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Concourse 2

Teaching tense and aspect


If you have it in mind to teach a particular tense, there are guides to most of them on this site.  The links are from the initial plus index.


Other languages

If you have learned another language, you will be aware that this is an area in which languages differ quite dramatically in how they conceptualise time.
There is something of a debate concerning whether the ways in which our first languages chop up and conceptualise time affect the way we think about time or whether the way we conceptualise time determines how our language evolves its tense system.  The jury is still out on this.

All languages have a way of dealing with past, present and future concepts.  There the similarities end, unfortunately.
In general terms, inflecting languages such as the European italic languages like French, Italian and Spanish, as well as Greek, will typically denote tense markers by amending the verb in some way, often by using different suffixes or prefixes.  Other European languages, notably Germanic ones, may also insert various auxiliary verbs.  English operates similarly with the exception of not having a specific form to denote the future.  So we get, for example:

English I see she lived I will finish I was living
French je vois elle a vécu je finirai je vivais
German ich sehe sie lebte ich werde beenden ich lebte
Your language ? ? ? ?

The difficulty will probably become apparent when you insert any other language you know or speak in the last row.  Even in that simple table, there are obvious issues:

  1. Aspect:
        I was living
    is a progressive or continuous aspect form and implies, usually, that this was a long-term state in something like
        I was living in France when I met her
    This is also sometimes called the durative aspect.  Note, however, that German uses the same form for both I lived and I was living, relying on context to determine the nature of the state.  There is no marker for the progressive in standard German (although there are dialects which do have the form).
    French, arguably, does not really have a present progressive aspect either, often preferring to use a phrase to mean something like to be in the middle of doing (en train de).  The imperfect ending on the verb, ais, above, does, however, carry some sense of duration or an interruptible event.
    The perfect aspect
        I have lived
    for example, will also be problematic because German and English exhibit parallel forms but in German the concept is not parallel at all.
        Ich habe gesehen
        Ich sah
    are functionally the same tense and mean either
        I saw
        I have seen
    depending on the context and meaning intended.
    The French
        j'ai parle
    is also just as easily rendered in English as
        I spoke
        I have spoken.
  2. Auxiliary verbs:
    English uses an auxiliary to denote the future but can, and frequently does, just use a present tense with a future time marker such as tomorrow as in, e.g.:
        He leaves next week
    In fact, nearly all languages do that.


Aspect across languages

Here's an incomplete list and you should be aware that there is considerable variation within language groups and you can expect some blurring of the categories.

Perfect aspect Progressive aspect Issues
English uses an auxiliary (have) and carries a variety of meanings nearly always relating times (past to present, pre-past to past, future to post-future etc.) uses the tense of the verb be plus an -ing ending.
The continuous aspect may be marked (as in He is living in London or I am enjoying the music) or not (as in He lives in London or I enjoy music)
there is a variety of uses and the use of aspects is common.  The distinction between stative uses of verbs and dynamic uses causes problems
Chinese languages a particle exists to mark a change in a situation, something like a perfect aspect two particles exist, distinguishing (in Cantonese) between progressive (an action in progress) and continuous (a state in existence)
Chinese languages also have what is known as a delimitive aspect which implies that something is of short duration.  There is no equivalent in English
there are few conceptual problems but form is consistently difficult to grasp as Chinese languages do not have tense forms of verbs at all.  Aspect is often marked.
Italic languages no conceptual distinction between simple and perfect aspects.
There is, however, usually a distinction between perfective (completed actions viewed in their entirety) and imperfective events (to which no time is attached)
use a variety of verbs (such as stay) in much the same way English uses be
in the past, the progressive and simple aspects are often interchangeable
present tense used for present perfect (
I live here since ...)
mistakes such as
I drove when it started to rain
Japanese no real conceptual distinction between simple and perfect aspects like some Chinese languages, there is a distinction between a progressive action and a continuous state there are few conceptual problems but form is consistently difficult to grasp
Germanic languages no conceptual distinction between simple and perfect aspects although a look-alike form exists
the perfect may be formed with either be or have
the progressive aspect can be rendered in dialect forms and by the use of various other verbs the perfect in English is hard to grasp
the progressive is not conceptually problematic but learners often ignore the need for a progressive form
It is arguable that many Germanic languages do not exhibit aspect at all
Arabic no conceptual distinction between simple and perfect aspects a past progressive exists with be but is formed without changing the stem of the main verb expect:
she saw for she has seen
she was talk him
Scandinavian languages no real conceptual distinction between simple and perfect aspects
the perfect may be formed with either be or have
no progressive or continuous forms expect:
she saw for she has seen
the simple forms to be overused (
She lived in London when she met him)
Slavic languages in some, the past simple is formed with an auxiliary
Polish and Russian form a perfect aspect by prefixes
in Russian, verbs of motion have a progressive aspect; other verbs to do not expect:
she saw for she has seen and vice versa
the simple forms to be overused (
She lived in London when she met him)

