By the time you read this article, I will have been writing for this newsletter for four months. The topic of verb tenses had been bothering me for several years, and when subjects for this issue were being discussed, I could not have been happier to take it on.

Unless you imagine your students will ever want or need to write a paragraph like that one, there is no good reason to teach them to master every possible verb tense in English. In fact, for the purposes of academic writing, three tenses—present simple, past simple, and present perfect—are sufficient. The corpus evidence is clear: these three tenses (in active and passive voice) account for around 98% of tensed verbs in published texts. For speaking, add in the important present progressive and the rather less common past progressive, and your students are ready to communicate. While there are contexts where past perfect progressives and future perfects are used and useful, we have to be practical, and most students have greater grammatical needs than a tense which might occur once in 1,000 clauses. Look how much time you just freed up to teach relative clauses, logical connectors, and articles!

What our students really need, however, is a lot of practice in knowing when and how to use the fundamental tenses, especially the tricky present perfect.  Another area which deserves more attention is the choice of verbs because vocabulary should not be divorced from grammar. For example, verbs that have the core meaning of change (become, develop, increase, decrease) are often used in the present perfect, a tense which can have the meaning of change over time. The handout contains exercises to practice this skill.

There is sometimes reluctance to spend less time teaching the infrequent verb forms, perhaps because teachers feel that they are withholding parts of the grammatical system. One response would be to teach the remaining tenses for comprehension only without expecting students to produce the other tenses. Some will learn and use them correctly, but the rest of your class will not suffer as a result. Sorry, I mean, they will not have suffered. Your comments and responses are always welcome!

Click here to download the practice exercise.