Grammar Guide: Verb Tenses

Hints and resources for grammar remediation that won't leave you bogged down in jargon.

By Elijah Ammen


Verb tenses

This is part three of a six-part series that focuses on various grammar topics. Check the Lesson Planet Community each Wednesday for the next installment.

Most people think they have a handle on verb tenses. Past, present, future, right? Actually, there are technically 13 tenses in the English language. However, if your students need significant remediation like mine, there needs to be a balance somewhere between teaching the basic three and the expanded 13. Somewhere around present perfect continuous, you can see the life draining out of the eyes of your audience.

This article hopefully can help you strike that balance of the basics that helps learners logically figure out the rest. While this is by no means an exhaustive grammar resource, you can find links to resources for instruction and remediation. These are great resources for pull-out teachers or for bellringers, mini-lessons, and plenty of individual practice.

Helpful Hints for Verb Tenses

Past, present, and future: They're the fundamentals. Without this base knowledge, you can't move on. Emphasize that the future tense isn't created through changing the verb ending, but rather through adding a helping/auxiliary verb. 

Irregular verb exceptions: Because English is a linguistic mutt, there seems to be an exception to every rule. Irregular verbs do not use the -ed past tense ending, but change the spelling of the word (run/ran, catch/caught). And then, of course, there are the verbs that stubbornly stay the same (read/read). The important thing to remind your class is that you need to be on the lookout for exceptions and look at the full sentence in context for clues about what the tense should be. 

Keeping tenses consistent: Switching tenses is a regular mistake that young writers make. This is an often-tested item, as well as a common mistake in papers. Check over papers regularly by identifying the verb phrases and making sure that they are consistent. 

Helping verbs: Lower-level learners tend to find the main verbs easily, but the rest of the verb phrase tends to go unnoticed. Helping verbs are crucial for progressive and perfect tenses. When you identify subjects and verbs, make sure that you identify the entire verb phrase so that they are communicating the full meaning of the sentence. 

Of/Have: There is nothing that you should of done. There are many things you should HAVE done, but "of" is a preposition, not a helping verb. It's a common mistake with slang, but it is not grammatically correct. 

Progressive tenses: These are also known as the tenses that my class hates. This caused regular confusion until we focused on the idea of -ing verbs showing a continuous action. While you can add helping verbs to make that ongoing action in the past or future, -ing always signals an ongoing or continuous action.

Instructional Resources

In the classic tradition of "I do, we do, you do," it's important to teach and model the verb tenses to your class first. Check out some of these resources, from PowerPoints to lesson plans, so you don't have to reinvent the wheel: 

Remediation Resources

As your young learners practice correcting errors in verb tense, it helps for them to read the sentences out loud. While slang has corrupted our general understanding of verb tenses, reading out loud often slows you down enough to notice mistakes. Silent reading often allows readers to unconsciously read over the mistakes. So, as your class takes advantage of these exercises, encourage them to read the sentences out loud in addition to applying the rules you have reviewed.

For countless others, just search for verb tenses on Lesson Planet.