Teaching the Past Simple: Regular and Irregular Verbs
 
 

Some languages approach the concept of speaking about the past in a very different way than English, and teachers must keep this in mind. You can't take for granted that the difference in verb tenses will be obvious or clear.

This article will review the subject of regular and irregular verbs, discuss how to teach them in the past simple tense, go over some tips on how to teach pronunciation of verbs in the past simple tense, and explore a lesson plan for an introductory class on the past simple that includes both regular and irregular verbs.

Irregular verbs, the good news and the bad news

In teaching the past tenses, regular verbs versus irregular verbs is a big issue.

Irregular verbs can be a big challenge for students because there really is little rhyme or reason to their forms. They simply must be memorized

I often present this to my students as a "good news, bad news" scenario.

After introducing (and probably a classroom lesson on) regular verbs, I introduce the subject of irregular verbs. I showing the students how they can change in the past tense, how and why they must be memorized, etc.

Then I say something like this: "I have good news and bad news. Ninety-five percent of English verbs are regular. That's the good news. So 95% of verbs follow the simple rule of adding "-ed" in the past simple tense.

Then I continue with "Now the bad news: Irregular verbs are all the common activities of the day. Eat, drink, think, speak, go, come, sit, stand, write, read. All irregular! So you must learn them."

Teaching regular and irregular verbs together

It is possible to introduce the past simple, and to do a lesson on it, while avoiding the issue of irregular verbs until a later class.

Everyday verbs such as to work, to talk and to walk are regular verbs, so a class can be conducted using just those verbs before introducing the devilish problems of irregular verbs.

The lesson plan on the past simple below is an introduction to irregular verbs that reviews regular verbs at the same time.

The issue of pronunciation and some tips

Pronunciation is another aspect of teaching the past simple.

Many students have difficulties with the -ed endings. They will pronounce "walked" as two syllables, like "wall-ked." They will be confused, because "wanted" is indeed pronounced as two syllables, "wan-ted", but "walked" is not.

Besides clearly demonstrating the sounds by example, it helps many students to see a chart like this:

[t] [d] [id]

washed called wanted

watched carried decided

laughed combined invested

asked worried ended

worked received

discussed

You can use the "squashing" technique when you present the first two columns to help you students understand that we learned in Lesson 3. (In Lesson 3 we used it for contractions, but the same technique can be used here.)

If your students are up for an explanation, when presenting the rule about when "-ed" is an extra syllable or not, you can try to tell them what the rule is bases on: It is based on what is easier or possible to pronounce versus what is not.

For example, it is possible to put the sound at the end of "wash" together with the "t" sound of "-ed" and so make it one syllable: "washed." The same goes for "watched" and "laughed" and "called" and all the words in the first two columns.

But it is not possible to combine together the end of "want" with a "t" sound because they are the same, so we say "wanted." The same goes all the words like those in the third column, like "end" and "ended."

So this is a rule of thumb for why some verbs add a syllable with the addition of "-ed" and some don't.

However, we do combine some difficult sounds together when it comes to words like "worked," "talked" and "walked." Many students have a hard time with this, and try to make these words two syllables when they say them, like "wor-ked."

Many students find the pronunciation of the ends of these words difficult at first. Here's a tip for overcoming this pronunciation problem.

A special tip for pronunciation of words like "walked"

Most students at this point will be familiar with the word "fact." You can show your students that the ending sound of the walked, talked and worked is the same as the ending sound in fact.

When you are first presenting the past simple or when you encounter students having this problem, go to the board and write "fact" followed by the problematic words. You can also write some homemade phonetic spelling after it, like [FAKT]. Like this:


fact [FAKT]

walked

talked

worked


Use the modeling and repetition technique to get the students to follow your pronunciation of the words. Then go back to the board, underline the key sounds, possibly including more phonetic help, like this:

fact [FAKT]

walked [WAWKT]

talked [TAWKT]

wor-ked [WERKT]

 

Get the students to repeat the pronunciation again. Then go back to the board and write:

In fact, I walked and talked and worked.

Do the modeling and repetition again with this sentence. By this point the students will be becoming comfortable with the correct pronunciation.

Lesson Plan

This lesson plan is designed to come after a class on the past simple with to be, so students will already know to be in the past simple.


Classroom objectives:

-Learn the usage of the past simple for regular and irregular verbs

-Be able to use the past simple when talking about activities

-Vocabulary: to watch, to work, to eat, to like, to go, to do, to want, (some) relaxation

Teach the vocabulary with the techniques we have covered.

Then start out by presenting regular verbs. 

Students will already be familiar with the past tense from their lesson on "to be" in the past tense, so you can follow it up like this on the board:

 

TO BE Yesterday, I was at home.

TO WATCH I watched television.

TO WORK I worked on my homework.

TO LIKE I liked the movie.

 

Read each line out loud, saying "yesterday" each time:

"Yesterday I was at home. Yesterday I watched television, yesterday I worked on my homework." 

Have the student repeat out loud after you.

Write the regular verbs from the vocabulary, and some extra verbs, like this:

 

REGULAR VERBS -ED

infinitive past

 

to work worked

to like liked

to watch watch

to work worked

to want wanted

 

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online class in Teaching Grammar to ESL Students?

Point out the "regular" and the -ed Then go over all the forms: 

Did I work? I worked I did not work = I didn't work.

