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  1. #1
    riverkid is offline Banned
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    Default Teaching the tenses of English

    Quote Originally Posted by Horsa View Post
    To what extent do you teachers, native speakers feel it is helpful to teach the ESL/EFL 'tense system'? Isn't it simpler to teach that we only have 2 tenses (past and present) and to deal with the perfect and progressive aspects separately?
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  2. #2
    Horsa is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: Teaching the tenses of English

    I guess I'll explain myself to get the ball rolling.

    What we teach as 'tenses' are not really tenses but combinations of aspects and tenses. So, present perfect progressive(continuous) is in fact

    Present tense + perfect aspect + progressive aspect

    Perfect adds the meaning 'before' so since we are talking about the present perfect here it means before now. If we were talking about the past perfect it would mean before the point in the past I am referring to. Similarly for the future perfect.

    The progressive aspect adds the idea of 'limited in duration'. So to look at a couple of example sentences:


    I drive.
    I am driving.

    In the first there is no limitation on the duration of the verb so it can only be interpreted as being a factual statement. It could answer the question 'How do you get to work?' and would not be referring to any particular time.
    The second restricts the time to 'at this moment' and might answer the question 'What are you doing now?'.

    Used with short duration verbs the progressive aspect makes the action repeat in order to fill the time period in question. Which is why sentences such as

    'I have been cutting my finger.'

    although grammatically correct - there is no difference in grammar between the above and "I have been cutting my toenails.' - feel uncomfortable to native speakers. To make sense of the former we have to come to the conclusion that the speaker is some kind of masochist since either they must have been cutting their finger either very slowly or repeatedly.

    'Future tenses' are made from combinations of aspects, present verb forms and future markers such as 'will', 'could', 'might', etc.

    Future time is often expressed by the use of unmarked present forms: 'going to', 'am doing' etc.

    I feel that it is useful to explain the above to students. In my experience it is simpler to explain than the EFL tense system and helps to lead them to a clearer understanding of our language. I tend to do this at intermediate level. I am interested in the opinions of other teachers on this matter.

  3. #3
    riverkid is offline Banned
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    Default Re: Teaching the tenses of English

    Quote Originally Posted by Horsa View Post
    I guess I'll explain myself to get the ball rolling.

    What we teach as 'tenses' are not really tenses but combinations of aspects and tenses. So, present perfect progressive(continuous) is in fact

    Present tense + perfect aspect + progressive aspect

    Perfect adds the meaning 'before' so since we are talking about the present perfect here it means before now. If we were talking about the past perfect it would mean before the point in the past I am referring to. Similarly for the future perfect.

    I agree with you, Horsa, that there are some problems inherent in the traditional tense system. But I don't think that students should EVER get to that point where they are discussing linguisitic concepts.

    For now, I guess that we have to go, somewhat, into the mistakes of the traditional system especially regarding the "future tense" because there is still so much bad info out there.

    Generations of ESL learners have been taught a lot of really idiotic things about language and if one looks at a Russian or Japanese or Chinese grammar book on English, we find many of these mistakes.

    That's how the Japanese, Russian, Chinese, etc teachers of English have learned about English. It's sad that a teacher should have to spend so much time undoing all the errors of bad prescriptions but that's the reality, so we have to live with it.


    The progressive aspect adds the idea of 'limited in duration'. So to look at a couple of example sentences:


    I drive.
    I am driving.

    In the first there is no limitation on the duration of the verb so it can only be interpreted as being a factual statement. It could answer the question 'How do you get to work?' and would not be referring to any particular time.
    The second restricts the time to 'at this moment' and might answer the question 'What are you doing now?'.

    How are we then to deal with,

    "How are you getting to work these days?"


    'Future tenses' are made from combinations of aspects, present verb forms and future markers such as 'will', 'could', 'might', etc.

    Future time is often expressed by the use of unmarked present forms: 'going to', 'am doing' etc.

    I feel that it is useful to explain the above to students. In my experience it is simpler to explain than the EFL tense system and helps to lead them to a clearer understanding of our language. I tend to do this at intermediate level. I am interested in the opinions of other teachers on this matter.

    I generally try to stay away from speaking specifically of 'tenses'. Rather I describe, "We state/talk about finished actions by adding 'ed' to an action. "We state/talk about future actions in many ways" and then I show them a big chart of future structures and tell them, "later, later". "We state/talk about actions now" with [action + ing].

