Teaching verbs is usually difficult, no matter the language. The following is a detailed look at how to approach your lessons, including how to order the tenses + some activities to help reinforce everything. While there is such a thing as “too much too soon,” we’ve found that introducing even basic verbs and then practicing regularly can make the more complicated tenses easier to tackle later on.
Teaching Verbs: Strategies
Teachers should never plow through any lesson and assume the students either knew it before or understand it now – taking a systematic approach (especially when teaching verbs) will ensure reinforcement for the students and a well-done lesson plan for you.
When it comes to verbs, you’ll have the best luck starting with all forms of the present and only moving on once the students have fully grasped those. From there, move onto the past and then the future, reusing the same lesson structure when possible.
When it comes to the present (or any form), use a pronoun as the subject and couple it with a simple verb. For example, you could say, “I run in the park”. Follow that example with, “She runs in the park”. Using questions and answers, establish how the verb is different when the subjects change. Establish an understanding that the addition of “s” is done when the subject is “I”, “it”, “she” or “he”. If the subject is I, you, we or they, the verb would not have the “s” at the end.
Presenting verbs to students in context will make it easier for them to understand and internalize the different forms. For instance, you might present the following sentence to your students: “I ride my bicycle every day, but I am not riding it right now”. That sentence shows the difference between the simple present and the present progressive. On the other hand, if you choose sentences like “I like to eat filet mignon” they won’t be as quick to understand.
The first verbs you should introduce are those that are both common and easily pronounced such as eat, run and take. Verbs that aren’t commonly used in conversations or in the reading material of your students should be avoided.
Cooperative groups is a teaching strategy based on students helping students. The group should be heterogeneous and have a mixture of students with different abilities. The goal is for students with more ability to help those with less. Of course, the students shouldn’t know who has the most or least ability.
Verb Tenses: An Overview
Need a refresher on tenses? Here are some examples & explanations for the tenses you will likely want to cover with your students.
Simple Present, Present Progressive, and Present Perfect
- Simple Present: I exercise every day. (Shows a habitual activity.)
- Present Progressive: I am reading a great book at this time. (Formed by the present tense of the “to be” verb and “ing” added to the main verb. Shows activity at the moment or ongoing activity.)
- Present Perfect: I have exercised at least once a day for several years. (Shows activity that began in the past and continues into the present.)
The past and future tenses also have simple, progressive and perfect forms.
Simple Past, Past Progressive
- Simple Past: The simple past tense is used to talk about events, actions or feelings that happened previously. In order to form the simple past tense of regular verbs, you simply add “ed” or “d” to the end of the verb. The simple past of the verb “walk” is “walked”. The simple past of the verb “close” is “closed”. If the verb ends with a silent “e”, you just add “d”. A past tense verb does not change its form no matter its number or person (ex: Mary closed her book)
- Past Progressive: In order to describe an action happening at the same time as another past tense verb, the past progressive tense is used. The past progressive tense is made up of a form of the verb “to be” and by adding “ing” to the end of the verb. For the past progressive, the past of the “to be” verb is used (ex: John was watching TV when I saw him)
If one action occurred in relation to another action, one of the perfect tenses is used. The perfect tenses are made by using a form of the helping verb have (have, has, had, will have) along with the past participle of the main verb. The tense is shown by the tense of the “have” helping verb used.
- Present Perfect: I have finished all my homework.
- Past Perfect: Jane had met Tom before the party.
- Future Perfect: I will have walked 2 miles by 5:00 P.M.
Games & Activities for Teaching Verbs
ESL games and activities can help to alleviate the stress and pressure of learning pretty much anything in English. The friendly environment of games can help you teach verbs by:
- Providing a break from the usual language instruction routine
- Provides opportunities for students to communicate and interact
- Creates a pressure-free environment for practice and review
Once you have created some verb flashcards, give each cooperative group 5 piles of cards. One pile for each of the following: nouns, pronouns, verbs, to be verb forms and have verb forms. Assign students to create as many sentences as they can using one flash card from each pile. The teacher can give students a finishing time such as 15 minutes. The team with the greatest number of sentences created at the end of the time is the winner.
Lessons can be added in later which students will add adjectives and/or adverbs to their sentences.
Before beginning the game, introduce your students to “rhyming”. Through questions and answers, you can begin by having students rhyme nouns. When you think they have the hang of it, you are ready to begin with verbs. Divide your class into two or three teams.
Start the game by saying: “I’m thinking of a verb that rhymes with ______”. (Single syllable verbs are best.) Instruct students that when they think they have a good guess they should raise their hands. The student with the good guess should say: “Is it this?”. If first to raise his or her hand, he or she then acts out the verb. If he or she has acted out the correct verb, his or her team gets a point. A goal for the winning team should be set before the game begins, and the first team to reach that goal is the winner.
Tic Tac Toe
In order to be ready for the game, the teacher can draw a “Tic Tac Toe” board on an overhead transparency or whiteboard before the class begins and write a pronoun in each square of the board.
Divide the class into teams. When it is a team’s turn, they send a member of their team to the board or the transparency. A verb to conjugate is given to that team member and they choose the pronoun on the board they want to mark. If the member conjugates the verb correctly to be used with that pronoun, the student marks that pronoun’s box for his or her team. If he or she conjugates the verb incorrectly, another team gets a turn.
If students are more advanced, the teacher can give them a tense of the verb as well.
Before the game begins, the teacher should write two duplicate lists of subject pronouns on the front board (I, he, she, you, it, and they). The teacher then divides the class into two teams. Each team lines up in front of one of the lists of pronouns. The teacher gives the first person on line of each team a different verb to conjugate written on a piece of paper and a marker. The first person writes the correct conjugation next to a pronoun on the board and hands the marker to the next student on his or her team. This continues until every pronoun on the list has a correct verb next to it. The first team to finish with all correct verbs is the winner.
For variety, the teacher can assign students different tenses of verbs.
This game will give students practice of conjugating verbs correctly within both the context and tense. Before the lesson, the teacher should write some Mad Libs featuring a lot of verbs on overhead transparencies or the whiteboard.
The teacher should divide the class into cooperative groups of at least 4 students in each group. The teacher then gives each group one Mad Lib to complete with correct conjugations of the verbs. After explaining what the cooperative groups should do, the teacher should give a time limit such as 15 minutes. One person in the team should be the timekeeper. At the end of the time, the presenter of each cooperative group would show and read his or her group’s Mad Lib.
For advanced students, the teacher can have cooperative groups of students create their own Mad Lib and then present it to the class in one of two ways:
- The presenter of the group would put the overhead transparency of the group’s Mad Lib on the overhead. Volunteers from the class would read the sentences with the correct verbs.
- Groups could exchange their Mad Libs. One group would fill in the correct verbs of another group’s Mad Lib and present the Mad Lib to the class.
When teaching ESL students, you need to understand that it will take quite some time for the conjugating of verbs to become intuitive and your students will often use verbs incorrectly when speaking. However, if you keep incorporating the verbs into lessons and continue giving opportunities to read and hear the proper tense, it will get easier and easier.
I’m anxious to put this approach to use and play the games with my adult ESL class. Thanks!