Teaching Verbs to ESL Students Tense by Tense

Teaching Verbs to ESL Students Tense by Tense
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The Simple Present Tense

It is never too late for your students to get to know their classmates better, and interviews are a great way to accomplish this. In addition, interviews make a perfect opportunity to practice the simple present. Pair your students and give them enough time to interview one another. After that, ask each student to introduce his partner to the rest of the class (if you are early in the semester) or to share some unusual facts with his classmates. Your students should focus on using the simple present tense to describe their partners.

English speakers use the present tense most often to express habitual actions. Habitual actions are those that occur on a regular basis whether they are daily, weekly or even yearly. One activity you can do with your students to practice the present tense is talking about daily routines. What do you do to get ready in the morning before facing your day? Most people probably do many of the same things, but they do not perform those actions in the same order. With your class brainstorm a list of habits someone might practice when getting ready in the morning. Then have your students use these ideas to share their personal routine with a classmate.

Another way to practice using the present tense and bring culture into the classroom at the same time is to talk about holiday traditions. Not all cultures celebrate the same holidays, and even when two people groups share the same holiday they may not share traditions associated with the day. Ask each of your students to give a class presentation about a holiday that he or she celebrates in his home culture. Ask each student to talk about what his/her family/friends and he/she do every year when the holiday rolls around. The more diversity your students bring to this activity, the more appreciation each member of your class will have for his classmates.

The Simple Past Tense

Charades can be a high intensity game that serves many functions in the ESL classroom, but a more leisurely charade activity can be used to practice using the simple past. Have a student volunteer to act out an activity. It should be an activity that takes several steps, for example, getting ready in the morning or making dinner. Allow your student to act out the entire event while your class watches. Then have your class relay the steps in the process using the simple past. Make sure they are able to articulate each step in the process.

You can take this activity a step further by having your students write a paragraph on one of the processes they observed in class. Encourage your students to use transitions of time like first, next, then, second, after that, and finally to connect their ideas and help their paragraphs flow.

When teaching the simple past to ESL students, it is worth spending some time addressing the pronunciation of the –ed ending. For verbs that end in a voiced consonant (b, d, g, and z for example) the pronunciation is /ed/. For verbs which end in voiceless consonants (p, t, k, and s for example), the same spelling is pronounced /t/. To clarify the pronunciation pattern, review the concept of voiced and voiceless consonants and then brainstorm a list of verbs for each category. Then, practice using the past tense of these verbs in pairs.

If you want to take a lighter approach to reviewing the past tense in English, use dice to challenge your students. Have each person roll two dice to get a number. That number represents the number of years ago he/she must talk about. Your student should then share something he/she did in that year. For example, if your student rolls a six he/she might say, “Six years ago, I flew to Germany.” If you want, bring the activity a little closer to home and let the number on the dice represent how many days ago an event happened. In that case, your student might share, “Six days ago, I studied for my biology test.” Though your students will primarily be practicing the past tense, rolling dice, which affects their answers, adds an element of fun and frivolity to the exercise.

The Simple Future Tense

You can revisit the dice game with the future tense, as well. Again, have each student roll the dice to determine how far in the future he/she will talk about. In this case, the number on the dice might best represent the number of days in the future the event will happen. Make sure you have a calendar available for your students, and then, roll away. Each student, after rolling the dice, should share something that he/she will do that many days from now. For example, if he/she rolls a three, the reply might be, “In three days, I will go to a birthday party.”

If your students have traveled overseas to continue their English studies, it may be a long time until they are able to return to their home countries. Ask them to imagine what they will do on the first day they return home after their studies in English are complete. Have each person make a list of at least ten things he or she will do when they return home.

Tell your students that they are going to make plans to see a movie. Give each student a copy of a theater schedule. Ask the students to read the schedule and decide which movies they would like to see. Ask each student what movie he/she plans on seeing on the field trip.

The Present Progressive

If you look around you, there is limitless inspiration for speaking in the present progressive. Ask your students to share their observations while looking at their classmates. What is each person doing right now? You could even assign specific actions to students to make the activity more interesting. After that, have your students move on to describing what is going on outside by looking to see what they can see from the window.

What are you doing right now? If we are in class together, I can just look over and see for myself, but if we are talking on the telephone, I have to ask. With this in mind, have your students role-play telephone conversations in which each person asks her partner what he is doing.

A not so typical use of the present progressive tense, talks about future time. This happens when an English speaker uses the phrase “be going to…” when speaking about future plans. For example, Jane might say, “Tomorrow, I am going to take a test.” Though the verb tense is present progressive, the intent is of future time. Have your students share what they are going to do tomorrow, next week, next month and next year.

