Why do we have tenses? A writer is able to pinpoint time with the use of a particular tense but is it really necessary to know if it’s continuous or a perfect tense? In the English language, we have the simple tenses of present, past and future. The more complicated tenses such as continuous and perfect also have a present, past and future form. Then we add them together and have a perfect continuous which also has a present, past and future as well. Whew!
Now imagine you are from another country trying to learn the English language. All of these tenses can be confusing. Couple the number of tenses with all of the irregularities in the English language and it is understandable why an English Language Learner (ELL) can become frustrated.
If the amount of tenses wasn’t confusing enough, tenses also involve changing the verb! Remember
verb conjugation? While native English speakers take verb changing to be commonplace, many other languages do not change the verb. ESOL students from Viet Nam and China (speaking Mandarin) find changing a verb totally unnecessary and exceedingly strange.
How do other languages express time without changing the verb? Many other languages use indicator words without changing the verb. The indicator word determines when the action happened. For example, some words such as now, before, after, yesterday, tomorrow and today indicate when something happened or will happen. Additional words such as just, already, since, right now and later also serve as indicator words. Vietnamese and Mandarin languages use the context of the sentence to establish time or use an indicator word but not change the verb. While English has indicator words, they are used in conjunction with changing the verb as well.
To help an ESOL student, a cheat sheet or flash cards can be created with a formula for creating the
Present Past Future
(progressive) continuous: can+verb was+verb will be + verb
Perfect have+verb had+ verb will have + verb
Present perfect continuous have been + verb had been + verb will have been + verb
As far as changing the verb, the present is the only time all of the persons are not the same. The most difficult form of verb change is the third person singular requiring an “s” or “es” ending. This is very difficult for many students to understand and remember and the source of many grammatical errors. Games, puzzles and reviews help students remember the change for the present tense.
Using an indicator word with the tenses will make learning the English language form of tenses a little more familiar for ELL’s. Learning an ELL’s home language grammatical structure can help an ESOL
student’s teacher understand some of the more difficult concepts to learn and why the concepts are difficult to comprehend. Don’t be tense teaching tenses, chart it out!
Lindell Long teaches ESOL at Clover Middle and High Schools in Clover, South Carolina, a position she’s held for the last 18 years. She’s married with 4 children and so many pets her family fears she’ll bring home a stray yak one day.