Top 10 Teaching Tenses Do’s and Dont’s

  1. Do use timelines. [Unfortunately, I cannot find an example online of the type of timeline my CELTA trainers showed me; if anyone else can it would be very welcome. For the record, I am definitely not talking about this kind of timeline. While it is useful for a teacher or advanced learner, for most students it would violate Don’t No. 2 below.]
  2. Don’t teach all the tenses all at once.
  3. Don’t assume your students know the names of tenses (ask “Emir, what were you doing at 6 this morning?” not, “Sejla, give me an example of past continuous.”).
  4. Don’t assume that just because they can put a given infinitive in different tenses, they know how to use those tenses correctly in their speech.
  5. Do revise regularly, using practical examples rather than just rules…
  6. …but do be prepared to reel off the rule, because even though you were hired primarily for your status as a native speaker, many students will expect you to know.
  7. Do consider very carefully what your students know before grabbing any old English language passage and whiting out the verbs. It’s not good practice if it covers tenses or a lot of vocabulary that they’ve never met before. I hate to be a book-follower, but what is in the book generally does incorporate all this, if not perfectly, at least pretty well. For that reason…
  8. …exploit what’s in the book first, especially if you’re a new teacher. If need be, adapt it, but take advantage of what is provided (and often what students expect to use) before going out on a limb and pulling things off the web.
  9. Don’t make up rules on the spot (also known as committing “teflony”). Your students will find out and it will come back to haunt you.
  10. Do think of the big picture, and remind your students to do so as well. Tenses make for nice units in text books, because there is in fact a lot to learn if you want to use them perfectly…but they are overemphasized in relation to how much they matter in your speech. Remind your students that while they do need to learn the tense system – we don’t use future perfect continuous all that often (“By the time I’m 57, I will have been writing the TEFL Logue for about 30 years…”). It’s important for them to infer some of the meaning based on knowledge they already have of other tenses, i.e. continuous tenses are for things that are not finished (and I think we all know the TEFL Logue isn’t finishing any time soon, regardless of my choice of tenses…) and so on. But one of the best lines I heard a colleague use was “You need to recognize this tense, not master it.” It’s great to be correct but there are not that many cases where people really can’t understand you because you use the wrong tense. Present perfect simple and present perfect continuous are not worth fighting over.

Alibi is an activity I’ve used successfully many times; Teacher in Development has a good warmer using pictures; and TEFLtastic has a selection of good games as grammar worksheets. As you will soon find out, I’m not a fan of finding games and activities online, but the TEFLtastic games I’ve glimpsed look pretty good.

Stay tuned for more tips on teaching tenses.