Teaching the different verb tenses

Jon Eric Leachtenauer, Kansai Gaidai University

Quick guide

  • Keywords: Grammar, verbs, tenses
  • Learner English level: Intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity: University and adult
  • Preparation time: One hour the first time you use it.
  • Activity time: 90 minutes
  • Materials: Cards with tenses/aspects written on them, cards with timelines, cards with sentences (See appendices), envelopes to hold the cards

The majority of Japanese university students have had at least six years of English grammar instruction at the junior high and high school level. However, when asked to produce written or spoken English, they often make simple mistakes in their use of verb tenses. The following grammar activity was designed to raise their awareness of the differences among English tenses and the rules that determine which form is used.



Step 1: Print out one set of verb name cards for every group of 3-4 students. Cut into individual cards (Appendix A).

Step 2: Go to <grammarbank.com/verb-tenses.html>. Print out the timelines and example sentences, white-out the names of the tenses, and cut into individual cards, one set per group.

Step 3: Print out one set of sentence cards for each group (Appendix B). Cut into individual cards. 

Step 4: Print out one Verb Tenses Summary worksheet for each student in class (Appendix C). 

Step 5: Print the list of common errors and give a copy to each student (Appendix D). 



Step 1: Elicit the names of the 12 English verb tenses/aspects as found below:

  • Simple Past
  • Simple Present
  • Simple Future
  • Past Progressive
  • Present Progressive
  • Future Progressive
  • Past Perfect Present
  • Perfect Future Perfect
  • Past Perfect Progressive
  • Present Perfect Progressive
  • Future Perfect Progressive

Step 2: Divide students into groups of three to four. Give each group an envelope with the 12 verb cards in it found in Appendix A. Written on each card is one of the 12 tenses/aspects. Ask each group to arrange the cards on their desk in some way that makes sense to them. This may puzzle them at first, but the goal is to get students thinking about the relationship between the different tenses. There is no right or wrong answer as long as they can explain why they arranged them as they did. Explain that the cards should be left out to be used in later steps.

Step 3: Give each group an envelope containing the 12 timeline cards corresponding to each tense/aspect found on the Grammar Bank website. Below each timeline is an example sentence. Students should match the timelines with the cards they arranged in Step 1. It is important that they make all decisions as a group.

Step 4: The groups then receive a final envelope containing the example sentences from Appendix B. There should be four example sentences for each tense/aspect for a total of 48 sentences. Students take turns drawing a sentence out of the envelope and then, as a group, decide which tense/aspect it belongs to, placing it on the appropriate pile. When students have finished, check their piles to make sure all cards are in the correct group.

Step 5: Give each student a piece of paper divided into 12 sections, one for each of the different verb forms. As a group, students should try to write one original example sentence for each verb form and a rule that determines when to use that form. Tell students you want them to have the same answer on their paper as the others in their group because the most important thing is that they work together and think deeply about usage of each verb tense. I encourage them to use the timelines and example sentences to determine the grammar rule.

Step 6: For homework, give students a list of sentences with common verb errors. Have them identify the errors and indicate why they thought they were wrong.



This activity is successful because it does two important things. First, it raises the students’ awareness of the grammatical structures of English. Also, it encourages communication because students have to work together to complete a task. It is an exciting activity for them because they are able to draw on previous knowledge of grammatical structures and also because they are discovering many things they did not previously know.



The appendices are available from the link below.