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English tenses: some ways of teaching students to use them properly

While teaching English every of us faces the problem of tense category because it is the most complicated aspect of the English grammar. Verbs are power and voice of life itself. Verbs turn nouns into a living expression of thought. Verbs put questions and answer them, express feelings, summarize the results, call and brand, assert, threatens, thank and turn language into the force having control over millions of people” (M. Kolpakchi). The English tense system presents a lot of trouble to Kazakh and Russian-speaking students because of the difference which exists in our languages with regard to time and tense relations. For example, they cannot at first understand why we must say “I have seen him today” and “I saw him yesterday”. The action is completed for them in both sentences, and they do not associate it in any way with today or yesterday.

There are 26 verb forms (16 in the active voice and 10 in the passive voice) in English. In order to use this complex system successfully we need to fix in the memory the circuit of 26 links. It is not so easy to do but it is necessary if someone wants to achieve speaking the main goal of learning English as means of communication and activities. Language is the chief means by which the human personality expresses itself and fulfills its basic need for social interaction with other persons. The aim of the foreign language at our college is to develop students’ skills in understanding English speech and participating in conversation based on the topics covered. It is said language functions owing to the language skills. A person, who knows a language perfectly, uses a thousand and one grammar, lexical, and phonetic rules when he is speaking. Language skills help us to choose different words and models in our speech.

In this work we examine the forming one of grammar skill: the category of tense. Grammar is known to be an important component of the language as a system. Communicative skills without regular using grammar are limited. Knowing, understanding and using of English tenses properly is the most important thing in teaching English.

Let’s take the general characteristics of the verb. A verb is a part of speech that usually denotes action (bring, read), occurrence (to decompose, to glitter), or a state of being (exist, live, stand). Depending on the language, a verb may vary in form according to many factors, possibly including its tense, aspect, mood and voice.

The ability to talk about the tenses of the English language, to recite its rules, is also very different from ability to speak and understand the language or to read and write it. Those who can use the English tenses are often unable to recite the rules, and those who can recite their rules can be unable to use them. Nowadays we can hear the following opinions among teachers of foreign language: One teacher says, “I do not favor teaching any grammar rules of tenses before the fifth grade, and not much then,” another is likely to reply, “But if you do not, how will your students learn to use them properly?” Another teacher remarks, “If you teach no tenses, how you can expect to have correct their usage in speech and writing?”

In the elementary grades the major emphasis will be upon the actual use, rather than upon knowledge of the language itself and attention to restrictive rules. Grammar of the analytical and structural sort will have little place or no place in the elementary grades, but the oral and written conventions of English, those which function in actual speaking and writing, will be of chief concern. Grammar tense aspect organizes the vocabulary and as a result we have sense units. There is a system of stereotypes, which organizes words into sentences. But what skill does grammar tense aspect develop?

First of all it gives the ability to make up sentences correctly, to reproduce the text adequately (the development of practical skills and habits). The knowledge of the specific grammar structure helps students to point out the differences between the mother tongue and the target language. The knowledge of grammar tense aspect develops abilities to abstract, systematize facts of actions. Examining the problem of grammar tense aspect skills we must acquire how they are defined in literature. We must differentiate their kinds, features and conditions under which they are formed, the steps of forming skills. Learning, forming and developing grammar tense aspect skills are important tasks of the subject “Foreign language” at our college. It is necessary for students not to make grammar tense aspect mistakes. So the best way to form grammar tense aspect skills is to use a lot of training exercises and individual approach in teaching grammar. In order to understand a language and to express oneself correctly one must assimilate the grammar mechanism of the language studied. Indeed, one may know all the words in a sentence and yet fail to understand it, if one does not see the relation between the words in the given sentence. On the contrary, a sentence may contain more than two unknown words but if one has a good knowledge of the structure of the language one can easily guess the meaning of these words or at least find them in a dictionary.

The English language cannot be ensured without the study of grammar tense aspect mechanism. Students need this aspect of grammar to be able to speak, read and write it. The grammatical systems of Kazakh, Russian and English are fundamentally different. English is an analytical language, in which grammatical meaning is largely expressed through the use of additional words and by changes in word order. Kazakh and Russian are synthetic languages, in which the majority of grammatical forms are created through changes in the structure of words, by means of a developed system of prefixes, suffixes and endings. No one knows exactly how people learn languages although a great deal of research has been done into the subject.

Many methods have been proposed for the teaching of foreign language. And they have met with varying degrees of success and failure. We should know that the method by which students are taught must have some effect on their motivation. And this motivation

is their great desire to speak and know English well. If they find it deadly boring they will probably become de-motivated, whereas if they have confidence in the method they will find it motivating. Child learners differ from adult learners in many ways. And at college we have already had adult learners who realized the importance of their studying. We shall examine such methods as “The Grammartranslation method”, ”The Direct method”, “The Audio-lingual method” in order to see the best way of forming grammar tense aspect mechanism.

