How to Teach “Used To” in 6 Easy Steps


Eventually, every English learner needs to master speaking, reading, and writing about the past.  I’ve previously offered advice on  comparing the simple past with the past progressive, But what about the short, common past expression used to? I’ve often found that my students make mistakes with this expression, especially in negative statements and questions. So what’s the best way to teach them about used to?

1. Form: Used To + Base Verb

Used to is always followed by a base verb. Don’t forget to tell your students that used to follows the normal past verb rules: it becomes use to with the auxiliary verb did in questions and negative statements. See section 4 below for examples—make sure you give your students lots of examples with did so that they’ll remember the change!

2. Use

Used to is a unique expression in English. Its form and function are similar to a modal (i.e., it gives extra information about the verb and is followed by a base verb). Used to shows that an action was performed repeatedly in the past, but is no longer performed in the present. It is commonly used when talking about long periods in the past (e.g., childhood, school years, past job, etc.)

3. Examples

  • used to eat meat, but I don’t anymore.
  • They used to study English every day in high school.
  • Did you use to play video games when you were a child?
  • Did my sister use to sing when she was little? I forget.
  • didn’t use to play the piano as a child, but I took lessons later on.
  • My teacher didn’t use to give us any homework. Now we get homework every day!

4. Tricky Points

Don’t forget to point out to your students that used to + base verb is NOT the same as the past participle of the verb use followed by an infinitive verb! This can be confusing for students. Try giving them the following examples:

  • He used to work out every day. (Form: used to + base verb. Meaning: He worked out often in the past but doesn’t anymore.)
  • This machine is used to make student ID cards. (Form: use (present passive) + infinitive verb. Meaning: Making student ID cards is the machine’s function.)

When use indicates the function of something, it is almost always in the passive voice. Tell students that if they see the be verb before used, it is likely indicating function, not a past habit/routine.

And as previously mentioned, make sure you remind students that used to becomes use to when used with the auxiliary verb did. (See the examples above.)

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