Verb tenses (PDF, 28 KB)
The purpose of the activity
The tenses of verbs used in speech usually indicate whether something happened in the past, the present or the future. Tense confusions are common when adults whose mother tongue is not English are learning to speak and understand English. Adults whose mother tongue is English may also have difficulties with tenses. The purpose of the activity is to identify areas of confusion and teach simple rules and exceptions to aid learning.
This activity can be split to cover regular tenses in one session and irregular tenses in another. This is recommended if the learners’ grasp of English is very limited.
The teaching points
- Learners share their knowledge of and confusions about the use of different tenses.
- Basic rules (and exceptions) for tense are explained and practised.
- Learners understand how discourse markers can help identify tense.
- Learners discuss and demonstrate their new understandings.
The guided teaching and learning sequence
1. Explain the purpose of the session and ask learners to share any specific confusions they are aware of. Note that some adults may not realise they are using tenses incorrectly and this may be reasonable unless misunderstandings are likely. Make a note of any examples that learners want to clarify for discussion later.
2. Play the audio resource and listen together. Ask learners to identify when this story might have happened. Replay parts that make it clear the events were in the past, focussing in particular on the verbs.
3. Say these regular verbs clearly: turned, walked, landed. Discuss the ways these words change when they indicate that something is happening right now: they are regular verbs which means that the past tense is formed by adding the sound /d/ or /t/ to the word.
(Note that this is a listening and speaking activity, not a spelling one. The ending –ed can be pronounced in three different ways (compare jumped, climbed and handed. Learners whose mother tongue is not English may have difficulty with these variations. Give them plenty of experience listening to texts or discussions that use the past tense.)
4. If learners are handling regular verb changes well, replay parts of the track and focus on irregular verbs. Examples will include (am) were, (is) was, run (ran), fall (fell), find (found). Encourage learners to listen for any patterns (for example, the change from –ing to -ung in some words) and to practise using the past and present tenses of these words.
5. Play the last part of the resource again, where the interviewer asks the builder what he tells young people about safety. This builder uses the present tense (“I’m always wary…”, “It’s business as usual.”). Have the learners discuss the differences and what they notice about the builder’s speech.
6. Play the resource again, this time to listen for the words (discourse markers) that can help identify whether the action is past, present or in the future. Examples include: in those days, then, do you remember, 20-odd years ago, now, these days, I’m always… Note that these words also help us to predict what will come next and that this is an important strategy for understanding.
7. Ask the learners to tell each other a story about an accident or incident that happened at work. As they speak, have the listener focus on the ways in which we can tell the story happened in the past.
8. Ask one learner to retell the story of an accident while the rest of the group observes and listens. The group can sit in a circle around the speaker (this is called a fishbowl) to listen.
9. When the speaker has finished, ask the observers to respond to questions using the right tenses:
- What did he say? (past)
- What will he do next? (future)
- What do you do in a situation like that? (present)
10. Return to the opening discussion and review the activity. Discuss the examples (if any) that learners gave at the start and check that issues have been clarified.
Ask learners to listen for examples of speech set in the past, the present and the future. They can also practise using different tenses themselves as they retell events for the past, describe what they are doing or thinking now, and talk about their plans for the future. Talk about the ways in which we can help our listeners by keeping to one tense unless there is a good reason for changing, such as adding drama to an exciting recount (“And there I am, running for the bus. The dog’s got his teeth stuck into my leg and isn’t letting go…”).
Learners can give oral reports about incidents at work or elsewhere, using an appropriate tense.
Discuss the kinds of words that help us keep track of a time sequence. These discourse markers include words such as last week, ten years ago, when I’m out of here, if I were you, next time I’ll…
Learners can give instructions for carrying out a procedure, using the present tense (“Get a hammer and three nails. Put one nail into…”).
Learners can rehearse a job interview situation in which they are asked about something in the past (“Tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult decision”) and about something in the future (“Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?”).
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