This is not the end of the story.  Other languages may signal aspects which are not signalled by verb changes in English such as:
signalling that an action was completed but the state is also terminated.  For example, in this aspect, in some languages:
    I put on my coat
implies that I am no longer wearing my coat.
English has no way to signal this aspect by changes to the verb form.  The language is forced to insert a new clause as in, e.g.:
    ... and then took it off
signalling an established fact, for example:
    A square has four sides
English uses the present simple to express this aspect or modal auxiliary verbs such as must, can, have to, as in e.g.:
    Parallel lines cannot meet
signalling a one-off event rather than iterative or gnomic aspects as in, e.g.
    The bottle broke
English uses the past simple form for this.
signalling an ongoing action.  English uses adverbials with the progressive form to show this aspect as in, e.g.:
    He is still asking questions
    He isn't here yet
signalling the beginning of something.
English signals this aspect semantically by verb choice, often with the to-infinitive, as in, e.g.:
    It started to rain
    I began to wonder
signalling the end of an action or event.
English signals the aspect semantically by verb choice, often with an -ing form, as in, e.g.:
    It stopped raining
    I finished working
signalling an action or event that was not successful or did not actually occur.
English signals this with adverbials as in, e.g.:
    She almost lost her temper
    He nearly got the answer right

or with the future-in-the-past formulation as in, e.g.:
    I was going to telephone you
signalling an interrupted action which then continued.  English uses adverbials or non-finite forms to show this aspect as in, e.g.:
    She stopped to look in the window
    He gave up smoking for a long time
signalling an action or event that resumes.
English often signals this semantically by the choice of verb, which may be followed by a non-finite -ing form, or a noun phrase as in, e.g.:
    I carried on walking
    She resumed eating
    He continued his speech
Learners whose first language(s) signal some of these aspects by changes to the verb forms may have difficulty selecting which form in English signals the same sort of aspectual meaning or in interpreting what the changes (or non-changes) to the verb form in English mean.


English tense forms and their concepts are difficult to grasp but the verb itself has few inflexions.
Learning the forms of be and have and the single change between the infinitive and past participle, along with the -ing ending makes it simple to form lots of tenses.  Expect some avoidance, therefore, and the use of the perfect and progressive aspects where the simple aspect is desirable.  It is easier to form, for example:
    I was choosing
than to remember the past-tense of the verb and form
    I chose



There are three main issues:

  1. Many languages have similar forms to English (especially the perfect aspect forms) but use them in significantly different ways and often don't distinguish one form from another conceptually
  2. Many languages, while having a conceptual difference similar to English, will form the aspects in radically different ways (and some make distinctions between aspects that simply do not exists in English)
  3. English aspect forms are used for a variety of functions (consider, e.g., the uses of the present perfect)

What implications do you see arising from these three issues?  Click on the diagram when you have an answer.

tense task 2

Some languages, of course, will present double problems, using a similar form with a different concept and having similar concepts realised in different forms.  We need to take care.


Some ideas

As you can see, concept needs to be made clear from the outset and that usually means setting the language in a context which makes the meaning and the intention of the speaker explicit.

