Archive for Tag: verb tenses

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tenses: They Work Well in Groups

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

When I heard that by the end of the EFL class in which I was enrolled I would have learned sixteen tenses, I had ambivalent feelings. The number sounded discouragingly huge, but comfortingly specific. At the time I imagined that the challenge of mastering them all would lie in remembering their various forms and meanings. A few tenses later, I realized that the difficulty lay rather in deciding which tense to use on a given occasion.

Timelines and lists of time adverbials commonly used with specific tenses definitely cleared up some of my confusion. Still, differentiating between the two Present Perfect tenses, for example, was a Herculean task. Can I blame my puzzlement on, as Ralph Walker points out, “the nature of these two tenses, which are neither wholly present nor wholly past, but paradoxically both present and past”? ( )

Do your students struggle to understand the use of Present Perfect tenses as well? What truly helped me sort out my “tense confusion” were activities which combined the use of various tenses.

Going Beyond Tense Pairs

Teachers often use activities which contrast two related tenses, but it seems that tasks requiring students to use three, four, or even five tenses can do the trick more effectively. Students not only practice the forms and demonstrate an understanding of the meaning of each tense, but, by having to switch tenses, they learn when each is appropriately used.

Five Tenses: Sample Activity

One of my favorite “tense-decision” exercises is based on an information gap activity created by Nick Hall and John Shepheard more than fifteen years ago. In this activity, called “Ups and Downs,” students work with four tenses. In my slightly modified version of the task, students practice five tenses: Present Perfect, Present Perfect Continuous, Present Continuous, Simple Past, and Future Perfect.

Students work in pairs and are given two versions of a line graph presenting one trend, such as a trend in DVD sales, inflation rates, road accidents, crime rate, or online shopping, but each version is missing some information. (Here is an example: tenses.chart.pdf) The students’ task is to complete both versions of the graph so that each is identical to the other and so that it is clear what trend the chart represents. While working on the task, students need to decide which tense they should use when asking their partner questions about the missing information. Here are a few sample questions and answers.

Q: What happened to the crime rate between 2007 and 2008?
A: It rose dramatically.
Q: What has happened to it since 2008?
A: It has changed since 2008. It has been falling steadily.
Q: What is happening this year?
A: It is continuing to fall.
Q. What will have happened to it by 2010?
A. They predict it will have decreased slightly by 2010.

Do you think we could include more tenses in this exercise? Do you know of other activities which combine more than, let’s say, three tenses?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Tense about Tense

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Whenever I open an ESOL grammar book and look at the table of contents, I wince a little. I see things like “present continuous tense,” “present perfect tense,” “past perfect tense,” and this terminology makes me tense. Although many people don’t realize it, linguistically speaking, there are only two tenses in English, the present and the past. What I’m really talking about are the simple present and the simple past. That’s it; two tenses. How can that be? Well, linguists explain that tense is only tense when it’s created by just using the basic form of a verb, adding a prefix, infix, or suffix to a verb, or when there is an internal change to a verb. So when I say I work, she works, that shows tense, and when I say she worked, I’ve added another suffix to the verb, -ed, so that’s tense. And, of course, with a verb like speak, if I want the past, I make an internal change and get spoke, which once again shows tense. So English only has two tenses according to linguists, unlike Latin. Now there’s a language with oodles of tenses! Ego laboro (I work/am working), laborabam (I was working/used to work), laboravi (worked), laboraveram (had worked), laborabo (will work), laboravero, (will have worked). Latin’s got all kinds of suffixes and all kinds of tenses.

So what are all those other forms of a verb in English if they’re not tenses? Linguistically, they’re called aspects, aspects of the verb. The present progressive is an aspect of the verb, and so is the present perfect and the present perfect progressive, and the past perfect, and the future with be going to or will — and I could go on. Now, in a practical sense, is there really any benefit to thinking of these as aspects of a verb rather than as tenses? I think so. I think there really is a practical benefit. When I say I feel great or I’m feeling great, I’m not changing the tense (the time) of the verb feel; I’m simply applying a different aspect to that verb. And when I say He finished the job or He’s finished the job, I’m once again applying a different aspect to the action of finishing something rather than a different time. I think that matters. I think that might help some students understand why we have forms like the present perfect and the role those forms play in English grammar.

