Learning English is challenging in many ways. One of them is its large number of verb tenses, which can be quite difficult to learn. Whether you're teaching native speakers or English as a Foreign Language (ESL) learners, the key to teaching tenses is to simplify the process and connect it with everyday experiences. Focus on the simple tenses (past, present, and future) that are easier to understand, and use simple activities and games to teach these topics effectively.
Method 1 of 3: Teach Each Verb Structure Separately
Step 1. Provide an overview of the entire verb tense system
Draw a table on the board, for example, that contains all the times you are going to teach. To focus on the 9 basic tenses, for example, write "past," "present," and "future" at the top of the table; "simple", "continuous" (or "progressive") and "perfect" on the side, and fill in the 9 boxes of the table with examples of the same verb. For example: saw, see, will see, etc.
There are more than 9 verb tenses in English, some experts say there are 13, which include "continuous perfect" as a proper tense and "future with 'going to'" as an individual category. Others claim that there are actually 16 tenses, including the "perfect progressive" and the "conditional", but it is advisable to start with the basic 9 to establish an introduction or to teach English as a foreign language. In a more advanced class, you can also use a table to present the 16 tenses
Step 2. Focus on a single time frame, like the present
After presenting the entire system, limit your focus to 1 of the 3 time frames. The present tense is a good starting point, as it is often the easiest for students to understand.
- For example: I observe (simple), I am observing (continuous), I have observed (perfect).
- This goes against methods focused on teaching the simple past, the simple present, and the simple future at the same time (for example: look, look, look). Due to the assumption that students are better able to understand if you focus on a single time frame, it is more advisable to use this technique. After all, when you tell a story, you tend to stay in the same time frame throughout the story.
Step 3. Analyze each other the times corresponding to that time frame
Describe the similarities and differences between "eating", "I am eating" and "I have eaten", for example. All 3 refer to something that is real in the present, but each provides different information.
- "I eat" designates an action that is performed regularly over a period of time.
- "I am eating" indicates an action in the moment.
- "I have eaten" designates an action that continues to occur today.
Step 4. Add frequent revisions as you move on to the other 2 time frames
As you progress from one time frame to another, be sure to check back regularly, as well as the previously mentioned times. This will reinforce the connections between the time frames.
For example, if you say "she will walk", "she will be walking" and "she will have walked" in the future, relate them to "she is walking", "she is walking" and "she has walked" in the present
Method 2 of 3: Focusing on a Timeline for Teaching English as a Foreign Language Learners
Step 1. Begin with a timeline that emphasizes the past, present, and future
Learners of English as a Foreign Language often struggle with these English verb tenses because many other languages do not use so many different tenses. To make the learning process less overwhelming, draw a timeline with the words "past," "present" (or "now"), and "future."
- No matter the origin of their mother tongue, students will be familiar with the classification and description of actions in the past, present or future.
- Although particularly useful for ESL learners, this timeline approach can also help native English speakers master verb tenses more quickly.
Step 2. Reaffirm the fact that all verb tenses in English fit into one of these three time frames
Any action you describe, such as eating, playing, or thinking, must fit into 1 of the 3 time frames: now (present), previously (past), or later (future). Explain to your students that even English, with its large number of tenses, follows this simple rule. Then start including specific times along the timeline.
You could mention something like, "Everyone knows I like to drink coffee. Well, I can drink coffee right now, sooner, or later."
Step 3. Teach the present continuous first and then the present simple
For most students, the present continuous ("I'm drinking coffee") is the simplest verb tense. Since it refers to an action that occurs at the same moment ("I am learning", "I am listening", etc.), students tend to understand it quickly.
- The present simple ("I drink coffee", "you listen to my lectures", etc.) is also quite simple to understand and can be the second tense you teach.
- When introducing verb tenses, place them along your timeline of the past, present, and future.
Step 4. Define the times that must be completely mastered and those that only require light handling
Although it is ideal for any student to master all English verb tenses, some are more essential than others for mastery of everyday language. Introduce the class at all times, but prioritize those that are most helpful to your students, whether they are ESL or otherwise.
- Students of English as a Foreign Language must be proficient in the present continuous, the present simple, the perfect continuous, the past simple, and the future simple.
- They must master the tenses of the future continuous, present perfect, and present perfect continuous.
Method 3 of 3: Include Activities and Games
Step 1. Be proactive with your students, providing interesting examples
Personalize the learning experience with common examples from your everyday life, and then ask students to do the same. This will help students to connect the verb tenses you teach them to the way they think and use language in their daily lives.
- For example: "I drove here this morning. In fact, I drive to work every morning that there is school. Can you name some of the things you did today, and what you usually do in the morning?"
- As you perform this dynamic, let them see how they use the different verb tenses, often without realizing it.
Step 2. Offer authentic opportunities to practice verb tenses
In this case, authenticity means relevance and personalization, rather than being abstract or unrelated. Have your students write a summary of what they did yesterday, or create a plan for what they will do tomorrow. Ask them to give directions to their homes, favorite restaurants, etc.
Truth be told, verb tenses can seem like a pretty boring topic. Any dynamic you do to relate the times to their lives and experiences will be helpful
Step 3. Create group games to help identify specific verb tenses
Gather your class in groups to play something popular, and make learning verb tenses easier. Also, some games are particularly useful for teaching certain aspects of these structures. For instance:
- Playing charades is useful for learning the present continuous tense: "He's walking a dog!" or "They're playing tennis!"
- "Simon says" is useful for practicing verbs like "power" and "duty": "Simon says that …", "Yes, you can …" (substitute "you can" as you wish).
Step 4. Use storyboards to make it easier to practice past tenses
Create a storyboard by drawing or cutting out several pictures that, when combined, tell a simple story. Gather all the pictures and glue them to the board. Ask your students to put the story back in the correct order, but ask them to tell you what happened before and after each picture they want to order.
Play becomes a learning opportunity (and fun!) If the pictures can be arranged in different ways to tell different stories. Get creative when it comes to storyboarding
Step 5. Prepare descriptive story cards for your students to complete and order
Make up a narrative story that is described in 16 sentences. Write each sentence on a card and cut it out. On the other side of the card, write the same sentence, but without the correct verb tense. Your students can arrange the story cards in the proper order, and then play using the free side of the tenses on the cards and identify the corresponding verb tenses.
- For example, one side of the card might say, "It was snowing outside when Karen looked out the window this morning." On the other side of the card it could be written: "Outside [snowing] when Karen [looked] out the window this morning."
- You can find templates for this type of game online, for example, at