Ten tips for sustaining verb tenses in writing

Recently I had an opportunity to respond to a request on the NALDIC EAL-Bilingual email list with regard to the above, i.e. how to help EAL learners sustain tenses in their writing.  Here is the response I gave. I hope you find it useful.

Obviously I don’t have a clear picture of the lesson aims/teaching contexts and age groups, but as a teacher trainer (TESOL) for many years, I might be able to provide something of use.

First, I think I’d ask the teachers what the aim of their lesson was. If it’s to write an interesting/creative story, then tenses wouldn’t really matter, provided meaning was communicated.  If the aim, however, was to raise awareness of or produce accurate forms of a variety of tenses/aspect, then, yes, accuracy across the writing would be important.  And, linking to this aim is the marking of such work. Again, marking and feedback (in the latter case) would need to focus only on accurate use of tenses/aspect rather than other grammatical structures or content.  So, what I’m saying is that if sustaining verb tenses in writing is the issue, this needs to be addressed in the aim of the lesson and the marking of the writing.  But, I’m sure teachers already know this and I really don’t want to come across as patronising here!


So, ideas … off the top of my head, I’d say the following:

The work really needs to be done at the planning (pre-writing) and editing (post-content creation) stages of the lesson. During the actual writing, learners need space to get ideas down on paper - content over form, as it’s too challenging trying to focus on both.  

At the planning stage, here are some ideas for raising awareness:

  1. Cut up and re-order similar texts, asking learners how they figured out how to put it back together with a specific focus on tenses and their connection with other linguistic devices, e.g. adverbs of time.
  2. Talk about tenses with regard to the particular genre (e.g. story telling/narration) - pick out common tenses/aspect - past simple for completed actions in past, present perfect for bringing past together with present (e.g. when past has an impact on present), past perfect (when one action happens before another - both in the past), past continuous for temporary states in the past.
  3. Dictogloss - read a short text that is abundant in the tenses you want to focus on. Get students to listen first, only for content (gist).  For the second listening, get them to number piece of paper with the number of sentences. Read each one aloud at normal speed and get students to write down what they can (e.g. key words). Read only once. When finished, get students to work together (pairs or threes) to reconstruct the entire text.  Tell them they should discuss which versions might be better and why.   When feeding back, take ideas from all groups, discuss why some might be better options than others (again, in terms of tenses). Compare with the original. Continue sentence by sentence, highlighting tenses/aspect and doing some language work here in preparation for their own writing.
  4. Use graphic organisers for planning purposes - sequencing charts, for example, or timelines.  Give students time to plan.
  5. Talk about how learners indicate past, present, future in their own languages (e.g. through context or through adverbs of time etc). Compare other languages with English.

All of the above can be supported with timelines (i.e. visual representations of tenses) and with carefully planned questioning for scaffolding purposes.


At the editing stage, here are some ideas for noticing and correcting:

  1. Get learners to read their work aloud. Often we don’t notice mistakes in writing but we do when listening.  They can do this individually or in pairs.
  2. Peer editing - get learners to ask each other concept-checking questions, e.g. (Did this event happen in the past? Is it finished? Was it temporary? Did this action happen before this one? etc. Again, supported by timelines and grammar rules/books - referring back to/connecting with the raising awareness activities you did at the planning stage.)
  3. Whole class feedback - take a learner’s text (anonymous - one from a previous year even) and analyse tenses throughout asking the types of questions above.
  4. Tense Detectives’ - this is a slightly different take on School 21’s ‘Talk Detectives’ (used for checking that learners are using agreed discussion guidelines).  Nominate 2 or 3 students whose job it is to sample some of the work looking specifically at accurate use/continuity of tenses in their peers’ work and feed back to the class good examples, possible problems, questions etc.  
  5. Reformulation - rewrite a learner’s text and get learners to compare your version to the original, noticing and discussing different forms (e.g. tenses) throughout.

Then, after editing, give learners an opportunity to make changes/re-write and implement feedback. Make sure learners refer to feedback on previous work before embarking on a new piece (e.g. feed forward).

I'd love to hear how you may have adopted or adapted some of these ideas and the extent to which they worked in your context, so do leave a comment.