The Grammar-translation method

This method was widely used in teaching the classics, namely Latin. In the grammar-translation mode the books begin with definitions of the parts of speech, declensions, conjugations, rules to be memorized, examples illustrating the rules, and exceptions. Often each unit has a paragraph to be translated into the target language and one to be translated into native one. These paragraphs illustrate the grammar rules studied in the unit. The student is expected to apply the rules on his own. This involves a complicated mental manipulation of the conjugations and declensions in the order memorized, down to the form that might fit the translation. As a result, students are unable to use the language, and they sometimes develop an inferiority complex about languages in general.

  • Classes are taught in the mother tongue, with little active use of the target language;
  • Much vocabulary is taught in the form of lists of isolated words;
  • Long elaborate explanations of grammar are given;
  • Grammar provides the rules for putting words together, and instruction often focuses on the form and inflection of word;
  • Reading of difficult classical texts is begun early;
  • Little attention is paid to the content of texts, which are treated as exercises in grammatical analysis;
  • Often the only drills are exercises in translating disconnected sentences from the target language into the mother tongue;
  • Little or no attention is given to pronunciation.

The grammar-translation method is largely discredited today. The inadequacy of grammar-translation methods became evident because the greater interest for communication is observed in modern languages.

The Direct method

The Direct method appeared as a reaction against the grammar-translation method. The direct method assumed that learning a foreign language is the same as learning the mother tongue, that is, that exposing the student directly to the foreign language impresses it perfectly upon his mind. This is true only up to a point, since the psychology of learning a second language differs from that of learning the first. The child is forced to learn the first language because he has no other effective way to express his wants. In learning a second language this compulsion is largely missing, since the student knows that he can communicate through his native language when necessary.

  • Classroom instruction is conducted exclusively in the target language;
  • Only everyday vocabulary and sentences are taught;
  • Oral communication skills are built up in a carefully graded progression organized around question-and-answer exchanges between teachers and students in small, intensive classes;
  • Grammar is taught inductively, i.e. the learner may discover the rules of grammar for himself after he has become acquainted with many examples;
  • New teaching points are introduced orally;
  • Concrete vocabulary is taught through demonstration, objects, and pictures; abstract vocabulary was taught by association of ideas;
  • Both speech and listening comprehension are taught;
  • Correct pronunciation and grammar are emphasized.

The main advantage of direct method is that second language learning should be more like first language learning: lots of active oral interaction, spontaneous use of the language, no translation between first and second languages, and little or no analysis of grammatical rules.

The Audio-lingual method

The Audio-lingual method is the method developed in the Intensive Language Program. It is successful because of high motivation, intensive practice, small classes, and good models, in addition to linguistically sophisticated descriptions of the foreign language and its grammar.

  • New material is presented in dialogue form;
  • There is dependence on mimicry, memorization of set phrases and over learning;
  • Structures are sequenced by means of contrastive analysis and taught one at a time;
  • Structural patterns are taught using repetitive drills;
  • There is a little or no grammatical explanation: grammar is taught by inductive analogy rather than deductive explanation;
  • Vocabulary is strictly limited and learned in context;
  • There is much use of tapes, language labs, and visual aids;
  • Great importance is attached to pronunciation;
  • Very little use of the mother tongue by teachers is permitted;
  • Successful responses are immediately reinforced;
  • There is a great effort to get students to produce error-free utterances;
  • There is a tendency to manipulate language and disregard content.

Grammar is taught essentially as follows: Some basic sentences are memorized by imitation. Their meaning is given in normal expressions in the native language, and the students are not expected to translate word for word. When the basic sentences have been over learned (completely memorized so that the student can rattle them off without effort), the student reads fairly extensive descriptive grammar statements in his native language, with examples in the target language and native language equivalents. He then listens to further conversational sentences for practice in listening. Finally, practices the dialogues using the basic sentences and combinations of their parts. When he can, he varies the dialogues within the material he has already learned.

Grammar explanations as used in the major methods. We shall briefly review the treatment of grammatical explanations by some of the major methods. This is not meant to be an exhaustive study of all available methods; rather it is an attempt to show the variety of ways in which different methods deal with grammar explanations and may help teachers in evaluating available materials.

