I’ll put it out there, I’m a grammar geek! I love it, honest. Growing up, I learned a lot of languages, and I loved the days when we would create verb charts for conjugation or parse sentences. I’m also a very visual person, so as soon as the teacher would write a new verb on the board, I whipped out my pencil case and started picking out my pencil crayons and ruler. I was like a language archeologist categorizing, sorting, and analyzing, and I find that this has helped me when approaching verbs with students.
The Big Ask
One day, a student came to see me, and as usual, I asked him what he’d like to talk about that day. I noticed he hadn’t brought any books or exercises with him, so I was intrigued to know what he had on his mind. He took a deep breath and with a nervous laugh/sigh, he asked me if I could teach him all the verb tenses. I must confess, my anxiety gave me a little jolt. I had so many questions: what do you mean ALL the tenses? Are we talking about the idea of past, present, and future? Are we talking simple, progressive, perfect, perfect progressive? Are we talking when to use them or the form? Is there a camera? Am I being tested? Immediately, my mental library card catalogue drawers started to burst open and cards started flying all over the place. I took a breath and calmly asked him these questions to try to understand his underlying goal only to find out he wanted to know all of these (and no there was no camera and I wasn’t being tested – phew!).
Using a Timeline
So where to start? When I teach about verb tense, I always draw a timeline. I try to be as visual as possible when it comes to grammar.
This timeline makes it easier to show students how tenses “travel”, especially when trying to teach the more complex pieces like progressive, perfect or even perfect progressive. I use the chart too as a graph. Whenever I can make grammar look more like math, I jump on it since students often see math as having logic and rules and order but English as being fluid and abstract and rebellious. I mean how often have you said, “so this is the rule for [insert any grammar topic]” and then in the next breath said, “but here’s an exception to this rule”. To students, the exception list always seems almost as long as the rule list.
From there, I go through each tense one at a time (present, past, future is usually the order I go by), and work through each aspect category for that tense. The one I have the most fun with is the perfect category because it seems as though you could insert the word “already” in each sentence example and use it as emphasis. I just find it fun to exaggerate “already” with a sigh when I read the sentence example aloud: I have ALREADY eaten, mom! I had ALREADY told her that yesterday before we left! The sale will ALREADY be over!
Sometimes, I even stand up and hop between times – I’m like Dr. Who and can time travel! The main approach I take is to make learning verb tenses visual whenever possible whether that be drawing timelines and dots, using different colours, or acting it out. Another strategy I’ve used is just using any objects we have in front of us if we don’t have paper and pens. I’ve used water bottles, chap stick, even phones just to provide students with that visual action of moving through time.
A fellow TESL Ontario blogger, John, wrote about a neat teaching tool he uses for verbs (GIFs) so students can see the action. Check out his post here.
What tricks and strategies have you used to help students engage in learning about verb tenses? Which one is your favourite tense to teach?