The past continuous is another tense that is commonly taught to beginners, usually after they’ve learned the past simple. Although it has its nuances, we usually use it talk about actions that were in progress at a specific time in the past. We also use it in conjunction with the past simple when talking about interruptions (I was doing my homework when the phone rang). As students should already be familiar with the present continuous, and the past of the verb to be, this tense usually doesn't pose great difficulties, and students are able to naturally incorporate it into their speech.
How To Proceed
Introduce the Past Continuous
Tell students what you usually do late at night, and lead in to the past continuous: I always go to bed at 11pm. So, last night at 11:30 I was sleeping. Write your typical schedule on the board with your usual everyday activities:
7:30 am – breakfast
9 to 12 – classes
12 – lunch
1pm to 5pm – classes
6pm – gym
8pm – dinner
11pm – bedtime
Now, give them examples of what you were doing exactly at a certain time yesterday: At noon, I was having lunch. At 1pm, I was giving a class. Ask students to tell you what you were doing, and have them answer in second person singular: You were sleeping at midnight.
Students jot down their own daily schedules, or what they did yesterday, and then take turns first saying what they were doing at certain time: I was having breakfast at 7am. Then, they switch schedules with a classmate and say what he or she was doing: Juan was having breakfast at 10 am. Then, they make comparisons: I was studying. He was playing video games. Or find similarities: We were all sleeping at midnight.
Here’s a great worksheet to give students so they can practice the past continuous.
Introduce the Past Continuous – Negative forms
Use the same daily schedule of activities and make negative statements:
I wasn’t watching TV at 3pm; I was working.
Juan wasn’t having breakfast at 7am; he was sleeping.
Use your students’ schedules as well. Then, ask them to do the same, first with theirs, and then with a classmates’, but always alternating between negative and affirmative statements.
Introduce the Past Continuous – Interrogative forms
First, model yes or no questions, then, questions with what, where, which, etc…:
- T: Were you watching TV at midnight last night?
- S: No!
- T: Ask me!
- S: Were you watching TV at midnight last night?
- T: What were you doing at 7am this morning?
- S: I was sleeping.
- T: Ask Juan!
- S: What were you doing, Juan, at 7am?
Continue with more questions from students. Encourage them to ask different types of questions in different singular and plural persons. If they are unsure as to how to ask a question, model it for them first.
Introduce the Past Continuous – Short answers
Ask yes or no questions and model the correct way to give short answers:
- T: Were you watching TV yesterday at 10pm?
- S: Yes, I was./No, I wasn’t.
Ask students to ask each other yes or no questions in past continuous, and have them practice replying with short answers.
Extended practice and contrast with Past Simple
It is essential at this point, for them to not only practice with as many exercises as necessary, for example, those found at BusyTeacher.org’s Past Continuous worksheets section, but also to learn the difference between the past simple and the past continuous. There are numerous worksheets that deal with this contrast specifically.
Remember that another great way to practice this tense in the classroom is through a variety of resources, like images, photos, cartoons, songs, and videos. For example, this worksheet provides exercises based on the trailer for the second film in the Twilight Saga, New Moon, and these are films that are very popular with teens these days. If you practice any tense with materials that students can relate to, or are interested in, you’ll make learning new tenses so much more fun for them!