I Came, I Saw, I Had to Teach Verb Tense

Grunge background with old watch. Time concept. Retro clocks on the wall. Old antique clock on aged red brick wall background. Vintage clocks.
image source: www.bigstockphoto.com

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.

timeline axis with past, present, future labelled on it

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!

verb tense timeline axis with two dots in past category to show which action came first

Visually Speaking

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?


7 thoughts on “I Came, I Saw, I Had to Teach Verb Tense”

  1. lol – Red, Azar, Black Azar, Blue Azar…
    For me Betty Azar’s is still one of the best resources to include teaching grammar points in my lessons….
    I teach LINC 6/7. I start every session by looking at writing skills – which includes looking at the students’ grammar knowledge and accuracy. The Blue Azar has a great overview of all tenses and good communucative activities (pairs, small groups) – practice with question forms of all tenses. Both the writing component and the speaking give me a good idea of what everyone knows ( or rather does not!) In spite of the high level I always need to do “remedial” teaching . McKay “Grammar in Use” is another go to resource – less communucative though. But I can give elements to students for self study.
    When you mentiined “trick” you reminded me of my wonderful teacher Barb at CCLCS. She came into class wearing a bathrobe and showercap, carrying a radio, a cup of coffee, and a cigarette (unlit!) She then proceeded to act out her morning routine. She was showering, listening to the radio, and drinking coffee when (prearranged) there was a knock at the door…so she stopped. Demonstration? Past continuous, two actions occuring at the same time interrupted by a (simple past) action. I tried it with a lower level class. Then they mimed being an orchestra – each chose an instrument.
    “While Josie was playing the piano, Jugerta was playing the piano”… fun. (Followed up by writing descriotion of what was happening in a picture. Simple Past, past progressive)

    1. I love the Blue Azar book! I hold that one dear in my bookshelf for sure. What a neat idea to have the students act it out. I hope you don’t mind me putting that one in my toolbox!

    1. Hi John, I watched the link you posted here, and I LOVE that they show the timeline and actually have the ticker move. It’s so visual and purposeful. Thanks for this resource.

  2. Bravo, John! I use Azar, too, but the old whiteboard/marker (usually dried out!) routine just doesn’t cut it anymore. There is nothing like action to help in fossilizing information. I’ll be trying many of your suggestions!

  3. Tasmin,
    I also have studied many languages and LOVE to teach grammar. I do use Azar books only for their nice concise summary of rules in table form. I’m not a fan of the gap-fill exercises because the sentences are all over the place instead of tied to our theme, which is not optimal since the brain is already primed for one schema. I do like the book Teaching Tenses by R. Aitken, but just as a place to go for ideas. I love to get creative with games and role plays that elicit the target tense, such as the police and suspect role play where suspect must give an alibi (What were you doing at 10:15 last night?), that sort of thing.

  4. Hi Tamsin, I too love to teach grammar. I like your idea of physically moving to explain time to the students. I think I’ll have to use that in a few weeks when I try to explain present perfect tense.

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