The Past Progressive

You can use a crime role-play to give your students practice using the past progressive. In Agatha Christie style, explain to your students that a crime has been committed. Give each student a small slip of paper. On one write the crime that was committed and tell the recipient of that paper that he or she committed the crime, all other slips of paper will be blank. Of course, murder is a natural crime to investigate, but you can use any crime you like. Then, one student should play the detective, who is trying to solve the mystery. He should ask his classmates what they were doing when the crime was committed. Each student should respond with the past progressive, giving his alibi in the process. Once the detective has spoken with all the students in the class, he should make an accusation as to the perpetrator.

Students sometimes have difficulty understanding the difference between the simple past and the past progressive. To help them practice deciding which tense to use, try the following activity. On each of several small slips of paper, write a general time in the past. You may want to include times like yesterday, last week, in 2010, etc. Then, make a second set of slips on which you give a specific moment in the past, like 5 p.m. yesterday, Tuesday night, etc. Have your students take turns drawing a slip of paper and then sharing what he did or was doing at the time his or her slip says. If they draw a specific time, like 5 p.m. yesterday, they should use the past progressive tense. If they draw a more general time, they should use the simple past, “In 2010, I bought a car.”

Mix up your usual homework by asking your students to take a mini field trip to an area with many people. They may choose a park, a food court at the mall, the zoo or any other place they may like to go. Explain to them the term, “people watching” and have your students take notes on what people are doing. Then, as a homework assignment, ask your students to describe what the people around them were doing by using verbs in the past progressive tense.

The Future Progressive

What are your students doing right now that they do every day? Have your class share their daily experiences with a partner by making observations about their lives, both in the present and in the future. Each person should use the present progressive to describe what he or she is doing right now, and then express his or her plans for doing that same activity tomorrow at this same time by using the future progressive tense. For example, they might say, “Right now, I am explaining a class activity. Tomorrow at this time, I will be explaining another class activity.”

Have each of your students write a short list of their daily activities using the past tense. Then have students exchange papers. Each person should describe tomorrow in their partner’s life by changing all of his past sentences to future sentences.

The Present Perfect

“Have you ever,” can be a useful phrase to teach your students when you are talking about the present perfect tense. You can start your class interviews by brainstorming a list of interesting activities that you and your students have done or would like to do. Then, give your students turns to ask one another if they have ever done one of the activities on the board. The student should answer using the present perfect tense.

You can make the previous activity into a lively game if you have some room for your students to run around. Arrange enough chairs in a circle to accommodate all but one of your students. The last student stands in the middle of the circle and thinks of something he or she has never done and then says it aloud to the class. They may say something like, “I have never eaten sushi.” Once they say it, any student who has done that activity must get up from his/her seat and move into an empty one. At this point, the student in the center of the circle should also try to get a seat in the circle. The person who is left with no seat stands in the center and takes a turn at, “I have never.”

The Past Perfect

Cross-cultural experiences are often a challenge as well as an adventure. Any students that leave their countries and families to study English overseas will find themselves having new experiences every day. Give your class a few minutes to think of some things they had never done before coming to the United States. Then, ask each person to share at least one thing he or she had never done by completing the sentence, “Before coming to the United States, I had never…”

The Future Perfect

Do your students have a plan for their lives? If they have traveled overseas to study English, they may have had to make all kinds of plans for the present time as well as the future. Ask your students to share their ideas by creating five-year plans and ten-year plans. Then, have each person share with the class what he/she will have accomplished by the end of either five years or ten years. To do this, they should use the future perfect tense to form sentences like, “I will have gotten married. I will have bought a house.”

The Present Perfect Progressive

To review this tense, make sure your students understand how to use the words, since and for (as in “for two weeks”). Then, give your students a list of time references using these words. You may choose phrases such as “since I was six years old” or “for three days.” Using these time phrases, your students must come up with grammatical sentences written in the present perfect progressive.

The Past Perfect Progressive

Students studying English overseas leave everything behind to pursue their education. Ask your students to share some of the things they had been doing before they came to the United States. It may be that they had been trying to get visas or that they had been planning their weddings.

The Future Perfect Progressive

Challenge your students to think of things they have been doing since the beginning of the semester. Then, ask how long they will have been doing these same things by the end of the semester. Ask them to write a short paragraph about these activities using the future perfect progressive tense.

Whether you are teaching beginning students or advanced students, verbs will be a part of your curriculum. The next time you are teaching verbs to ESL students, try some of these activities. You are sure to see the results of your actions.


  • Understanding and Using English Grammar by Betty Schrampfer Azar.
  • Multi-ethnic students by iStockphoto on office.microsoft.com used by permission.
  • Author’s personal experience