Did you watch? I watched I did not watch = I didn't watch

Did she like it? She liked it She did not like it = She didn't like it

Did he like it? He liked it He did not like it = He didn't like it

Did we work? We worked We did not work = We didn't work

Did they work? They worked They did not work = They didn't work

When you present them out loud, you can read the question and then include a "yes" before "I worked" so you say "yes, I worked" and then "No, I didn't work." 

Then go through the issue of pronunciation with the techniques described above in sections on pronunciation. 

Then present the irregular verbs. You can write these below the regular verbs on the board so it looks like this:

TO BE Yesterday, I was at home.

TO WATCH I watched television.

TO WORK I worked on my homework.

TO LIKE I liked the movie.

TO WANT I wanted a drink.

 

TO GO Yesterday, I went at home.

TO DO I did my homework.

TO EAT I ate a pizza.

 

You can continue the board presentation by adding on to the section on regular verbs like this:

REGULAR VERBS -ED

infinitive past

 

to work worked

to like liked

to watch watch

to work worked

to want wanted

 

IRREGULAR VERBS

infinitive past

to go went

to do did

to eat ate 

Now would be the time to explain the concept of irregular verbs with the techniques described at the beginning of this lesson.

Practice

These exercises have the students practice both regular and irregular verbs in questions, answers and negative answers in the past tense. Exercises with all these forms give students a good grounding, no matter what tense is being taught.

Give the students a handout with this dialogue.

Practice 1

 

Peter: Hello, Margaret! What did you do last night? Did you go to a movie?

Margaret: No, I didn't go to a movie. I worked all day and then I went home. I ate a pizza and watched television. What did you do?

Peter: I ate in a restaurant, and then I went to the cinema.

Margaret: How was it?

Peter: I really liked it. It was a horror movie.

Margaret: I don't like horror movies. I wanted some relaxation so I watched a romantic comedy last night.

Peter: Did you like it?

Margaret: It was stupid but I liked it. Did you do your homework?

Peter: No, I didn't do my homework.

Read the dialogue out loud with your students. Then tell them to underline all the past tense in the text. Do the first one with them, so they understand to include questions in the past tense. Give them a few minutes and go through the class to help them.

Peter: Hello, Margaret! What did you do last night? Did you go to a movie?

Margaret: No, I didn't go to a movie. I worked all day and then I went home. I ate a pizza and watched television. What did you do?

Peter: I ate in a restaurant, and then I went to the cinema.

Margaret: How was it?

Peter: I really liked it. It was a horror movie.

Margaret: I don't like horror movies. I wanted some relaxation so I watched a romantic comedy last night.

Peter: Did you like it?

Margaret: It was stupid but I liked it. Did you do your homework?

Peter: No, I didn't do my homework.

 

Practice 2

 

Fill in the blanks with the verb in the past tense.

 

Example:

I ________________ a pizza. (to not eat)
I didn't eat a pizza.

 

1.    I ______________ yesterday. (to work)

2.    He ______________ (to not work) last week.

3.    You _____________ T.V. (to watch)

4.    They ______________ a pizza (to not eat)

5.    They ____________ to the cinema this morning. (to go)

6.    I ______________ to a friend's house. (to not go)

7.    We ______________ the movie (to like)

8.    I ______________ like the TV show. (to not like)

9.    She ______________ a pizza. (to want)

10. He ______________ a pizza (to eat)

11. She ______________ TV (to not watch)

12. They ______________ a pizza. (to not want)

13. I ______________ the TV show. (to like)

14. She ______________ homework. (to do)

15. They ______________ homework. (to not do)

 

 

Practice 3

 

Make questions in the past simple.

Example:

(you/eat) ______________ a pizza?

(you/eat Did you eat a pizza?

 

1.    (they/watch) ______________ a movie?

2.    (she/go) ______________ to a restaurant?

3.    (you/work) ______________ yesterday?

4.    (you/do) ______________ homework?

5.    (we /like) ______________ the movie?

6.    (he/go) ______________ to the park yesterday?

7.    (you/want) ______________ pizza?

8.    (she/do) ______________ homework?

Production

 

Part 1

 

Put the students in pairs and give them lists like this, different for each student in the pair:

 

Monday - go to movies

Tuesday - eat pizza

Wednesday - watch TV

Thursday - work all day and night

Friday - go to a restaurant

Saturday - want some relaxation + do nothing

Sunday - do homework

 

Have the student ask both "What did you do on Monday" and follow it up with "Did you like it? Write these on the board to remind the students, and model it so they do this exercise by themselves in their pairs.

 

Part 2

 

Have the students ask real questions to each other about every day of the last week, as well as the "Did you like it?" question. For example:

 

Where did you go on Monday? (and Tuesday etc.) Did you like it?

Did you watch TV last week? What did you watch? Did you like it?

What did you eat yesterday? Did you like it?

What did you do Saturday? Did you like it?

 

Further activities

 

This lesson plan present only a few verbs. Students could be sent home with a list like this to use in homework exercises. Notice the list contains past participle.

 

As we mentioned, irregular verbs must be memorized, and it's best for students when they memorize all three forms together. This prepares them for later classroom lessons in the perfect tenses.

 

Students could be assigned to make questions and answers in the past tense.

 

IRREGULAR VERBS

infinitive past past particle

 

to come came come

to go went gone

to do did done

to eat ate eaten

to give gave given

to take took taken

to write wrote written

to read read [red] read [red]

to leave left left

to make made made

to fly flew flown

to know knew known

to get got got / gotten

to have had had

to meet met met

to say said said

to see saw seen

to send sent sent