past simple for beginners ( a matter of common sense)

At which point in a Beginner or even Elementary course do you introduce and teach the past simple? Here’s a guide.

It has always bugged me that Beginner textbooks do not introduce the past simple until half way through the book. So it sadly transpires that students will not start using the past simple tense until a few months into their English course.

This is utter nonsense. Corpus data reveal to us that the use of present and past simple accounts for 80% of all verb use. Teaching by the textbook will not reflect this reality in the classroom setting, at least when it comes to teaching beginners.

After all, why should “I had a great time this weekend” be intrinsically more cognitively challenging than “I have one brother and a sister”? Or than “How are you”? or “Where are you from?” for that matter?

By skipping working with the past simple until the students are ready to move to it, weaving through the contents in a linear way, we are neglecting a lot opportunities for language practice and repetition. No conversations (and useful vocabulary and grammar) around things we did at the weekend, our last holiday, how life was when we were younger and the kinds of things we did and experienced, etc.

Enough ranting. This is my proposal to “teach” the past simple from week 2.

Ask the students to buy a pack of index cards. These cards usually come in a pack of a 100 at the cost of around a euro where I live in Spain. One hundred cards are more than enough for at least 100 common English verbs at the language level, both regular and irregular.

Tell the students to write a sentence on a side of a card using the past simple. They must make sure that there are no mistakes. You could suggest a sentence for them to write or they can copy an example from a learner’s dictionary or they can write their own sentence for you to check. A dotted line will be replacing the past simple form of the verb. For instance:

On the back they will be writing a translation into their L1 language.

They may highlight the verb forms, if they want. Here I highlighed “fui de compras”, as it will be useful to learn it as a chunk (“to go shopping” or “to go home” or “to go crazy”).

They may number the card and on a separate piece of paper write down a numbered list of the missing verb forms (“went” and “bought” under number one in this case). My experience is that this is not really needed. They will be able to recall the missing verbs without the list.

Now it’s time to study. They can have a look at the L1 side and try to say this in English. Then they turn over the card and check. The simple past forms will be missing but that’s the idea. The greater the effort, the greater memorability (assuming the challenge is feasible, of course). If they don’t know, they can refer to the numbered list, if they have it. Otherwise, they can look these forms up in a dictionary or in their textbook.

Or they can look at the side in English and try to recall the missing verbs. If they don’t know these forms or they are not sure what the missing verbs might be, they can always turn over the card to check.

These cards can be used for self-study but they are also an invaluable source of practice materials for the language classroom. Ask the students to bring some cards to class, set up groups and let them challenge each other. I can think of a few games to go with these cards but I may leave this for another blog post soon. At any rate, any teacher with a minimum of creative spark in them can think of a group game or two to engage their students in, I am sure.

Ok… here is one. Write this on the board:

  • …did you…?
  • … didn’t…

A student shows her card English side up. The other students will have to generate sentences with the prompts about the card, as in:

  • When did you go shopping?
  • What did you buy?
  • You didn’t buy a pair of jeans, you bought some shoes.

Zero preparation for the teacher, great teaching and learning outcomes, sheer common sense.

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