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Councourse 2

Strand 3: Teaching tenses and focusing on concept


Yes, conceptually, tenses are sometimes the most difficult area of the grammar of any foreign language.  How we conceptualise and divide time varies from language to language and, if some authorities are to be believed, how our first language organises time fundamentally affects how we can think about it.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that all human language have ways to talk about the past, the present and the future.  How they do it will differ, but they all do it somehow.

There are guides to all tenses linked from the initial plus training index.  What's there will not be repeated here but the following assumes you are familiar with the forms, functions and concepts of the tenses in English.  Examples will be used on that basis.

If what has been said about all human languages is true, there should be no problem with tying a tense to a time.  So what are the problems?


Problem 1: form and function

Tense forms may look as if they refer to a particular time but the function of the tense may actually refer to a different time.  Here are six common ones:

I am playing football tomorrow : The use of the present progressive to refer to future time
If you asked me I would marry you : The past simple to refer to a possible (if unlikely) future
I was wondering if I could talk to you : The past progressive used to maintain politeness
Shall we order? : Future simple used to make a current suggestion about now
The train arrives in five minutes : Present simple to talk about the future
I'm about to lose my temper : Present simple to talk about the future

Many languages use a tense form which is ostensibly about one sort of time to talk about another.  English is not exceptional in this sense but the way we label the tenses is potentially confusing.  It is not unreasonable to assume that something called the present simple is used to talk about the present.

2 possible solutions

  1. Concept checking
    We need to be continuously alert to the potential for our learners to have the concept wrong in their heads.  This is often a covert error because many mechanical tense exercises can be completed without any idea of the function of the language.
    For example, in this dialogue:
    Anne: Shall we ask John?
    Barry: There's no point.  He's leaving for the States.

    it would be easy for a learner to assume that Anne is talking about the future when she is actually making a suggestion about what to do now and that Barry is talking about now when he's actually talking about the future.  The only way to be sure that there's no covert receptive error is to check with the learner asking questions such as:
    Is John on his way to the States now?
    Is Anne making a suggestion or asking about the future?
    (Note that good concept checking should be done with individuals, not the whole class.  If you ask general concept-check questions, you get people just going along with the majority when, in fact they may not have got the concept right at all.)
  2. Context setting
    If you set a mechanical exercise such as this:
    Put the verb in the right form with going to + infinitive or the present continuous:
    Look at the weather it (rain) ___________ .

    Then a student could be forgiven for choosing it's raining because the sentence could easily be about now.  In this case, the learner hasn't got the distinction between the two forms wrong, he or she has got the whole concept that we are talking about the future wrong because there's no context for the language.
    Getting around this is easy but requires planning and thought.  In this case, a simple visual of dark black clouds but no rain would suffice.

Problem 2: Aspect

If you don't speak many languages, you may be forgiven for assuming that aspects are roughly equivalent across languages.  You'd be wrong.  There's more on aspect on this site but learners are often misleadingly told something like this:

Apart from the simple forms of tenses, English has two main aspects which are detectable by looking at the verb forms:

Progressive aspect : To show that an action or event is ongoing.
Perfect aspect : To show that and action of event is incomplete

There's much more to it than this.  If that's all we are alert to, our students may be forgiven for getting the concepts wrong.  Refer to the guide for all the other possible aspects but note now what you think may be the problems here.
Click here when you have a note.

All this makes life tough for learners.  Even learners whose first language(s) distinguish between progressive, continuous and perfect aspects will get confused because what looks like a progressive in English might be simple or continuous and what looks like the perfect aspect might be finite and completed.


There's no easy solution here because the choice of aspect usually depends on how the speaker perceives an event.  That is to say, it's internal, not an external idea that can be captured by providing a context via an image or whatever.

Using concept-checking questions and setting a clear context for the language will help, of course, but with aspect, and much else in the language, we have to try to get inside someone else's head.  How might we do that?


We need, when presenting tenses, to consider the intentions of the speaker and we can do that explicitly.

Example 1:

John is interested in starting a conversation with Paul about computers because he wants some advice.  What is he most likely to start with?

  1. You've just got yourself a new notebook, haven't you?
  2. You bought a new notebook, didn't you?
  3. You were buying a new notebook, weren't you?

Setting this sort of context, where the intentions of the speaker are clear, exposes the thought processes of the speakers.  It's a short step from there to implanting the intention in the learners and getting them to produce the appropriate form.

Example 2:

You want to stop someone interrupting John because you know he nearly always works on Saturday mornings.  Which of these would you say?

  1. Don't call now, he's working.
  2. Don't call now, he'll be working.

In this case we have told the learner two things: what he/she knows and what he/she intends.  Both of those are important to understanding aspect.



Despite what is said about learning styles we all like concepts we can visualise.  The more memorable and interesting the image, the more we like it.  Time lines don't have to be dull.  Here's an example illustrating two concepts attached to the past progressive in English.

Sense 1:
An ‘interrupted’ action which stops: Mary was cycling to work when a bus hit her.

cycling 1

Sense 2:

An ‘interrupted’ action which continues after the interruption: Jane saw her boyfriend with another woman while she was cycling to college.  She's 'talking to' him about that now.

cycling 2

Here's one for the present perfect to illustrate:

We've all been working really hard in the garden this year and John is very pleased with the result.



To show the speaker's intention, thought bubbles are helpful.


These sorts of images are easy to make and almost infinitely re-usable.
For more on using time lines and an example PowerPoint presentation, go to the guide to using them.

Gauging progress

There's a separate guide in this section of the site to gauging and measuring progress in your development.  Go there for more ideas.

One easy way to gauge whether focusing on concepts through questioning, giving context and knowing about intentionality is helping is to see if you think it made any difference to your learners' ability to use the tense forms and understand the concepts.