  1. Grammar-translation method is associated with formal rule statement. Learning proceeds, deductively, and the rule is generally stated by the teacher, in a textbook, or both. Traditional abstract grammatical terminology is used. Drills include translation into native language.
  2. The direct method is characterized by meaningful practice and exclusion of the mother tongue. This method has had many interpretations, some of which include an analysis of structure, but generally without the use of abstract grammatical terminology.
  3. The audio-lingual method stresses an inductive presentation with extensive pattern practice. Writing is discouraged in the early stages of learning a structure. There has been considerable variation in the realization of this approach. In some cases, no grammatical explanation of any kind is offered. In other, the teacher might focus on a particular structure by isolating an example on the board, or through contrast. When grammatical explanation is offered it is usually done at the end of the lesson as a summary of behavior or in later versions of this method the rule might be stated in the middle of the lesson and followed by additional drills.

Each method is realized in techniques. By a technique we mean an individual way in doing something, in gaining a certain goal in teachinglearning process such as grammar tense aspect patterns. One of the teacher's jobs is to show how the new language is formed, how the grammar works and how it is put together. One way of doing this is to explain the grammar in detail, using grammatical terminology and giving a mini-lecture on the subject. This seems problematical, though, for two reasons; firstly many students may find grammatical concepts difficult, secondlysuch explanations for beginners will be almost impossible. A more effective and less frightening way of presenting form is to let the students see or hear the new language, drawing their attention in a number of different ways to the grammatical elements of which it is made.

Teaching grammar tense aspect patterns

We think that even students who have never studied the rules of grammar tense aspect make use grammar of the language. This is seen in the mistakes they make. When a student says, “He goed”, he is forming a "regular" rule on the pattern: showed, weighed, served: “goed”. His error reveals the fact that he has been applying the pattern even though he is not able to describe it.

Tense aspect patterns and sentences

A grammatical pattern is an arrangement of parts having linguistic significance beyond the sum of its parts. The parts of a pattern are expressed by words or classes of words so that different sentences often express the same pattern. All the sentences of a language are cast in its patterns. “Tom telephoned. The girl studied”.

We understand different sentences expressing the same statement pattern in English. A pattern is not a sentence, however, sentences express patterns. Each sentence illustrates a pattern. To memorize a sentence does not imply that a pattern has been memorized. There can be countless sentences, each unique, yet all constructed on the same pattern.

Tense aspect patterns and grammar

Students learn the grammatical patterns of their language before they study grammar at school. When a child says “goed” instead of “went” or “knowed” instead of “knew”, he is applying the regular pattern on the analogue – “open: opened = go: goed”

Grading the Patterns

There is no single grading scale for teaching the patterns of a foreign language. Any systematic cumulative progression, taking into account the structures that are difficult, would be satisfactory from a linguistic point of view.

Basic sentences

A sentence can be learned as a single unstructured unit like a word, but this is only the beginning. The student must acquire the habit of constructing sentences in the patterns of the target language. For this he must be able to put words almost automatically into a pattern without changing it, or to change it by making the necessary adjustments. Teaching a problem pattern begins with teaching the specific structure points where a formal change in the pattern is crucial and where the student is not able to manipulate the required changes. The steps in teaching problem patterns are (1) attention pointer, usually a single sentence calling the students' attention to the point issue; (2) examples, usually minimally contrastive examples showing a pair of sentences that differ only on the point or points being made;

repetition by the class and presentation of additional examples of the same contrast; (4) comments or generalization elicited inductively from the students and confirmed by the teacher; (5) practice, with attention on the problem being taught. These steps an intended to clarify the crucial point of contrast at the time when sentences are being learned. They should take only a small portion of the class time: no more than 15 per cent. Long explanations without active practice are a waste of time. Most of the class should be devoted to practice. The following are brief descriptions of some of the more effective types of exercises.

The more effective types of exercises:

  • Listening to good models (can be combined with other activities);
  • Oral repetition (the student repeats the pattern sentences provided orally by the model. This is the most basic and important of all exercises. It begins with the presentation of the very first sentence of the pattern, the basic sentence, and continues through all other examples of the pattern taught for speaking);
  • Oral substitution (once the student can speak the basic sentence by repetition, oral substitution becomes the most useful and powerful drill available to practice the pattern. It is fast, flexible, and versatile, and it approximates conversational use of the language. Several variations are described: simple substitution, substitution in variable position, substitution that forces a change, substitution requiring a change, and multiple substitutions);
  • Transformation.

The grammar tense aspect skill is based on the general conclusion. The grammar action can and must occur only in the definite lexical limits, on the definite lexical material. If a student can make up his sentence frequently, accurately and correctly from the grammatical point of view, he has got the grammar tense aspect skill.


    1. Situational approach to the teaching

To form the reproductive grammar tense aspect skills we must follow such steps:

      1. Selection of the model of a tense;
      2. Selection of the form of the verb;
      3. Selection of the auxiliary verb.

The main difficulty of the reproductive (active) grammar tense aspect skills is to correspond to the purposes of the statement, communicative approach of words and meanings expressed by the grammatical patterns. In that case we use basic sentences, in order to answer the definite situation.

