English grammar, particularly its complex verb tense system, can be confounding for ESL students. Many intermediate level students who have some level of conversational fluency have been taught the various verb tenses but don’t use them because they don’t fully understand and haven’t internalized them.
However, to reach a higher level of academic success, students have to control grammatical accuracy, including the verb tense system.
Often students have learned the verb tenses in isolation of each other, when in fact verb tenses interact and relate: if I’m telling a story about an accident I was involved in yesterday, for example, I’m likely to use simple past, past progressive, and past perfect tenses. It helps students to see there is some pattern and organization to our verb tense system, and that the verb tenses are related. It can be particularly helpful, for example, to show how all the verbs within one timeframe relate to each other because these are the verbs tenses that are most likely to occur together.
Teaching this can be accomplished through a careful review for those intermediate-level students who have been exposed to the major verb tenses but don’t necessarily use them accurately.
Steps to a Comprehensive Review of Our Verb Tense System: General Principles
Often students will not understand the pattern of our verb tense system, or even that there is one, although if they are at the intermediate level or higher, they may be using many tenses with varying degrees of correctness. Show students the pattern, that verb tense can in fact be organized in terms of timeframe (past, present, and future) and of aspect, or the particular way of looking at that time frame, the simple or progressive aspect.
Put a chart on the board or give out a handout, dividing the verbs up into present, past, and future tenses and then by progressive, perfect, and simple aspects.
past present future simple drove drive will drive progressive was driving am driving will be driving perfect had driven have driven will have driven
Offer examples. Visuals are also helpful. For example, a straight line connecting the past and present can indicate perfect tense:
I have driven for ten years___________
Teach the meaning and use of the verb tense along with the form. Contrast the tenses with each other: e.g., “I drive,” simple present, means “I usually drive” or it is my habit to drive; “I am driving,” present progressive, means I’m driving at the moment, right now.
Provide Meaningful Opportunities to Practice
- Students must practice a skill like use of verb tenses both in speaking and writing for it to become internalized. Students have probably encountered many of these verb tenses, again, but have not acquired them in the sense of being able to recall and use them fluently in the correct situation. Additional practice will help that. Give examples and practice in meaningful context, the way the tenses would be used in a real-life situation, such as the use of future tenses in the context of a discussion about plans for the summer, for example.
Specific Verb Tense Practice Suggestions:
Call on students: e.g., “Jose, how long have you driven?” The teacher should call on students after handing out the chart for verb tense review and get them to practice using the various tenses. Students will then have to refer to their chart to form the sentence.
Give out a paragraph with mistakes in the various verb tenses. Have students work together to proofread it.
Have students interview each other using the various verb tenses. Provide the interview questions or have students brainstorm them.
When doing a class reading, take note of the verb tenses used. Show how in the narrative past, for example, tenses shift between simple past to past progressive and past perfect.
Give writing assignments that will focus on a particular time frame, such as the narrative essay that will call upon uses of the various past tenses. Have students write the essays, bring them in, and proofread each other’s work.
Engage in class activities that will get students to interact in a meaningful way: “Alibi” is a fun activity for teaching the past progressive and simple past, for example. Tell students a murder was committed (“The teacher was murdered last night at 7 pm. Students are suspected.”) They must interview each other (“What were you doing last night at 7 pm?”) and decide who has strong and weak alibis. Setting up interactive activities like this in which students have to practice using the language shows a meaningful context for it and helps students internalize its use.
Do peer editing assignments that focus on verb tense: when turning in assignments, have students trade with a partner and check each other’s work, focusing on verb tense.
Verb tense in English is complex, and it is not easy to teach or learn it.
However, teaching it and increasing students’ accuracy can be accomplished through a systematic presentation, clear visuals, focus on both form and function, raising awareness of verb tense in reading other’s work and in editing their own, and in plenty of opportunities to practice the verb tenses in meaningful activities to internalize their use.