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Concourse 2

Using time lines



What are time lines?

Time lines are a very useful way of making the concepts of the tense system in English clear to those who respond well to images and diagrams (i.e., most of us).
They are often a quick and easy way to demonstrate meaning rather than explain it.  They need, however, to be properly planned and accurately reflect the concepts you are clarifying or they do more harm than good.

Here's an example of a time line used to clarify what is called the future in the past using the structure was / were going to.  In English, the structure is used to suggest a frustrated or cancelled plan in, e.g.:
    I was going to see the doctor but I felt a lot better and cancelled my appointment.

time line example

A time line like this can be drawn on the board quite quickly but there are three important things to notice.
Click here when you have noticed them.

Now see if you can suggest what the time lines here represent.  Click on the eye open when you think you have got it.

time line 1eye open
time line 2eye open
time line 3eye open
time line 4eye open
time line 5eye open
futureeye open

Normally, of course, you would present the time line with an example, marker sentence so it would look something like this:

past time line


Using time lines

There are two ways:

  1. Off the cuff:
    When you encounter a learner clearly having difficulties with the concept which lies behind a tense form, it is worth considering whether quickly sketching a time line on the board will help.  It is often a quick and efficient way of making a concept clear.
  2. Prepared:
    You can also integrate the use of a time line into the presentation part of a lesson focused on a tense or tenses.  This means that you can make it very precise and more attractive.  Adding in graphics provides extra information and aids memorisation.  Here's an example, for the marker sentence:
    We have been working hard in the garden all summer and I'm really pleased with how it looks.


Building time lines

Whether you have prepared an attractive time line beforehand or are using one in response to an emerging need, you need to carry the learners with you as you go.  It is much better to build up the time line, explaining each part as you go, than to present your learners with the finished article and get them to try to work out what it all means.
Like this:

  1. Start with the marker sentence:
    I have been trying to telephone her but I give up and I'm going to visit her.
  2. Then add the place markers for time (Past, Now, Future, The Future etc.):
    time line 1
    Concept check the direction of time: not all cultures see time as progressing from left to right.
  3. Then draw in the nature of the events
    Time line 2
    Checking at each stage:
        How often did he try?
        Is he trying now?.

    time line 3
    Check the concept again.
        When does he decide?
        When is the visit?
  4. Give the learners time to copy this as a record to take away.  That's important.

To repeat a little: learners will rarely get the full benefit of thinking things through if you just present the finished article.  If you use PowerPoint in your lessons or a smart board, this kind of slow build-up is easy to prepare.
Here's an example for you to download and watch (and even use).
Things like this are time-consuming to prepare but can be used again (and again and again).

Here's a video of showing how to build up a time line or two on the board.  It runs quite slowly because learners need a bit of space after each transition to understand what's going on.
The slides automatically transition every 7 seconds.  You may need to adjust that if you use it in the classroom or pause the presentation to give yourself time to explain and check the concepts as you go along.

Click here for a learners' guide to Understanding English Tenses which makes use of a range of timelines.

Related guides
the tenses index this has links to many other guides about tenses
the tenses map this is a map of all the tenses on which you can click to select the guide you need
time lines for tenses this is set of time lines which will help you and your learners understand the concepts which the tense forms encode
aspect a more technical guide to the area in the in-service training section of this site