ESL: Exercises for Past-Tense Verbs


Patty Middleton, an ESL teacher with the St. Paul public school district, has several different strategies for you to follow when it comes to ESL exercises regarding past-tense verbs. Being able to talk in the past tense is important because it offers you a wide variety of choices when you are talking and telling stories. Follow these suggestions to help your students succeed with past-tense verbs.

What I Did

  • Instruct your students to write several passages with past verbs. They should first write a short story in the past, called "What I Did." It should have a number of past-tense verbs, and they should be written in the correct I form. Then have the students rewrite the passages, but this time substitute "He" or "She" for "I." This will change the way that the verbs are used and will dictate a difference in the way that the stories themselves are written. Have them rewrite the story once again, and substitute "You," which will change some of the verbs that are used, and change how they are used. Students should then display their three "What I Did" paragraphs side by side and look at the differences in the verb usage when the subjects are changed.


  • Follow Middleton's suggestion that some verbs simply need to be charted in order to be understood by students. It is important to chart these verbs in a way that makes sense. Have students create charts of these irregular verbs on large pieces of poster paper. They can write them in different colors, such as "I Was" in one color, "You Were" in another color and "He Was" in a third color. As they create these charts, they will begin to understand the difference between the various verbs and how they are used when the subject has changed in the past tense.

    Instruct students to look at the charts that others have made so that they have an idea of the different irregular verbs and how they change with various subjects. Make sure students understand that not all of the verbs are the same, and they will not all act the same when they are in the past tense.


  • Middleton adds that the best way to learn past verbs is to simply speak in the past tense. A lot of these verbs will begin to sound right to a student's ears, and then they will know that they have got them down. Students should have conversations in which they are able to discuss various aspects of the past and use different subjects with those aspects.


  • Patty Middelton, ESL teacher and MFA in ESL from Hamline University in St Paul MN. online/email interview.
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