How to teach frequency expressions (adverbs of frequency etc)

Summary: Teaching tips on and activities for expressions like "usually", "twice a week", "once every two weeks" and "every morning".

This article is about teaching adverbs of frequency like “usually” plus other answers to “How often…?” questions such as “every day”, “twice a year” and “once every two weeks”. A lesson or two on this point can be a great way of adding some useful vocabulary to Present Simple grammar practice while making the main meaning of that tense clear. There are always useful things you can add to student knowledge such as the expressions “almost always” and “once every couple of weeks” and also plenty of stimulating activities which you can practise the language with, so this point can also be worth spending time on with more of a range of ages and levels than you might think. 

Things you might want to cover in classes on frequency expressions include:

  • Adverbs of frequency (always, almost always, usually/ generally/ mostly, very often, often, sometimes, occasionally, rarely/ seldom, hardly ever, almost never, etc)

  • Frequency expressions including numbers (once/ twice/ three times/ four times + a day/ week/ month/ year/ decade, every + two months etc)

  • Other frequency expressions (every day/ week/ month, all the time, in general, at times, etc)

  • (Near) synonyms among all those expressions

  • Differences between those expressions, including differences when ranking expressions by frequency and other changes in meaning

  • Word order (including contrasting the word order of “He often goes to bed after midnight” with that of “He is often awake after midnight” and comparing “He always eats rice” with “He eats rice every day/ once a day”)

  • Other connected grammatical points, e.g. that it is “Once every two weeks” rather than “Once a two weeks”

  • Questions to get those answers (“How often do you…?”, “How many times a day/ week/ month do you…?”, “Do you ever…?”, “Do you often…?”, etc)

Dealing with typical student problems with frequency expressions

Problems with the meanings of frequency expressions

The most obvious and important issue that students might have is knowing, the exact meanings of frequency expressions, for example that “usually” is (basically) the same as “generally”, more often than “often”, but less often than “almost always”. Misunderstandings and gaps in their knowledge are often because typical translations of English frequency expressions don’t actually have the same meaning as the English words, usually meaning that the words in their language cover a wider range of frequencies than the English word and/ or that the transitions to the next words in the ranking are at different places to where they would be in English. I tend to avoid all translation with this language point, not even confirming students’ attempts to do so themselves. As well as simply putting expressions into order by frequency, it can be useful to put numbers on some of the expressions, such as around 70-80% for “usually”, between 90% and 99% for “almost always”, and anywhere between about 30% and 60% for “sometimes”. Attempts to match the expressions to numbers of days in a week, month etc tend to be less successful. 

Expressions which my students have particular difficulty ranking include comparing “hardly ever” to “rarely” and “occasionally”. They can be ranked by thinking about how negative the expressions are, with “hardly ever” being close to “never” and therefore the most negative.

Students can also get mixed up between frequency expressions and similar looking expressions which have different meanings, especially “hardly”/ “hardly ever”, “almost”/ “almost never”, and “sometimes”/ “sometime”. “Hardly” can actually be used as a shorter form of “hardly ever” in sentences like “I hardly (ever) see him anymore”, but as it has another meaning in sentences like “I can hardly see it” I tend to insist on the longer form when we are covering frequency expressions. In contrast, misuse of “almost” often leads to quite amusing mistakes such as “I almost go to the swimming pool on Sundays”, which would mean nearly getting there every Sunday but turning back each time! “Sometime” has the totally unconnected meaning of “at some time in the future”, and so the “s” in “sometimes” is well worth insisting on during error correction and controlled practice.

The other major mix-up between forms is usually just a simple mistake, and one that can cause actual confusion. Students who say “Catchy tunes get stuck in my head every time” almost always mean “Catchy tunes get stuck in my head all the time”, with the former phrase likely to prompt a confused face and the question “Every time you do what??” In a similar way, if students ask “How many times do you…?” there is the obvious follow-up question “Do you mean how many times a month, a week or a day?” and they probably actually meant to say “How often do you…?”

The other most common student problems are even more simply just errors, namely sentences like “Once a two weeks” and “Once per a week” when they mean “Once every two weeks” and “Once a week” (or possibly “Once per week”). The explanation is that “a” means the same as “per” and so they can’t go together, and “a” means “one” so obviously can’t go with numbers and plurals in expressions such as “Twice a three months”.

