I regularly talk to my business English learners about where we´re going with our course: what would you like less of or more of? What have we done that you enjoyed and found helpful? What haven´t we done yet which you would find helpful? In these conversations there´s one topic which probably comes up more often than any other and it´s not email writing, telephoning or any of the other typical staples of the business English diet, but grammar and specifically: can we look at all of the tenses again?
I´ve been through various phases of dealing with the “can we look at all the tenses again?” request. At the beginning I don´t think I made a particularly good job of it. The key to getting it right seems to lie in:
- Striking a balance between pure grammar rules and language use.
- Making sure that the learners have actually understood the input you´ve given them and they could actually use it themselves.
- Distilling the grammar rules down to the most important points and the ones which will actually help them.
- Raising learners´awareness of the mistakes they make and/or are most often made when using the tenses.
Before you even get to thinking about those things though, you need to consider which tenses you´re actually going to teach: All of them? Some of them? One of them? After reading that 80% of spoken communication in English among native speakers makes use of just four tenses–present simple, present continuous (or progressive), past simple and present perfect–I decided to focus my attention on these four, which I´ve come to call “the big four”. We could argue about how non-native speaker language use differs from native speaker language use, but I nevertheless see these four as excellent building blocks for English grammar. In the workplace you will definitely need the present simple to talk about facts, routines and permanent situations. You will also need the present continuous to talk abou temporary situations and tell people what you´re doing at the moment. You have to use the past simple to tell people about what you did yesterday, last week or last year. The present perfect is often used to let colleagues know what you have already done and what you haven´t done yet and while making small talk about where you´ve been and where you´ve worked.
Choosing the wrong tense may result in it being unclear whether you´ve done something or are still doing it and this can lead to complications in the workplace. If you say: “I´m working here for 3 months” when you should have said: “I´ve worked/ I´ve been working here for 3 months”, the colleague visiting you will not expect to see you again on his next trip and may well not prioritise building a relationship with you, as a result.
The tenses review lesson that I´ve developed would be most effective with learners at B1 or B2 level who already have some knowledge of these four tenses and how to use them, but are in need of a refresher lesson or review. I´ve deliberately decided not to focus on the future explicitly here, but I have mentioned the use of the present simple to talk about timetabled events in the future and I have often found that this lesson has led learners to ask questions about the future, such as what about using the present continuous to talk about future plans and arrangements. I would see a lesson reviewing how to talk about the future as being a natural follow-on from this lesson–I don´t want to try to do it all in 60 or 90 minutes.
1) Tell the learners that native speakers use four tenses in 80% of spoken English. Ask them to guess which four tenses these four could be. This will give you an indication of their level of awareness of grammar terminology and the ideas or concepts behind the different tenses. Accept their guesses if they don´t know the name of the tenses but they know what the idea(s) behind them is, for example, if they say: “One of them is the tense for things that happened in the past and are finished.” You could also ask them if it surprises them that these four tenses are used so frequently and why or why not.
2) Tell the learners that you´re going to give them some information about all four tenses and you would like them to read it and use the information there and their own knowledge to find answers to the three questions below and then present these answers to the rest of the group:
- What situations do you use this tense to describe?
- What are the three most important things to remember about this tense?
- What mistakes to English learners often make when using this tense?
You may want to reformulate these questions using simpler language with lower level learners.
You can download my overview of “the big four” here.
Remind the learners that you will not accept them just reading aloud from the tenses overview when they present their answers–they have to present the information in their own words and add their own ideas too.
Depending on the number in the group, you may need to have a small group, a pair or just one individual working on one tense. If you have to have a combination of pairs and individuals, I would suggest giving the tenses which are a little easier to explain, e.g. present simple and past simple, to the individuals or the weaker learners, and those which are a little more challenging, e.g. present continuous and present perfect, to the pairs or stronger learners.
3) Monitor the learners as they´re working on their answers, giving them any support that they need and making suggestions. The area where the learners will probably need the most support is thinking about typical mistakes made when using the tense. The amount of time the learners will need to prepare their answers will range from 10 minutes to 30 minutes depending on the group.
4) When all the groups are finished, ask them to present their answers. Encourage the other learners to ask questions to those who are presenting and add any points which you consider important and any typical mistakes you know which they haven´t mentioned.
5) After this review of the four tenses, I go on to do a speaking activity in which the learners have to use the four tenses and their question forms. This is a variant on the popular “find someone who” activity.
a) I write on the board or flipchart: Find someone who… and then ask them to complete this sentence four ways using a different one of the four tenses each time. I give them examples to get them started:
Find someone who…lives in Heidenheim
Find someone who…is working to a deadline at the moment
Find someone who…went to a Christmas market last weekend
Find someone who…has been to Berlin/ has seen the new James Bond film
Remind them that they should write sentences that they think or know will be applicable to at least one other person in the group, so “find someone who has been to the moon”, for example, is not allowed, for example!
b) When they have their four sentences, they can use them to create questions they will then ask the rest of the group. Review the different question forms you use for the four different tenses.
present simple: Do you live in Heidenheim?
present continuous: Are you working to a deadline at the moment?
past simple: Did you go to a Christmas market last weekend?
present perfect: Have you been to Berlin? Have you seen the new James Bond film?
c) The learners can then stand up and mingle with each other and ask their questions. Tell them their aim is to find a person who can answer “yes” for each of the four questions and when they have done this they have completed the task. It´s OK if they find one person who can answer “yes” to more than one of the questions.
At the end of 60 or 90 minutes, the learners have:
- been re-familiarised with the important features of each tense
- been reminded of the common mistakes people make when using them
- been able to focus on one tense in more detail and explain how it works to the rest of the group
- been re-familiarised with the question forms for each of the four tenses
- had the opportunity to produce the language by creating their own examples and questions in the “find someone who” game