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ESL: Teaching Tenses with Keywords

This post was written by Matthew Clark

Are English verbs more difficult to learn or to teach? One way to make the process of teaching tenses easier is to highlight keywords that signal the use of a particular tense or aspect.

For example, “I showered two days ago,” and “While I was walking the dog, it began to hail.” In both sentences, keywords guide us in selecting the correct tense (past) and aspect (progressive). Pointing this out to students may help them make future decisions.

Try thinking of keywords for the simple present (e.g. every, usually, never) and the present progressive (e.g. currently, at the moment, right now). After you have generated these lists, compare them side-by-side.

Now hold up a picture and call out “right now.” Students should say what is happening in the picture, e.g. “Right now she is eating in the park.” Then call out a keyword from the other list, e.g. “She eats in the park every Thursday.

Try this with the simple past (e.g. ago, last, yesterday) and present perfect (e.g. this, so far, today). Point out that last week is finished, and this week is not. Test your students to see if they remember what you discussed last week and what you have discussed this week.

“Since” is a good keyword, but it often gets confused with “for.” Here is a chance to test your students’ mathematical abilities. Write on the board “If Mercedes has been manufacturing automobiles since 1885, how many years has Mercedes been building automobiles?” Students could race to shout out the answer, or you could ask them to write the answer down to be checked at the end.

An activity that I love is to have students create surveys for one another. This not only forces them to use interrogative structures and keywords, but it also gives them a chance to get to know each other better.

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