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Teaching Multiple Tenses: Should You Do It and If So Which Ones?

Teaching Multiple Tenses: Should You Do It and If So Which Ones? | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Teaching multiple tenses might sound frightening as teaching a single tense can sometimes be a challenge on its own. However, while it might seem difficult the first time you try it, it isn’t as daunting as you would think. When teaching more than one tense at a time there are two main factors to consider: which tenses to teach together and what language level you are teaching.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Ferenc M. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

Simple Rules to Consider When Teaching Tenses

The general rule is that basic tenses are for lower level students and harder ones are for intermediates and above. Despite this, many higher level students still need a quick review on basic tenses as their knowledge can sometimes be flawed. For higher level students reviewing basic tenses is a very easy task whereas for lower levels anything can be challenging when it is new. For this reason, we can agree that in general we don’t teach basic grammar to higher level students and we never teach higher level grammar to lower level students. Henceforth, the given examples follow this rationale as well. Here are some examples in increasing difficulty:

Also Read: A Summary of All English Tenses for ESL Teachers and Learners

Present Simple & Present Continuous

The classic duo. These tenses are regularly taught together for beginners (which can sometimes be problematic since in some languages there is only one present tense) so the student's will keep distinguishing them from each other right from the beginning until they can use them proficiently. During the first lessons it might be a little difficult for them, but in the long run it should always pay off. In contrast, when students are immersed in only one of them, even for a short while, it can be harder to comprehend the differences between the two. Of course, teaching both tenses simultaneously takes more time than only one of them, but still less time than teaching them one after another.

Also read: 7 Activities for Teaching the Simple Present for the ESL Classroom

Past Simple & Present Perfect

The must duo. With this combination, past simple should be pre-taught a little as it is the easier to grasp and differentiating between the two can be difficult for many students at first. Even mid-level students can have problems here, so pre-teaching the past simple gives them a great advantage. After they have grasped it, they can move on to the present perfect, ensuring that the past simple is still represented otherwise the students may become confused. For lower levels it can be harder as they tend to resort to translation, and often if they translate present perfect they get past simple in their native language.

Also read: 7 Activities for Teaching the Present Perfect for the ESL Classroom

Future Tense Forms

The multiple choice option. Will, going to, present simple and present continuous for future. Well this one takes more steps. First, will and going to should go together only after they have mastered them individually. Then you can move on to include the present tenses as well, and since they have learnt their formula before, it should be easy for them to adapt. Present simple used in the future is almost never a problem, however, realizing the slight difference between going to and present progressive often is. This problem can occur at anytime so it might need to be checked regularly. Doing exercises where all these tenses are used can be very good practise for the students.

Also read: 4 Activities for Teaching Future Simple in the ESL Classroom

Perfect Continuous Tenses

The odd couple. 3 tenses which are neither liked nor used that often. Of course, these are not taught for lower levels but somehow students are still afraid of these tenses before learning them. Maybe because they are both perfect and continuous or maybe because they have no idea what they can be used for. However, after learning the present perfect progressive they usually realize that it isn’t a monster and can get pretty confident with them. After reaching that point it can be a good help when teaching the past or the future (but only after). Just remember, that it isn’t a good idea to teach these all at once, but they do offer a very useful comparison and parallel to each other.

Also read: 10 Tips for Teaching Grammar to EFL Students Abroad

Other Tense Options

Above are just the most common options, but of course there are many other possibilities i.e. future continuous and future perfect or perfect simple and perfect continuous. The choices often vary from teacher to teacher, depending largely on their own level of experience and confidence with English grammar. In my personal opinion it is not only useful, but also necessary sometimes to teach multiple tenses for the main reason that it often makes the teacher's job easier and learning outcomes for the students can be significantly improved.

Also read: 4 Activities for Teaching Future Tenses in the ESL Classroom

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