The main factor of the forming of the reproductive grammar tense aspect skill is that students need to learn the lexics of the language. They need to learn the meanings of the words and how they are used. We must be sure that our students are aware of the vocabulary they need at their level and they can use the words in order to form their own sentence. Each sentence contains a grammar structure. The mastering the grammar tense aspect skill lets students save time and strength, energy, which can give opportunity to create. Learning a number of sentences containing the same grammatical structure and a lot of words containing the same grammatical form is not rational. But the generalization of the grammar item can relieve the work of the mental activity and let the teacher speed up the work and the students realize creative activities. Correct selection of grammar teaching material is the first step towards the good grammar tense aspect skills.

Some General Principles of Grammar Teaching English tenses

  1. Conscious approach to the teaching of English tenses;

E.g: The Present Simple is contrasted with the Present Progressive

I get up at 7 o’clock.

It’s 7 o’clock. I am getting up.

The Present Perfect is contrasted with the Past Simple

He has come.

He came an hour ago.

  1. Practical approach to the assimilation of English tenses;
  2. Structural approach to the teaching English tenses, i.e. grammar items are introduced and drilled in structures or sentence patof English tenses;

5. Different approach to the teaching active grammar of English tenses (grammar for conversation) and passive grammar of English tenses (grammar for reading);

Types of Exercises for the Assimilation of English tenses

  1. Recognition exercises. For example: Listen to the sentences and raise your hands whenever you hear the verbs in the Past Simple. (It is desirable that sentences formed should concern real situations and facts.) Read the sentences and choose the correct form of the verb. Recognition exercises are indispensable as pupils retain the grammar material through auditory and visual perception. Auditory and visual memory is at work.
  2. Drill exercises. In learning a foreign language drill exercises are indispensable. The learners cannot assimilate the material if they only hear and see it. They must reproduce it both in outer and inner speech. The more often they say it the better they assimilate the material. Though drill exercises are those in which pupils have only one difficulty to overcome, they should also be graded:
  3. Repetitive drill
  4. Substitution
  5. Completion
  6. Creative exercises (speech exercises). This is the most difficult type of exercises as it requires creative work on the part of the learners. These may be: (a) Making statements either on the picture the teacher shows, or on objects. For example, the teacher hangs up a picture and asks his pupils to say or write three or five statements in the Present Continuous.
  7. Asking questions with a given grammar item. For example, pupils are invited to ask and answer questions in the Past Indefinite. (c) Speaking about the situation offered by the teacher. For example, one pupil gives commands to perform this or that action, the other comments on the action (actions) his classmate performs. (d) Speaking on a suggested topic. For example, a pupil tells the class what he did yesterday. (e) Making dialogues using the grammar item covered. (f) Telling the story (read, heard). (g) Translating into English. (h) Participating in free conversation in which pupils are to use the grammar item they have learned. Teacher: What's the weather like, children? Is it cold today? Do you like it when it's cold?

All the exercises mentioned above are designed:

  1. to develop students' grammar tense aspect skills in recognizing grammar forms while listening and reading English texts;
  2. to accumulate correct sentence patterns in the students' memory which they can reproduce whenever they need these patterns for speaking or writing;
  3. to help the students to produce sentences of their own using grammar items necessary for speaking about a situation or a topic offered, or writing an essay on the text heard or an annotation on the text read.

So we can make a conclusion that no speaking is possible without forming of grammar tense aspect mechanism. If learners have acquired such mechanism, they can produce correct sentences in a foreign language. Paul Roberts writes: “Grammar is something that produces the sentences of a language. By something we mean a speaker of English. If you speak English natively, you have built into you rules of English grammar. In a sense, you are an English grammar. You possess, as an essential part of your being, a very complicated apparatus which enables you to produce infinitely many sentences, all English ones, including many that you have never specifically learned. Furthermore by applying you rule you can easily tell whether a sentence that you hear a grammatical English sentence or not”.



  1. Roberts P. English Sentences. New York, 1962.
  2. A Brief Review Of The Major Methods.
  3. Brown C. and Jule “Teaching the spoken language”, Cambridge, 1983.
  4. Brown H.Douglas ‘Principles of language teaching’, N.Y., 1987.
  5. Lado R. and Fries C.C. “English pattern practice. Establishing the patterns as habits.” 1970.
  6. Общая методика обучения иностранным языкам. М. 1967.
  7. Вятютнев М.Н. Модели обучения иностранным языкам в работах Г. Пальмера, Ф. Френча, А. Хорнби, Г. Менона, Ч.Фриза и Р.Ладо. – М., 1998.
  8. Бессмертный А.З. Усвоение речевых моделей с помощью наглядных пособий. // Иностранные языки в школе, 1963, №3.

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