Students can also overuse “per”, which sounds quite technical or scientific and is much less common than “a” in normal speech. 

Presenting frequency expressions

It is very rare for students to know no frequency expressions at all. They also often know related forms that can help them guess the meaning of expressions like “sometimes” (from its similarity to “some”) and “almost never” (because it is obviously near to never). It is usually fairly easy to combine expressions like these that students know or can guess the meaning of with the totally new ones which you want to present. This should be done in a way which makes the meaning of the latter ones clear in sentences like “I love garlic. I can never eat it on workdays, but I always eat it at the weekend” and “I almost never buy flowers but luckily my boyfriend often buys them for me”. The best activity to make understanding of the frequency expressions clear is probably to get students to rank them, using those examples in context to help them with that ranking task.

The other easy way of presenting the language is to give students a list of frequency expressions already in order that they should use during one of the activities below. When they have finished speaking, get them to try and remember something about the language they have just used with an activity such as ranking them by level of frequency or correcting mistakes with use of the expressions.

Classroom practice activities for frequency expressions

Getting frequency expressions games

As the most important thing for students to understand is the differences in frequency between the expressions, most of my favourite practice activities for this point involve students making fine distinctions between them. The activities which perhaps most make students think carefully about the meanings of the expressions are ones in which they try to get particular responses from each other. The easiest way of organising this is for students to get one point for each answer that they get from someone which no one has said so far in the game, e.g. one point if their question “How often do you pick your nose?” is “Very rarely” and no one has said that before.

Perhaps an easier game to explain is for students to deal out a pack of cards with expressions like “Once a month”, “Every morning” and “Sometimes” on each one, then ask each other questions to get the answers on the cards in their hand. Students can discard cards when someone says something written on those cards in response to their question, and the person with the fewest cards left at the end of the game is the winner.

A more intense and perhaps more fun variation is to draw a ladder with frequency expressions on it, e.g. one going in seven steps from “never” at the bottom to “very often” at the top. To finish the game, students must get the responses on the ladder from bottom to top in the order given, without getting any other answers in between. If they get any other responses, e.g. “I hardly ever eat pasta” when the next step up on the ladder is “often”, they slip back down to the very bottom of the ladder and must start climbing again from there. To make the game easier, students are allowed to use exactly the same questions when they try to climb the ladder again, and you can also let them stay where they are rather than slipping down if they get the response of the place where they presently are (and so aren’t too far off the mark). This game can be played as a whole class with a ladder on the whiteboard, perhaps starting by students asking the questions to the teacher and using a magnet or piece of blutack to show how far up the ladder they are. They can also play the same game in groups, with photocopied ladders or ones that they make themselves, with erasers etc to help them remember how far up the ladder they are.

All three games above can also be played with the person speaking making statements which they think are true rather than asking questions.

Frequency expression guessing games

There are many ways of using the idea of guessing games to practise frequency expressions, all of which can be split into two groups – guessing the frequency expression or guessing something else from the frequency expressions. 

Hints to guess the frequency expressions from can be gapped sentences or ones with “this often” in such as “I ____________ sit on my own at lunch” or “I clean my sink this often”. Students can also ask each other “How often do I…?” questions. They can also perhaps say “Warmer” and “Cooler” or “More often” and “Less often” until their partner guesses the right answer.

Guessing something else from frequency expressions can be further split into games where students guess actions, things or people. These three variations can be done with hints like “I often do this in the morning but I sometimes do it at night” for “take a shower”, “It is often in people’s bags but sometimes in their pockets” for “key” and “This person gets up early every day and usually has to walk a lot” for “postman/ postal worker”. The game can be adapted to cover topics like family members, names of jobs, particular kinds of objects such as office technology, or names of countries and nationalities, maybe with a worksheet with a list of useful vocabulary. Perhaps linking to the last of those, frequency guessing games can also be a good way of talking about cultural differences.

