Teaching tenses seems more challenging than teaching vocabulary to most of the teachers. Although planning a lesson around a tense is quite easy, actually teaching it may be a different matter. There are still students that misuse, misunderstand and misapply a tense despite a teacher’s efforts to use the most appropriate methods when teaching it.
The reasons why this occurs may be related to the great number of things to remember at once or because mother tongue leads the learner to expect something else. But there are cases when mistakes belong to the teacher. This may be caused by his failure to understand fully the nature of the tense he is teaching or by the differences between the foreign language and the mother tongue. It is really difficult to understand why an English speaker selects one tense rather than another, if you do not know the whole of it. Misunderstanding can also be caused by the teacher’s lack of experience when choosing the examples, illustrations which enhance understanding.
Years of experience have shown that learning the use of a tense is not as simple as learning the name of an object-a concrete thing-you see it and you associate it with the word. Verb tenses are more difficult, because the concept boundaries are less easily visible. The difference between I eat (a routine) and I am eating (going on now) is quite problematic and much of the problem arises because English native speakers take it for granted that there is a distinction, while speakers of other languages take it for granted that there is none. A teacher should understand the subconscious contexts of different verb tenses, so that he can identify them and make them clear to his students. Problems with verb tenses also arise because many teachers assume that all cultures share the same attitudes and concepts of the relationship between time and tense. Young teachers, particularly, should understand that the preparation before teaching a tense is a key element for attaining the aims of a grammar lesson.
Rosemary Aitken(Teaching tenses-1992) considers that the basic steps in planning a tense for teaching purposes can be reduced to a very simple contracted word: CASSIAL, which means choose, analyse, sequence, select, identify context, auxiliary materials, learner error.
Step 1: Choose. This step, on the whole, is self- explanatory. It consists of several basic stages: – choose the tense to teach according to the textbook or syllabus; The criteria for the choice may vary with circumstance, but will probably break down into a list something like this: – practical need of the tense (for writing or speaking?) – the frequency it is used with – the demonstration and contextualization of its meaning by using the language the students already know – the importance of the tense, as the basis to teach other structures which students need to know – question if the tense is the simplest way of expressing the concept we need
Step 2: Analyze. This process requires research work. The teacher should make a list of all the uses of the tense that he can think of and try to work out the differences between them. A comparison between the tense and other tense can be really useful to draft distinctions; which means working out the concepts of the tense.Then the teacher should check his findings against a good grammar book. Next he should look at the tense in all its persons, not forgetting the negative and interrogative forms.The difference, if there is one, between the conversational spoken form and the written one should be brought in discussion as well. The special problems about this difference should be examined in order to prevent misspelling or misuse. It is also recommended to look at the pattern of more than one verb and watch carefully for any unexpected variations which may create difficulties for learners. These variations can be classified like this: – variations of form: e.g.I eat-he eats but: I can-he cans (it is not possible) – variations of sound:
The teacher’s familiarity with the language may prevent him from anticipating the problems which seem perplexing to the foreign student.
e.g.: he waits/s/ he watches/iz/ he wears/z/ he carries/iz/ – variations of function: The way a tense looks like or sounds like is not enough for a complete presentation. The most important aspect is what it does; how it functions. Part of the analysis of any tense should be to note down the question to which the tense is the most natural answer. e.g. A: Do you swim? B: swim (it is not the answer to the question) but: A: Do you swim? B: Yes, I do. (it is the right answer)
A teacher’s purpose is to make his students practice using the tense in a realistic way and this will involve teaching an appropriate question form. In analyzing function we must also be aware that idiomatic use can throw up unpredictable usages.
Step 3: Sequence. Every tense has several functions and there may be additional problems with irregular forms or the phonetic realizations of a rule. As it is almost impossible to teach all forms, functions and variations of a tense in one lesson must be sequenced for teaching purposes. Only at elementary levels the presentation can cover all these in one lesson. Teaching the tense should move from the common functions to the least usual. Textbooks and syllabi are divided in this precise way. Therefore, it would be wise to decide first which structures to teach, but sometimes uncomplicated forms can prove to be difficult for some students to internalize.
Step 4: Select. Once the sequence is decided, the teacher must select which function he proposes to teach to his particular students. Different functions of a tense may be taught at quite widely different levels. Nowadays, the curriculum focuses on developing communicative skills by integrating grammar structures in the discourse and understanding their functions. Drills, which may prove to be monotonous in spite of their usefulness, are no longer used in the classroom as they do not enhance practicing functions of the language.
Step 5: Identify. When the teacher has chosen the tense, analyzed it and decided which forms and functions are appropriate to his student level and in what order they are to be taught, he must also identify a teaching context, if he wants to teach effectively. This should fulfill the following criteria: -it should be a context in which native English speakers would genuinely use the tense -it should make the concept of the tense clear, preferably in a way which can be demonstrated, illustrated or explained in the tenses which the students already possess -it is good practice to test the concept of a new tense immediately after teaching it, preferably in language which does not require the new form
Step 6: Auxiliary materials. The auxiliary materials a teacher uses have a great importance for the success of a lesson. When using them he must take into consideration the level he teaches and if they are in accordance with the contents of a lesson. The more auxiliary materials, the more efficient the teaching. So, the teacher may use: pictures, diagrams, picture sequences, timetables, etc. in order to clarify meaning and make the concept more approachable.
Step 7: Learner error. For foreign students, errors are inevitable when writing the forms of a verb in a particular tense or when pronouncing it. There are also frequent mistakes the students make. Most of them are caused by mother tongue interference. The mistakes are more common in tenses where there is some overlap of meaning, or where the form suggests equivalence. There may appear ‘false patterning’ or ‘interlanguage’:
e.g. I’m run now. She’s speak now. By signalling the learners’ errors immediately after making them they can understand better a form or a use as there may appear in their mind the following reasoning: ’This is wrong. I mustn’t do it again. Oh, this is the right way to do it!’ The teacher should not limit himself at finding the mistakes, he must explain them to the students. It is well-known that one can learn from his own mistakes. To sum up, following all these steps, teaching a tense should become a very easy task for the teacher and learning it may become pleasant for the students.
1. Aitken Rosemary-Ideas for teaching and practicing tenses in English, Thomas Nelson LTD 1992.
2. Edwards Woods, Nicole McLeod- Using English Grammar, PHI LTD 1990.
3. Mark Nettle and Diana Hopkins – Developing Grammar in context, CUP 2003.
4. Jack C. Richards and Theodore S. Rodgers- Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, CUP 1986.
5. Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartvik- A Communicative Grammar of English,Longman 1994.
6. David Nunan-Language teaching methodology, Prentice Hall International LTD 1991.