How to teach future time expressions
Summary: Teaching tips and classroom activities for future times like "in two days", "within five working days" and "by the end of this week", including common issues with future time expressions.
I’ve lost count of the number of times a textbook has asked me to introduce rare and difficult forms like Future Perfect or the “I’m seeing him soon”/ “I’m going to see him soon” distinction but I’ve found that the class actually have much more important issues with future time expressions like “the week after next” and “in two weeks”. I therefore tend to use such a class mainly as a chance to introduce and practise vital time expressions, concentrating on clearing up problems like mixing up “in two weeks” and “two weeks later” and only dealing with verbs forms like “will have been” as and when I need to. This article gives games and other ideas for teaching useful future time expressions.
What students need to know about future time expressions
I would probably teach future time expressions in this order, starting with ones that they hopefully already know from their past and present uses, adding at least one or two which are new or particularly difficult for students each time that I have a lesson on this point:
- “on…” + days and dates
- “at…” + times
- “in…” + a longer period such as months, seasons, years and decades
- “this…” (“this weekend”, etc)
- “next…” (“next week”, etc)
- “in…” + time from now (the opposite of “ago”)
- “the day after tomorrow” and “the… after next” (“the week after next”, etc)
- “at the beginning/ end of…” and “in the middle of…”
- “within…” + a time limit from now (“within five working days”, etc)
- “by…” + a future deadline (“by close of business on Friday”, “by the time I get home”, etc)
- “later” to mean “later today” (as in “See you later”)
- “in… time” (the longer version of “in…” above, as in “in fifty years’ time”)
- “(at) this time….” (“at this time tomorrow”, “this time next week”, etc)
- “when…” + a description of a time (“when I get home”, “when I retire”, etc)
- “sometime”, “someday” and “one day” to mean you have no idea when
- “in the next… (s)” to mean “within…”
I wouldn’t specifically present “after/ later” and “before/ earlier”, but instead just leave them for error correction, and then mainly to tell students to make sure that they actually mean those things and not the far more common expressions “in” and “ago”. I also tend to leave “until” until students mix it up with “by” (see below).
Students will hopefully have come across expressions like “at seven o’clock”, “on 23 May”, “in 2030”, “for a month” and “next week” and the rules for which preposition is used with which when studying present and/ or past times, even if they don’t always get it right while speaking. If not, it might be worth doing a class on past expressions such as these and “ago” before tackling future time expression, both to cut down on the number of new expressions in one class and in order to be able to compare and contrast past time expressions like “two years ago” with future time expressions like “in two years”.
The first specifically future phrase that students can have problems with is “in…” with a length of time from now, as in “in a month” and “in two weeks”. This is the exact opposite of “ago” with a length of time before now (“a month ago”, etc). This makes “in” different from “within”, as “in two days” just means at a specific time (“on …day”). In contrast, “within three days” sets a deadline and so means “by … day”, meaning that earlier is better. Especially with Business English students, “by” and “within” are probably the next most useful future time expressions to teach. Expressions with “(with)in the next…” such as “In the next five working days” also have the “the sooner the better” meaning.
Another good way of explaining “in…” is with the equally useful expressions “the day after tomorrow”, “the week after next” and “the year after next” (meaning “in two days/ weeks/ years”), perhaps with the help of the movie title “The Day After Tomorrow”.
“In” can be usefully contrasted with “after” and “later”. Many students mistakenly use “Two days later/ after” to mean “In two days”, often due to direct translation from their first language. It never means this in English, instead meaning “Two days after that”, “that” being another time (other than now) which you were just talking about. Therefore, if one person says “Let’s meet in two days” and the other person then talks about “two days later” the latter means “in four days” (two days after “in two days”) and so is likely to cause major confusion if they actually meant to agree with “in two days”.
Unlike “in two days”, “two days later/ after” is also often used to talk about the past. For example, if someone says “I was born in 1980” and then says “Two years later…”, they mean “in 1982”. However, if they say “in 1980” and then “In two years”, they still mean two years after now (“in 2020” at the time of writing this article), a time which has no relation to their date of birth. “Later/ after” is the opposite of “before/ earlier”, which in turn are not the same as “ago” and could be used to talk about the future in sentences like “I will have to retire in 2045. Two years before (that) I’m planning to…” (in a way that “ago” cannot be used).
Typical student problems with future time expressions
My students have often not even come across common future expressions like “within five working days”, “the year after next” and “in a fortnight”, so in those cases dealing with the problem simply means making sure that the times are explained and practised.
The most common confusions between future time expressions for my students are, in approximate order:
- in two days/ two days after or two days later
- in two days/ within two days
- by Friday/ until Friday
- by Friday/ before Friday
- next week/ (with)in the next week
- by Friday/ on Friday
- this evening/ tonight
- later/ sometime, someday or one day
- at Xmas/ on Xmas Day
If you have already used “by” to explain the deadline meaning of “within…”, you can then contrast “by” with “until”. “Until” is not really a deadline but instead a period of time that you will continue doing something before you stop. Therefore “until” often collocates with expressions meaning “continue” such as “carry on” and “keep on”, and “I’ll do it until Friday” means “I’ll keep (on) doing it until Friday”, whereas “I’ll do it by Friday” means finishing it on or (preferably) before Friday. The latter expressions is therefore much more common than the former.
A much more minor problem that even native speakers have problems with is getting the apostrophes right in “in three weeks” and “in three weeks’ time”.
