Beginning Level ESL Lessons: Irregular Past Tense

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Before Class

Beginning students often struggle with irregular past tense verbs, and with good reason! There isn’t much you can do except memorize them. It’s a good idea to give students a list of the most common irregular verbs ahead of time to study. Then the class time can be used to test their recall and to practice using the verbs in context. Click here for a good list.

Another helpful tip is to present this information by breaking the verbs into pattern groups. For example, one group has the same form in the present and past (ex: cut, put), one group has a vowel change to “a” (ex: become and became, run and ran), one group could be the “ght” group (ex: bring and brought, think and thought, teach and taught). However you want to break it down is fine, but splitting it into groups makes a long list look like smaller, more manageable chunks of information.

Structured Practice

Use some photos or illustrations to ellicit some common vocabulary for weekend activities, such as “see a movie,” “read a book” or “go shopping.” Make sure that the phrases use one of the irregular verbs on your list. Ask students to make a sentence about the previous weekend using the phrases. (ex: I saw a movie.) You can drill the students to practice pronunciation and fluency.

To reinforce the point that third person singular doesn’t change in the past tense, ask students to make a sentence about last weekend using “he” or “she” (ex: He saw a movie.). Drill again.

Put the images on the board and add a few more that they haven’t used yet. Choose a student to demonstrate with you. Ask the student “How was your weekend?” and indicate that they should answer using vocabulary from the images. Switch roles and demonstrate again. Add some natural words to the response to show students they can improvise (ex: It was great! I went shopping downtown. I bought a new shirt.)

Put students in pairs and have them practice, switching partners a few times. Then, ask the students to report to the class about what their partners did.

Free Practice

As a class, ask students what they like to do on the weekends. Write the ideas on the board. Some of them will probably be regular verbs, but that’s OK. Demonstrate a conversation with a student using the vocabulary on the board. Add some more natural elements to the conversation, such as greetings and follow-up questions.

Put students in pairs and have them practice, again switching partners and reporting back to the class in order to practice the third person.

If there is time left, get students to use vocabulary that they haven’t used yet. Ask them to imagine they are a millionaire. Then ask what they like to do on the weekends (ex: fly to Macao, buy a yacht, see an opera). Repeat the exercise. You can also role play other situations, like being a movie star or criminal.