This article is based on an excerpt from Keith Folse's book, Keys to Teaching Grammar to English Language Learners
As a native speaker, grammar can be difficult to explain to students. Not only does the language barrier that may exist between you and your students make it hard to find the right words to communicate, but many times native speakers have been unknowingly using the grammar that you may be trying to teach in your ESL class.
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Verb tenses prove to be one of the most useful things to learn in a second language. After all, you can’t communicate very many ideas and experiences without being able to use the proper tense. However, and unfortunately, they also tend to be one of the most difficult things to explain because of all of the nuances and connotations involved.
Today we’re going to take a look at the 7 past tense verbs and how they’re typically taught, before moving onto, and focusing more intently on, the past progressive tense. This is one of the more complex verb tenses because it has a very specific, but important use.
What are Past Tense Verbs?
There are 7 past tense verbs, which you can find below. While native speakers tend to look at verb tenses in categories (past, present, and future), ELLs will digest this knowledge in much smaller and more varied chunks. Not all of the past tense verbs (or present or future) should be taught in one single class, or even a single week. It would simply be too confusing for your students.
Most textbooks, curriculum, and teachers will intersperse their past tense verb instruction with other verb tenses, such as simple present tense or future tense. They wouldn’t teach one past tense verb after another. When teaching the verb tenses, it’s a good idea to follow your textbook. It knows what it’s doing and it’s (hopefully) been put together by language and grammar experts!
Aside from the other verb tenses and grammar instruction that is typically interspersed, the past tense verbs are usually taught in the following pattern: Simple past, present perfect, past progressive, past perfect, past perfect progressive, used to, would
Past Tense Verb Crash Course
Take a moment to brush up on your past tense verb knowledge. Even if you aren’t teaching all of the verb tenses today, it can be helpful to know more about a subject than your students need to know.
The 7 past tense verbs are as follows: (definitions taken from Keys to Teaching Grammar by Keith Folse)
Simple Past - a single past event
I walked to school.
Past Progressive - a past action that was happening when it was interrupted by another
I was walking to school (until you picked me up).
Present Perfect - a past action (indefinite time) that could happen again
I have walked to school.
Past Perfect - a past action that was completed before a second past action
I had already walked to school (when you said you'd pick me up).
Past Perfect Progressive - an action that began in the past before a second past action (with emphasis on the duration of the action)
I had been walking to school for almost 20 minutes (when you said you'd pick me up).
Used To - an action that happened many times in the past, but is no longer true; frequently opens a past narrative
I used to walk to school.
Would - refers to smaller actions that happened repeatedly in a past narrative but are no longer true (cannot be used with non-actions)
I would walk to school.
Tips & Tricks for Teaching Past Progressive
As stated above, the past progressive tense is used when an action is interrupted by another action. It’s used for the first, continuing action and simple past tense is used for the second action. It’s important to note that this verb tense is not used for verbs that show a state of being (own, possess, be, remember, etc.). It’s only used for verbs that show actions.
When using past progressive verb tense, there is a clear equation or pattern that is at play. This pattern can be a really helpful tool to give to your students. Presenting grammar as a set of patterns can help students remember how to properly express verb tenses, help them to compare and contrast similar tenses, and it will especially help your more logically-inclined learners to succeed. (To learn more about your students' strengths and intelligences, click here.)
To express the idea that a past continuing action was interrupted by another action, follow the pattern below:
Past Progressive = was/were + VERB + -ing
I was talking...
You were running...
They were playing...
When expressing the action that interrupted the continuing action, be sure to use the simple past tense. You can find a few examples of this below. The past progressive tense will be bold, and the simple past tense will be in italics.
I cried while I was talking to my mom.
He was driving home before you told him to come over.
They kicked her out because she was yelling at the store clerk.
Another helpful tool to give your students so that they remember when and how to use the past progressive tense is to use the following example sentence. It not only exemplifies the correct use of the verb tense, containing both the past progressive and simple past, but the vocabulary shows your students in what situations to use it. It's a great memory tool!
I was talking when you interrupted me.
Activities to Use
If your students are more visually inclined, put a timeline on the board. To make it more engaging and interactive, involve your students in creating the timeline, and ask them for two action words, which you can use to create your past progressive timeline. Try to find a way to relate the action words to make it funny. Or share a story from a time in your life that something was interrupted. Maybe you went on vacation and had to go home early, or drove to work and got a flat tire.
Use the action words from your students or your personal story to create a timeline on the board. You can find an example below:
The classic game of charades is a great tool for practicing language, while also having a ton of fun, building relationships, and laughing! The past progressive verb tense fits perfectly with charades. Simple have your students get together in groups of two to act out sentences. This is a little bit more challenging than typical charades because the class will have to guess two verbs instead of just one!
You can write the sentences yourself or you can have students come up with their own and pick at random. Make sure you emphasize that past progressive tense doesn't work with non-action words, such as believe, forget, love, seem, etc. If you're having your students create the sentences, start them off with a few example sentences. I've included a few of my own below:
I was walking until I tripped.
You were laughing before I hit you.
I was snoring when you woke me up.
Discussion on Interrupting:
If you're teaching an upper-intermediate to advanced level class, you can create a more holistic lesson plan by holding a discussion on interrupting. Think about how different cultures treat conversational interruptions, as well as how individuals may react to their plan being interrupted. There are so many different aspects that you could discuss to take the lesson beyond pure grammar.
Check out the topics below for some ideas:
- When is it okay to interrupt someone during a conversation?
- What are polite ways to interrupt?
- How do you feel when your plans get interrupted?
- Are you a "go with the flow" kind of person? Why or why not?
The past progressive verb tense can be really overwhelming if grammar isn't your strong suit, but providing yourself and your students with helpful tools to remember and practice expressing past actions that were interrupted can be a life saver. Additionally, talking about interruptions or playing a game of charades can seem unproductive when compared to worksheets, quizzes, and reading from a textbook. However, these types of activities help your students to make connections and experience the grammar instead of just reading the grammar.
If you're looking for more ways to make grammar more engaging and communicative,
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Do you have any go-to grammar activities for verb tenses? Share them below!