Teaching the Imperfect Tense in Spanish

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The Spanish Imperfect: The Easiest Tense

First, some background for newer teachers, who may not have been exposed to all the rigors of grammar:

The imperfect and the preterite are the two simple past tenses in Spanish. Simple, in this context, means a one-word tense as opposed to a verb phrase. Each of these two tenses is dedicated to expressing distinct aspects of the past.

The preterite in Spanish almost always corresponds to a simple past-tense verb in English, e.g., he spoke (habló). The imperfect aspect in English however is expressed as a verb phrase. Thus, the imperfect aspect is expressed as either he was speaking or he used to speak, and also he would speak, but only, only when it can be substituted by used to speak (hablaba). The English auxiliary verb would is dangerous for English speakers who are learning Spanish because it must be rendered either as a true conditional (hablaría – used in tandem with a hypothetical, or contra factual expressed by the imperfect subjunctive), imperfect (hablaba, as above) or the imperfect subjunctive (hablara). So it’s important to mean what you say… and say what you mean!

This is my procedure when I am teaching this tense, which in most textbooks comes before the preterite:

Tell them that the imperfect is going to be a breath of fresh air because there are only three irregular verbs – and they will learn them before I even show them how to do the regular forms – because they are so easy.

First, I tell them that the imperfect is the tense they will need at least 90% of the time whenever, in English, they would say “was or were + Verb-ING” or “used to + Infinitive Verb.” I tell them that this is the “90%” rule and that if they follow it, when making decisions on a quiz, they are likely to get a 90% if they follow it, however blindly. They tend to like those odds.

Then I draw three paradigms on the board and write ser, ir and ver, respectively, above them. I tell even college students that the imperfect forms are fun to say. Coincidentally, the imperfect usually comes up in the winter, so a little cheer is always good.

Before writing the forms in the boxes of the verb paradigm, I ask them where I should write I used to be, she was seeing, we were going and so on, in random fashion. They have to tell me which box, identifying it by person and number. If the class has a clear notion of conjugation, I allow them to tell me the pronoun, which shortens the exercise a bit.

After the paradigm is filled in, I ask if there are any questions. Usually there are not. Then I show them the -AR endings and the -ER/-IR. Since this is the first tense they see in which -ER/-IR verbs share a set of endings, I point out that this will happen with many more tenses. One final step is to get them to point out what constants they see in the conjugation system (-mos and -n markers). The -s for the tú form still shows up in the imperfect as well (but I don’t tell them that it won’t in the preterite).

I end the lesson with a verb drill and at this point, introduce the synoptic verb conjugation drill.


  • Author’s more than 20 years of experience teaching and translating Spanish.