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Teaching Mixed Tenses

February 5, 2015

Nobody wants to be isolated—not even verb tenses!

Most textbooks present verb tenses in isolation. Students study the simple present before moving onto the present progressive, simple past, etc. This is necessary at first because students need to learn all the rules and exceptions for the form (how to form the verb) and function (when it’s used) of each verb tense in English.

After they’ve learned a verb tense, however, it’s not always beneficial to only give exercise after exercise where students must produce that one tense. It’s easy enough to produce the simple present when it’s the only tense being asked for, but can your students distinguish when to use the simple present vs. the present progressive? How about the present vs. the past and future?

Mix It Up

When I was teaching four‑skills classes, I found most textbooks were sorely lacking in this area. The tenses were only taught in isolation, and though my students could ace an exercise, they couldn’t use the tense properly in general speech or writing. My TOEIC students had the advantage of studying/reviewing some or all the tenses at the same time.

When I saw how teaching and practicing multiple tenses worked for the “big verb tense picture,” I started creating my own review sheets that mixed the tenses. That way, my students learned how the tenses worked together, and they really understood the importance of context and time markers. They were better able to produce the correct tense in everyday speaking and writing. And as a teacher, I could easily see which tenses were still causing trouble for my students.

Time for a Change

At ESL Library, we strive to provide much more than the average textbook. We recently created a NEW, ready‑made mixed tense lesson in our Grammar Practice Worksheets section: Verb Tense Review 1 – The Simple Tenses.

This lesson offers 13 pages of various combinations of the simple present, simple past, simple future, present progressive (also known as present continuous), past progressive, and future progressive.

You’ll find exercises that combine:

  • all six tenses
  • the present, past, and future
  • the simple present and present progressive
  • the simple past and past progressive
  • the simple future and future progressive

The exercises include verb worksheets as well as speaking and writing exercises, so you will clearly see which tenses your students have mastered and which still require some work.

Verb Tense Review 2 – The Perfect Tenses is also available now. This review features a mix of the present perfect, present perfect progressive, past perfect, past perfect progressive, future perfect, and future perfect progressive.

We hope these worksheets are beneficial to you and your students! Please let us know what you think in the comment section below.

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Comments (10)

Donna R.(Teacher)

Whoa - You're right - Teaching Levels 1 /2, = mostly the construction but maybe I shouldn't be so restrictive in employment lessons. e.g. reserving the future for New Year's (incl Lunar New Year). Thanks.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

It's trickier with lower-level students because we don't want to confuse them. But once they're comfortable with more than one tense, I think the occasional mixed exercise is very beneficial (like the simple present/present progressive, or simple present/simple past). It's been my experience that some students (even lower-level ones) get 'cocky' and think the grammar is too easy, only to realize they don't know the tense as well as they need to (when presented with a mixed tense exercise). It can be a good wake-up call!

Annie L.(Teacher)

When I teach verb tense I first write a sentence in present simple, then the same sentence in negative and interrogative with short answers. After the same sentence in present progresive, affirmative, negative and interrogarive. After in past simple, afirmative, negative, interrogative. Past progressive and so on depending on the level of tense that is being taught. That way the student can see all the changes that a verb can go through.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

I think that's a great idea, Annie! It's good for students to have a reference like this.

Louise Foster(Guest)

I love using these work sheets since I like to take the approach of using time markers to explain tenses and situations. Once they've learned their 'time' words then we decide whether time has been mentioned or not. I'm referring to the use of simple past vs present perfect. My students find it helpful to have a longer paragraph with all tenses to decide on time markers so that they can test their knowledge of appropriate tenses. These worksheets are well written and right up our alley. Spot on! Well done. Thank you for your hard work.

Reply to Comment

Tara Benwell(Author)

Thanks again for your request for a mixed tense review worksheet, Louise. We are happy with the result, and we hope you and your students are too. We'll let you know when our review worksheet for the perfect tenses is ready. In our next Grammar Practice Worksheet resource, we will include exercises that review all 12 tenses!

Anja Beck(Guest)

I work with pupils that have problems with English. I completely consent that workbooks lack a comparision of tenses. My pupils easily manage a single tense, but as soon as they are mixed (as e.g. in a narrative text) they get confused. At school they aren't taugt the importance of time markers. Also they don't have to translate into English. In my opinion this is the most effective way to realize how the languages are used and to see and realize the differences. The text- and workbooks here in Germany urgently need to be revised.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Anja, thanks for commenting. I completely agree that more textbooks should cover mixed tenses. It's such a good way to ensure students can actually use the different tenses correctly.

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