    These are, of course, then reinforced with copious amounts of practice in real contexts, to my mind, the single most important aspect of learning a new language.

    I recently started teaching a real beginner beginner, the most beginner beginner that I've ever had in my teaching career. Even he had some bad habit to break, some from 'generous' people who had provided him with an old grammar written in his native language, but thankfully, the major problems that I had to overcome were those that his mother tongue naturally cause.

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  4. #4
    Horsa is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: Teaching the tenses of English

    How are we then to deal with,

    "How are you getting to work these days?"


    Interesting question but I think I may have already answered it. If we ask ourselves what do the words 'these days' add to the sentence, surely the answer is limited duration. If so, since the action cannot fill the duration in question completely it can be considered as a short action in respect to the time period. Therefore, in order to fill the 'duration' it should force the action to repeat and this is indeed the sense of the example. So it complys with the explanation I gave above, which, incidently, is not my own idea but based on work by Michael Lewis.


    I agree with you, Horsa, that there are some problems inherent in the traditional tense system. But I don't think that students should EVER get to that point where they are discussing linguisitic concepts.

    If they are studying a language, surely they have be given some understanding of linguistic concepts or what are we doing teaching any grammar at all? I know I would have had a hard time learning to speak Russian in a classroom if I hadn't been given an understanding of cases for example. I accept that classroom instruction is not necessary to learn a second language but is generally accepted that it speeds acquisition up.

    That's how the Japanese, Russian, Chinese, etc teachers of English have learned about English. It's sad that a teacher should have to spend so much time undoing all the errors of bad prescriptions but that's the reality, so we have to live with it.

    It seems to me that if we continue to accept and teach these 'bad prescriptions' we will be doing both ourselves as teachers and our students a disservice. If we don't take steps to fix it we will continue wasting time 'unteaching' things we have taught. I appreciate nothing will change overnight but feel strongly we should at least make a start.

    These are, of course, then reinforced with copious amounts of practice in real contexts, to my mind, the single most important aspect of learning a new language.

    Here we are in total agreement.

    Anyway thanks for your views it was interesting to hear them. I don't feel we are too far away from each other on this since we both agree something is wrong.

    Good luck with your real beginner. I've had quite a few such students over the years and for me there is a real sense of satisfaction when they achieve a reasonable command of English. After all, I can honestly say I taught them everything they know (about English at least).

  5. #5
    ZoeA is offline Newbie
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    Default Re: Teaching the tenses of English

    I have found this thread really helpful after a recent debate I had at work on the teaching of the Past Perfect.

    My colleagues insist on teaching the English tenses by translating them into their supposedly equivalent Greek tenses. I avoid doing so, even when their uses coincide (such as the Past Perfect and the Future Perfect) as the pupils could make the wrong associations.

    I, too, am an ardent supporter of the aspect+tense way of teaching.
    However, I would like to make a point as far as the continuous/progressive aspect is concerned.


    The progressive aspect adds the idea of 'limited in duration'. So to look at a couple of example sentences:
    I drive.
    I am driving.

    I'd say that the progressive aspect adds more the idea of an action being "alive", in progress or active at the definite time (either present, past or future) rather than limited duration, which of course is an inevitable consequence (life cannot be for ever ). This is why the present participle is used (-ing): to emphasise the active mode of the action.

    This is also why stative verbs cannot have a progressive aspect; by nature they do not imply any progress or activity.

    Finally, the auxiliary "to be" could well indicate that the subject is upon the action of driving (I'm using the example above).

    I'll have to add that I prefer to teach this way children of intermediate level and above. When it comes to adults, I explain the aspect + tense from the very beginning.

  6. #6
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    Default Re: Teaching the tenses of English

    I try to avoid the teaching of any "linguistic terminology" in class. I prefer to use generic terms and a timeline which is invaluable for describing what you are using and in regards to "reference".

    But like anything, there is no absolute black or white in my opinion. Depends on the level and needs of students. But the main point is to avoid locking students into any hard and fast rule -- language should be situational and learned with that in mind.

    Here is a nice timeline I made that might help somebody. But usually I end up drawing it on the board if questions arise. Especially helpful with Past perfect.

    David
    EFL Classroom 2.0

  7. #7
    ZoeA is offline Newbie
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    Default Re: Teaching the tenses of English

    I try to avoid the teaching of any "linguistic terminology" in class.

