Almost Every Sentence Has a Tense!!!


Madhu Neupane

Tribhuvan University


Even after spending 12 long years of my time in ELT, I am still puzzled why ‘tense’ always makes our students tensed. Even students in higher level encounter difficulty in distinguishing between simple past and past perfect not only in terms of structure but also in terms of their meanings and use. Despite our rigorous efforts, students keep on committing errors while using tense. Additionally, they seem to have developed an impression that grammar is merely for the sake of grammar and it has nothing do with the skills of language such as reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Ask students the rules for tense, most of them can easily mention since they have parroted the Nepalised mathematics like formula of each tense. Simple present tense is: Subject+V1/V5+Object and so on for others. Provide them with a sentence and ask them to transform it into twelve tenses, most of them can effortlessly do that.  Provide them with a sentence and ask to change the sentence as indicated in the bracket, they can still do that. Is there anything that they cannot do then with tense? Lots of things! Indeed!! They cannot appropriately use the tenses that they have learnt. They cannot solve the question if it asks them to put verbs in correct form in a given context. One of my students once asked me, “Ma’am, if we are asked to put verbs in correct form (that is tense), are we given the name of the tense that we need to use?” I said, “Usually not”. Then she said, “How can we know then which tense is to be used?” Then I said, “If you know tense, then you know which tense is to be used in which situation”. I do not know whether my answer satisfied the student or not but it did not convice me. This incident let me to think of the ways of making ‘tense’ less tense to my students.

My inference was that this situation might have arisen maybe because of the ways that we adopt to teach grammar. We teach grammar as separate book or separate subject, that is, in isolation from other language skills and ask questions in the same way which, in some cases, seem to be really meaningless in themselves. This frustrated me and I started a text based approach for teaching tense. I asked the students to bring “New Generation English” (one of the books prescribed for B. Ed. First Year) while I was teaching ‘tense’. Then I asked students to read a chapter “Once I Was Lost” at home and underline all the verbs there in the text, notice which tense has been used there, and find out the reasons behind it as far as possible. I asked them to refer to any English grammar book they had to study about tense. I asked them it did not matter if the book explained the rule in Nepali prescribed for any level irrespective of their level if the book has something to say about the tense. Next day students came by underlining the text and brought whatever grammar books were available to them. From this I found that some of them had difficulty even in recognizing verbs. I asked the students to find out the different forms of the verb they had underlined because my target was to make them understand the use of tense in real context and the use of tense is not possible without knowing the proper forms of the verbs for which they had to refer to different texts on grammar. It gave me a sense of satisfaction that the students did not feel that they were talking about tense in class; they were busy in doing things.

It gave them a sense of achievement as well. I asked them the reasons behind the use of any specific tense based on their self study. When they had finished, I started explaining why a particular tense was used in a particular context.  I wanted to make them feel that almost every sentence has a tense. With help of the chapter “Once I was Lost” I taught them simple past, past continuous, past perfect and past perfect continuous.

I selected the chapter “College Teachers” and “Drawing Natural World” to teach simple present tense. I went through the same procedure as mentioned and the students realized that the texts use simple present predominantly since they talk about things that are usually true (that is a sense of timelesslness) because what the writer talks in the text is arguably true. There are three types of teachers in schools and colleges at present, there were such teachers in the past and there will be such teacher in the days to come as well. The same thing is true with drawing natural world as well. The student’s facial expression, their desire to learn by taking their responsibility for their own learning during the process made me realize that text based approach to teaching grammar was more effective than teaching grammar in isolation.

Though the grammar book prescribed for B. Ed. first year is named “Exploring Grammar in Contexts”, it provides short contexts detached from English cultures thereby making the text difficult to interpret in many cases. Anyway it is better than the books which aim to teach grammar devoid of context. But I am in favor of larger context with the use of grammar points we want to develop in learners.

In this regard the textbooks of class nine and ten (I know them better because I taught them) seem to be better. Every grammatical item to be taught has been used there in context. It may be difficult to present each and every grammatical point in context. At the same time the coverage of the course might be low. But having observed the condition of students, I want to say that grammar should be made contextual. Maybe we can only choose certain grammatical points that we consider to be useful for our learners.

The advantage of the grammar books that we have prescribed in M.ED and B. Ed level is that we can introduce the learners with a lot of grammatical items even in the short span of time. This is, I think, a good technique for raising the consciousness of learners regarding grammatical points in question but these do not seem to develop language proficiency of the learners to the extent we assume. Presenting grammatical items without context makes the students suck grammatical items dry thereby reducing their real effect. Other alternative model might be presenting grammatical points with the help of text and making students use grammar books that we are using nowadays as reference books which they can consult if they have any problems with any grammatical points in the text.

In conclusion I want to say that if we are to teach grammar we need to modify the approach that we are practicing now. A point of departure might be text based approach to teaching grammar. The steps in a text based grammar lesson are presented below:

Steps in a Text Based Grammar Lesson






Students read (or listen to) the text that contains the target grammar. To check students’ understanding of the context that the target grammar comes from.
Students highlight the target grammar in the text. To focus students on the grammar that is to be clarified
Students check the meaning of the target grammar. To ensure students understand concepts    associated with the grammar (e.g. time       reference, intention etc.) and the way it is    used in native speaker language.
Students check the form of the target grammar. To ensure students understand the     component parts of the grammar and how it is put together.
The teacher highlights the pronunciation of the target grammar (if it is typically used for oral communication). To give very controlled oral practice of    phonological features of the grammar.
The teacher provides controlled to freer practice of the target grammar. To provide opportunities for the students  to use the new language in a variety of contexts.



1 thought on “Almost Every Sentence Has a Tense!!!

  1. Thanks for your precious points about teaching grammar on the basis of context.Only parrot learning is nothing. I like your article.

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