The only other thing that makes me wince when I look at those tables of contents is some of the names I see given to those tenses and aspects. My reaction isn’t based on the aesthetics of the names, but on the fact that they can be very misleading and end up confusing our students. I’ve already written a piece about the so-called “simple” present (“A Present for You”), but that’s the first one that comes to mind. Then there are the so-called “present continuous” and the “past continuous.” “Continuous”? What does that mean, continuous? Doesn’t continuous mean the action never ends? Is it like the earth is on a continuous orbit around the sun? If I were a student and saw that name, that’s exactly what I might imagine. Kudos to the person who started calling this aspect “the present progressive.” Now that I can understand. It deals with an action that’s in progress at that moment. Teachers can get that ― and so can their students. And we’ve got the so-called present “perfect.” What’s so “perfect” about it? Come to think of it, most teachers I know wish the present perfect didn’t exist at all because it’s so tough to teach and get students to internalize. Some perfection that is!

I think it would be nice to go back to using such terms as the “preterit” instead of the simple past, don’t you? It’s a nice, neutral name that carries no opinions about it. Let me judge for myself if it’s “simple” or not. If you’ve got any names for the tenses or aspects that you think would work better than the ones we’ve got now, let’s hear them. Who knows . . . We may just start a small ESOL grammar revolution! So let me hear from you, fellow rebels!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Present for You

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Have you ever been frustrated by some of the names that are given to grammatical forms? I know I have. Take for example the simple present. Is it the present? Hmm… That all depends. And is it simple? Hah! Not by a long shot!

Okay, we know that the simple present really does mean the present for a limited number of verbs, the ones we usually refer to as stative verbs like hear, forgive, fit, need, and wish. I can talk about “right now” and use verbs like these in the simple present:

  • I hear somebody at the front door.
  • I forgive you. Now let’s put it behind us.
  • I wish I were someplace else.
  • That blouse fits perfectly.
  • We need some bread. Can you go to the store, please?

But that’s not the case for the vast majority of English verbs, is it? When I want to put them in the present, I’ll make use of the present progressive. I’m typing these words right now. I’m thinking of ways to be clever right now. So why don’t we just call the present progressive “the present” since it’s definitely used more to mean the present than the simple present? Whoever thought up the term simple present could have come up with something less misleading for that relatively small group of verbs we call stative. This frustrates me. And it frustrates and confuses most of my students. I mean, after all, they see the label “simple present” and rightfully assume it means the present − for each and every verb. Now we’ve got the daunting job of trying to undo that misconception. Do we really need this extra work?

I hope you never find yourself in the position I found myself in one day. I went to a baseball game with some of my students. They’d never seen a live game and were very excited about attending one, and I knew I’d get a big kick out of giving them this experience. But I wasn’t counting on one thing that happened during the game. One of my students was watching the action and also listening to a live simulcast of the game on his radio. This is what he sees, but this is what he hears:

What He Sees ——————————-> What He Hears

The pitcher is throwing a curve ball. —> “And Johnson throws a curve ball!”
The ball is soaring out of the stadium.–> “The ball soars out of the stadium!”
It’s a home run. —————————–> “It’s a home run!”
Gomez is taking a victory lap. ———–>
Gomez takes a victory lap!”

Do I need to tell you what this astute learner of English asked me? Do I need to tell you how I cringed when he hit me with the question? “Mr. Firsten, I’m confused. Why did the announcer say, ‘He throws the ball’ and ‘He takes a lap’? This is not all the time. This is now. Why didn’t he say He’s throwing the ball and He’s taking a lap?”

Ah, but it doesn’t end there:

A: Wasn’t it Cliff Richardson who discovered America and not Columbus?
B: Uh, I think you’re thinking of Leif Erikson, not Cliff Richardson.

Just run what Person B says past your students and watch their eyes get as big as saucers and their jaws drop! Yes, Virginia, there is sadism in TESOL! So now it’s not enough that we have to deal with trying to end student confusion caused by an erroneous tense name, and it’s not enough that we have to explain the narrative use of the simple present when it means “now” with non-stative verbs, but we also have to explain how changing the form of some verbs from the simple present to the present progressive can change their meaning − not their time, their meaning. Ee-gads! Yep, this is really “simple.”

Anybody have stories to match mine? Do you ever wish English grammar were more like French or Russian, where one present tense fits all? Just imagine how much easier your working life could be? How I envy those French and Russian teachers! Give the students that one verb form, let them conjugate it for I, you, he, she, etc., throw them a few exercises to fill in the blanks, and sit back with your feet up on your desk and think pleasant thoughts. Ah, now that’s the life for a language teacher!

I’ll have more to say on the subject of tenses and their names later, so stay tuned.