What is a Verb Tense?
In this post, I’ll look into one of the greatest obsessions of English teachers: verb tenses. To many, knowing how to teach grammar and the different forms of the verbs seems to equal knowing how to teach English effectively. But if you think you know what tenses are, you might be in for a surprise! But as usual, we’ll provide you with definitions and examples of verb tenses, as well as tips to teach them more successfully.
Before we go into the definition, however, answer this question quickly: how many verb tenses are there in the English language?
When I ask teachers the numbers vary tremendously, but they are usually above ten. Well, depending on your definition of what a verb tense is, this number might be way off!
In fact, verbs in the English language have only TWO tenses.
To understand that, we should try to see that there are different “grammars” (or beliefs around what grammar is), and the answer to our question is going to vary according to which one we use as a starting point. We’ll deal with that in the definition section below!
Scott Thornbury, on the most influential ELT authors in the last decades, claims that among four types of grammar, we can find something he calls descriptive grammar, or a systematic description of “the rules that govern how words are combined and sequenced in order to form sentences” (2006:92).
This is the perspective used by Lewis (1986:50) when he says that a verb tense is “a morphological change in the base form of the verb”, which technically means that no auxiliary verb is used.
In that sense, there are only two verb tenses in English: present (e.g. go, think, start) and past (e.g. went, thought, started), as all other verb forms require the use of an auxiliary verb (to be, to have or modals). Curiously, that means that the English language does not have a future tense, as future is usually expressed with a combination of verbs (e.g. be going to + main verb; will + main verb etc.).
Even though there is a loose connection between verb tense and time, there is no direct correlation between the verb tense and the time in which the events we describe occur. We can, for example, use the present tense to narrate events that happen in the past, or even use the past tense to describe an unlikely future event (see examples below).
Thornbury also talks about pedagogical grammar, or a “type of descriptive grammar designed for teaching and learning purposes” (2006:92). It is in this type of grammar that the term verb tense is used more loosely, to help make things simpler to our students.
The past and present tense of auxiliary verbs (is, was, has, had etc.) can be combined with the present or past participle of other verbs (watching, running, watched, run etc.) to create tense and aspect combinations that convey more specific meaning a clearer time reference.
These tense-aspects combinations (present perfect simple, past continuous, past perfect continuous etc.) is what is frequently referred to as “verb tenses” in pedagogical grammar.
The tables below show how the tense in which the verb is used is not directly related to the time reference. Trying to sound more polite, hypothesising and wanting to make past actions more vivid when telling a story are some of the reasons why we might use the verb the present tense to talk about the past or future, or the past tense to refer to present and future events.
Here are some examples using the present tense:
And here you can see examples of the past tense:
Tips for teaching verb tenses
1. Focus on the meaning of the verb structure in context rather than only on the verb form.
A lot of materials resort on “pedagogical” verb tenses to help learners make sense of the language, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. However, your students may come across, even at earlier levels, of samples of language in which the time reference does not correspond to the verb tense used.
It is a good idea then to help your learners develop strategies to analyse the language in context (look at the sentences not in isolation, but as part of the dialogue text, song, story etc.) rather than simply rely on the name of the verb tense to try to figure out whether we are referring to past, present or future action.
2. Check learners’ understanding of meaning
Whenever presenting new language or help students make sense of a bit of text, check if they really got the point. It is not uncommon for students (and ourselves) to be under the impression that they got the meaning, when in fact this didn’t happen and ways to check understanding (like CCQs), can come in handy.
If you want to know more about and how to use them, click here.
Only after meaning is clarified and checked, move on to more form-related aspects of the verb tenses you are dealing with.
3. Systematise the verb structure clearly
Traditional language teaching tends to revolve a lot around different forms and how to “construct” verb forms and tenses. Evidently, this is quite important for students, especially if we want them to produce more accurate language.
If you want to know more about meaning, pronunciation and form (MPF), click here.
In order to help them grasp and remember the correct form, it is a good idea to organise information clearly on the board and handouts, preferably asking students to write it down onto their notebooks.
To know more about Boardwork, you can check here.
Course books usually have useful tables with form systematisation you can refer to, but if you want to provide your learners with a more personalised experience, consider using guided discovery tasks that will help them systematise meaning, form and pronunciation.
If you want to know more about Guided Discovery, click here.
4. Allow for controlled and freer practice of the verb tenses
During the lesson, students may grasp the meaning, pronunciation and form of verb tenses, but this may not be enough for them to be able to use them accurately and fluently.
So, make sure you provide plenty of opportunities for practice of the verb tenses you teach. Moving from more controlled to freer practice usually provides learners with a gradual increase in complexity that might make internalisation easier and more effective.
If you want to know more about , click here.
I hope the tips above were useful and help you prepare your grammar lessons in a more engaging, meaningful and effective manner.
Let us know if you have any questions or doubts and don’t forget to join us on social media!
Thornbury, S. (2006) An A-Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan Education.
Lewis, M. 1986 The English Verb: An Exploration of Structure and Meaning. London: Language Teaching Publications.