How to present future time expressions
I love teaching the surprisingly straightforward differences between verb forms to talk about arrangements, plans, predictions, spontaneous decisions, etc. However, I have to admit that students are unlikely to confuse anyone by incorrectly saying “I will meet my friend for a drink tonight”. The person listening is likely to understand that it is an arrangement even though the speaker didn’t use the correct “I’m meeting my friend”, as it is extremely unlikely that they are predicting that future event (unless they think that they have psychic powers!) Therefore I usually start a review of the future by getting students to communicate about “the year after next”, “in the next couple of years”, etc, and then afterwards pick them up on the biggest problems they had with verb forms like “going to” and “will”. However, it is just as possible to do it the other way round. For example, you could do a lesson on two future verb forms like “would like” and “am planning to”, end by giving students a list of future times to talk about during the communication stage, pick them up on problems they had with those times with the Same or Different activity below, then do another communicative activity focusing more on the time expressions.
How to practise future time expressions
Future time expressions simplest responses games
Students listen to two future time expressions and hold up the “A” or “B” card that they have been given depending on which one they think is further in the future, e.g. “A” if the teacher says “Next year” and “By the end of this year” and “B” if the teacher says “The day after tomorrow” and “In a couple of days”.
The Same or Different below is also a variation on the Simplest Responses Game.
Future time expressions the same or different
Give each student one cards saying “The same” and one card saying “Different”. Students listen to two or more expressions together such as “the day after tomorrow” with “in two days” or “in three weeks” with “three weeks later” and raise one of the two cards depending on what they think about the meanings of those two expressions. This activity can also be used to compare and contrast other future points with the same meaning like “I’m seeing him on Wednesday”/ “I’ll be seeing him on Wednesday” and with different meanings like “Don’t worry, I’m going to go to the supermarket”/ “Don’t worry, I’ll go to the supermarket”. After a few minutes of racing to raise the right card in this way, students label the same groups of phrases on the worksheet with “S” for “the same” and “D” for “different”, then test each other with the same raising cards activity. They could then be tested on their memory of forms which have the same meanings (i.e. on other ways of saying things like “within five working days”).
Prepositions of time with future time expressions pelmanism and snap
Make a pack of about 40 cards with future time expressions with the same three or four missing prepositions (or no missing preposition). For example, you could have ten cards with missing “at”, ten with missing “on”, ten with missing “in” (“_____ two weeks”, “____ the 22nd century”, etc) and ten with no preposition missing (“___ next week”, “____ the day after tomorrow”, etc). The same cards can be used to play pelmanism and/ or snap, and I also usually ask students to race to put them into columns on the table by missing word before or after the game(s).
For pelmanism (also known as “the memory game” and “pairs”), students spread the cards face down across the table and take turns trying to find two with the same preposition missing. For snap, they deal out all the cards without looking at them and take turns turning their top card face up, racing to shout “Snap” when the last two cards to be turned over have the same word missing. In both cases, the person with the most cards at the end of the game wins.
Future time expressions communicative activities
Guess the future time game
One student takes a card with a future time expression like “tomorrow” or “in the 2050s”, then give hints like “I will be working” and “Robots might have taken over the world” until their partner guesses the time expression (or a different time expression with exactly the same meaning). If their partner has entirely the wrong idea and/ or they run out of ideas for spoken hints, they can write up first letters, write gaps showing the number of letters in the time expression, tell them longer time periods that that time expression is within (“in more than 50 years” for “in the twenty second century”), etc.
Future times warmer cooler guessing game
Students give a hint about a future event such as “My next cup of tea”, “I would like to quit my job” and “I think we will be living on the moon” then replies to guesses with “No, much sooner”, “That’s almost right, but a little longer (from now/ in the future” etc until their partner guesses the exact time of that thing.
Future time expressions things in common
Students try to make sentences that are true for both of them with different future time expressions such as “We will both almost certainly go to the beach this year” and “We both want to go to sleep before eleven o’clock tonight”.
Future time expressions bluffing game
Students take a card that has a personal or opinion phrase about the future such as “I’m planning to quit my job later this year” or “I don’t think the ruling party will win the election next year” and read it out their partner. After asking them for more details about that future thing, their partner guesses whether they really have that plan, have arranged that, have that desire, believe that prediction, etc. Note that for this activity to work you will need to prepare phrases that are probably true for at least one person in the class, although it can be funny to have students continuing to lie about a few unlikely ones like “By this time next year I will probably be a millionaire”.
Future times roleplays
There are many suitable roleplays for future time expressions such as fixing meetings and deciding on who will do what by when in a meeting. To make sure that a good range of future times are used, you could give students a list of things like “next…” and “… Friday” to cross off when they manage to use them naturally during the conversation.
Future times test speaking
Students ask each other questions about the future like “What do you have to do by Sunday?” and “Where will you be living in 2045?” and get one point if their partner can’t answer the question and so has to say “Nothing”, “I don’t know”, etc.
Future times small talk
Fairly common small talk questions like “Do you have any plans for the weekend?”, “Have you seen the weather forecast?” and “Are you finished for today?” tend to bring out a fair number of future time expressions, and this can be practised more intensively with blanked model questions and answers like “We’re flying to Hawaii _____ Sunday?” and “Are you going to the party this ____________?”
Future times personalised statements challenge
Students take a card with a future time like “the year after next” and “at 11 p.m. tonight” and take turns trying to make true sentences with that time about their partner. They continue to make more and more true phrases with one time expression until someone says something that isn’t true, gives up or pauses too long. The last person to say something correct gets one point, then they do the same with another time expression. You could then test them on the prepositions of time in the phrases that they just used.