    I couldn't agree more. I have found that the aspect/tense approach is more readily understood by pupils when explained in simple everyday language. The diagrams help support both the time and the aspect of tenses and I use them in class too, as I believe most teachers do. However, let us not forget that diagrams are just a means of explaining, a simple tool to use in classroom and not the theory itself.

    But like anything, there is no absolute black or white in my opinion. Depends on the level and needs of students. But the main point is to avoid locking students into any hard and fast rule -- language should be situational and learned with that in mind.

    This is exactly what the aspect/tense approach lets a teacher do when teaching tenses (I'm talking about intermediate+ pupils): give pupils the sense of freedom of expression a language may have.

  8. #8
    Tdol is offline Editor, UsingEnglish.com
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    Default Re: Teaching the tenses of English

    Also, time is not the only determining factor behind the choice of tense, hence the use by some of terms like distant/remote, which include other aspects such as social distance.

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    Default Re: Teaching the tenses of English

    I prefer the compromise approach.

    The problem with the traditional tense system is that students have to learn a bewildering array of, well, tenses -- anything up to 16 or even 20, depending on what a particular book defines as a "tense".

    The problem with the more linguistically-correct approach is that students have to cope with several concepts at once: tense, aspect and modality. I feel there's nothing to be gained by talking about the "perfect aspect of the present tense" when "present perfect tense" is available as shorthand.

    But I do try to show patterns, and explain things like this:

    "You've seen the present continuous, and remember that we used the present tense of the helping verb, which is what made it 'present'; and the 'ing form', which is what made it continuous. Now, if we take the helping verb, the 'present', and change it to a past tense, what does that make? The past continuous. Now, we said that the present continuous is used to describe something happening now, so the past continuous describes something that was happening then..." ...all the while, of course, eliciting like mad, and drawing timelines with amusing cartoons to illustrate "he was having a bath when the phone rang".

    Of course, it depends on the, er, course. If the students are not studying for an exam, but for a particular task, I use a different approach. "OK, now we're going to learn how to explain to a client what has already been done. We use this pattern. Grammar books call this the 'present perfect'. Later on, we'll learn how to explain to a client what we are planning to do in the future." It's task oriented: the student needs to write an e-mail to a supplier explaining that there has been some problem with the last batch, what patterns do we need to tell the story of what happened? What patterns will the supplier use to tell us how he intends to fix the problem?

    Sometimes I have been known to say to students, "Now, if you want to impress your friends, you might like to know that linguists call this [insert long complicated grammatical term]."

  10. #10
    dana_beach1985 is offline Newbie
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    Default Re: Teaching the tenses of English

    I guess I'll explain myself to get the ball rolling.

    What we teach as 'tenses' are not really tenses but combinations of aspects and tenses. So, present perfect progressive(continuous) is in fact

    Present tense + perfect aspect + progressive aspect

    Perfect adds the meaning 'before' so since we are talking about the present perfect here it means before now. If we were talking about the past perfect it would mean before the point in the past I am referring to. Similarly for the future perfect.

    The progressive aspect adds the idea of 'limited in duration'. So to look at a couple of example sentences:


    I drive.
    I am driving.

    In the first there is no limitation on the duration of the verb so it can only be interpreted as being a factual statement. It could answer the question 'How do you get to work?' and would not be referring to any particular time.
    The second restricts the time to 'at this moment' and might answer the question 'What are you doing now?'.

    Used with short duration verbs the progressive aspect makes the action repeat in order to fill the time period in question. Which is why sentences such as

    'I have been cutting my finger.'

    although grammatically correct - there is no difference in grammar between the above and "I have been cutting my toenails.' - feel uncomfortable to native speakers. To make sense of the former we have to come to the conclusion that the speaker is some kind of masochist since either they must have been cutting their finger either very slowly or repeatedly.

    'Future tenses' are made from combinations of aspects, present verb forms and future markers such as 'will', 'could', 'might', etc.

    Future time is often expressed by the use of unmarked present forms: 'going to', 'am doing' etc.

    I feel that it is useful to explain the above to students. In my experience it is simpler to explain than the EFL tense system and helps to lead them to a clearer understanding of our language. I tend to do this at intermediate level. I am interested in the opinions of other teachers on this matter.

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