Another way of using worksheets to set up a frequency expressions guessing game is to give them a list of gapped sentences such as “I ______________________ every morning” and “I almost always __________________ with my friends”. Perhaps after giving them time to fill in at least half of the sentence stems with true information, they read out just the part that would go in one of the gaps (e.g. “play pranks on my little sister”) for the other students to guess the whole sentence from. 

Frequency expressions bluffing games

Another way of using sentence stems on a worksheet is for students to fill them in with a mix of true and made up information. They then read out any one of the completed sentences, e.g. “I often cry in movies”. Perhaps after asking for more information with questions like “Why do you cry?” and “What do your friends think?”, the other people guess if that statement is true or false.

There are many other ways of setting up lying games for this language point. Perhaps the simplest is for students to write true sentences on different slips of paper which are then dealt out. A student chooses one of the pieces of paper in their hand and reads it out, then the people listening guess if it is true for the person who just said it (in the way it was for the person who wrote it), perhaps after asking follow up questions.

You can also play with a pack of cards, in a way which is more similar to the original card game called “Bluff”. Students make true or false personal sentences with the frequency expressions and verb or object cards that they have in their hand or which are spread across the table, and again the others guess if their statement is true or not after asking for more details.

Frequency expressions finding things in common and differences games

Perhaps the simplest personalised game with students finding similarities and differences is also a bluffing game. One student makes a statement with a frequency expression such as “I very rarely eat cheese”, perhaps based on words on a worksheet or pack of cards. Their partner then says that they have that thing in common with a sentence like “I very rarely eat cheese too”, even if that isn’t true. As with the other games, follow up questions are then allowed before they guess if that statement of things in common was reality or imagination.

A nicer version for bonding as a class is for students to work together to find things that they do actually have in common, preferably one thing for each of the frequency expressions that you are practising, e.g. “We both mostly eat rice for dinner” and “We both hardly ever do our homework more than one day before the deadline”. To find things in common they can ask each other questions and/ or make statements for their partner to react to with phrases like “Me too”.

The opposite of that game is asking students to find things that are different for each of them. Again, you could perhaps ask them to use all of the frequency expressions that you are covering, this time with sentences like “I always lock the door when I leave home, but he occasionally leaves it unlocked when he is just going to the local shops”.

Finding differences can be made of a fun competition by asking students to find things that they do more often than their partner.

Other frequency expression classroom activities

There are four very useful speaking activities that don’t fit into the categories above. The most similar to those above is students challenging each other with one of the frequency expressions that you are studying such as “once every two weeks” or “very often”. Their partners then try to make as many true sentences about that person as they can with that expression, stopping whenever they say something which isn’t true. You can also play a more challenging version where they have to stop before they make a mistake, as they lose all the points from that round if they say something untrue.

A more serious activity is for students to use the frequency expressions to describe things like people in their country, the right level of frequency of things such as language learning techniques and green activities, and groups of people such as politicians and journalists. The easiest way of organising this is to give them statements which probably don’t have the right level of frequency like “People in my country always take their shoes off inside” and “Journalists always write the truth”. Students work together to make a more realistic statement that they can both agree on. You can also give them gapped sentences such as “Teachers can/ should ______________ shout at children” or “Politicians often ________________________”. Giving opinions can also be turned into a card game, with students being able to discard their frequency expression and/ or topic cards if their partners agree with the statements they make on those topics and/ or using those words.

A much more trivial use of frequency expressions is in answers to magazine personality questionnaires with titles like “How creative are you?” and “How good a husband/ wife are you?” Students can make up the questions to test one or more thing like that, then decide on the number of points for each answer, and what each total number of points mean (e.g. “0-10 points – you should stay single!”) After answering the questions, adding up their totals and reading or hearing the conclusions, students should comment on how accurate those conclusions are and maybe which questions don’t really match the main purpose of the questionnaire.

The final activity is a very time sensitive one, namely getting students to write list of New Year’s resolutions with adverbs of frequency expressions. This should probably include or entirely be about their language learning in the next twelve months, making for resolutions like “I will look at my vocabulary list twice a day” and “I will read one graded reader every month”. Students can then read what other students have written, borrowing ideas that they like the sound of, commenting on bad or unrealistic ideas, and/ or voting on the most realistic but also ambitious list in the class or their group.

Copyright © 2015

Written by Alex Case for

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