Meaning and intention

Time lines

are invaluable to help people grasp the concept of time realised by the target tense form.  Consider the following and ask yourself whether the explanation is clear.  Then hover on the explanation to see the picture:

This tense is used in English to make it clear that one event occurred many times in the past but is probably not still happening Example:
John cycled to school when he was a boy.
These two tenses are used when a long event is stopped by a short event Example:
He was skiing when he broke his leg.
This tense is used when we want to look back from the future to an event occurring before the future Example:
The town will have changed a lot by the end of the decade.

Concept-check questions

are equally necessary to allow you and the learner to see if the concept has been grasped.  For example, what questions would you use to check the following tense meanings are understood?

Think what questions you would ask and then hover over the example sentences when you want to see suggestions.  (There's a guide to checking learning and understanding on this site.)

A: You've been to New York, haven't you?
B: Yes, I have.  Why do you ask?
1. I was cycling home when I saw Mary.
2. Mary was cycling home when she was arrested by a police officer.
Will you have repaired the car by Tuesday?


When you plan a lesson on any particular tense form, time is well spent thinking about a clear context in which to set the language.  For example:

Present perfect for life experiences up to now Exotic foods (I've never eaten etc.)
Cultural event (I've seen ..., I've visited the British Museum etc.)
Conversational gambits (You've been to ..., haven't you? etc.)
Past perfect Sequences of events in which subsequent ones depend on early ones:
Absent-minded people (He had to go back because he'd forgotten ... etc.)
going to future based on present evidence Forecasting weather from sky pictures
Pictures of unstable events: volcanoes, inattentive drivers, children playing ball games near windows etc.


Practice also has to be in a context and have meaning for the learners or it's just form manipulation.  This is particularly important if the learners' first language has a similar form used differently.  For example:

Present perfect (life experiences up to now) Learners make lists of things they have never done, have done, have done only once/twice etc.  They then mingle with other students to see if their lists overlap or not, asking and answering questions in the form.
You can extend this activity to make sure that people ask where? when? etc. in order to be definite and, accordingly, select the past simple.
will to show willingness Learners role-play a willing person and a demanding person:
A: There's no air in here.
B: I'll open a window.
A: I haven't got a pen.
B: I'll get you one.

Present perfect as a conversational gambit Learners decide on pieces of information they need to know about something and then find out who can tell them by asking things like You've been to France, haven't you?  Well, I've been wondering ...
Learners invent gossipy stories about each other / teachers etc. and then pass them on to a colleague who in turn embellishes the snippet of scandal and passes it on again.
E.g., Did you know that John has moved in with Mary?  Yes, and she has decided he can't stay much longer.
Future perfect for changes by a time Learners make predictions about how they, their home town, their countries, the world will have changed by (date).

back to front

Teaching back to front

A structural approach to teaching English focuses on the form and then considers its meaning.  For example, we teach the form subject + be + -ing (They are talking) and then consider what it might mean (future arrangement, current event etc.)
A communicative / functional approach may reverse this and focus on the function to be expressed and see what ways the language has to express it.  For example, we might start by focusing on making very polite requests and then teach a range of grammatical realisations such as
    Would you mind awfully ...
    Can I ask you to ...
    Is it too much trouble to ...
    I wonder if ...
It is often the case, however, that we don't do this with aspect.  Aspect is usually taught structurally as something secondary to the form of the verb:
    That's a present perfect. What does it tell us about the speaker's view of the event?

We can, however, focus on the aspect and look at the various ways English has of signalling it because it, too, has a functional, communicative role.  Two examples:

  1. How can English signal that an action is iterative (i.e., repeated)?
  2. How can English signal that an action is prospective (i.e., imminent)?

Click here when you have some answers.

You may have thought of others.
An approach like this which identifies a communicative function and then focuses on the language to achieve it, is perfectly legitimate in ELT and may be very fruitful as well as helpful for learners whose first-language backgrounds lead them to focus more explicitly on aspects not often identified as core aspects in English.

Related guides
four guides to tenses for four guides to tense, time and aspect starting from meaning
tenses index the index in the initial-plus section for tenses and verb forms
checking learning for the guide mentioned above concerning, inter alia, concept checking questions

Campbell, G.L. (1995), Concise Compendium of the World's Languages. London: Routledge
Swan, M and Smith, B (Eds) (2001), Learner English, 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press