: I have lunch at 12 every day. Lead in to past simple: Yesterday I had lunch at 12. Write this on the board. Give more examples with irregular verbs and write each verb in its past form on the board.
    T: Yesterday I spoke to a friend. We went to the movies. We saw Eclipse. My friend ate popcorn. I drank soda.
    Make sure students understand that the past form is the same for all persons.
    Give as many examples with irregular verbs as needed.

  4. 4

    Practice the Past Simple of irregular verbs
    Go around the class and make statements in present simple, which students must change to past simple:
    T: I usually drink orange juice for breakfast. S: Yesterday you drank orange juice.
    To help your students study these verbs, give them this worksheet. For extended practice, try this one.

  5. 5

    Introduce the Past Simple – Negative forms
    Say, 'Yesterday I talked to John. I didn't talk to Sarah.' Give more examples alternating between affirmative and negative statements:
    Sarah had lunch at 12. She didn’t have lunch at one. You went to the gym yesterday. You didn’t go to the movies.
    And so on with all persons, singular and plural. Write the negative form on the board. Then have students do the same, always alternating between affirmative and negative statements.

  6. 6

    Introduce the Past Simple – Interrogative forms
    Model questions with did:
    T: Did you come to school yesterday?
    S: Yes./No.
    T: Ask me!
    S: Did you come to school yesterday?
    Continue with more questions from students. Model questions with what time, where, when, why, etc…Write examples on the board. First, they ask you, then they ask classmates, then they ask a classmate about another classmate (What did Bobby do last night?), and so on. Make sure they ask questions in all persons, both singular and plural. If they are unsure as to how to ask a question, model it for them first.

  7. 7

    Introduce the Past Simple - Short answers
    Ask yes or no questions and teach students to give short answers:
    T: Did you come to school yesterday?
    S: Yes, I did./No, I didn’t.

    Students ask classmates yes or no questions, and classmates reply with short answers.

  8. 8

    Provide extended practice
    Tell students that the best way to learn which verbs are regular and irregular, and remember the past form of irregular verbs is through lots of practice and not necessarily memorization. You’ll find hundreds of Past Simple worksheets at BusyTeacher.org that will help them do just that.

Keep in mind that there are endless options for practice. Ask them to write about their last vacation for homework. Have them give a presentation on what people did 100 years ago. But no matter what you choose to do, just make sure your students practice the past simple in context, and not by memorizing lists of verbs. It’s the best way to learn!

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