Simple Past Vs. Past Progressive

A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS…

Students are introduced to the simple past tense early on in their English learning. It is commonly used and relatively easy to learn (aside from having to memorize irregular verb forms). However, the past progressive (also known as the past continuous) can be confusing since it’s not as commonly used in English. I use the method outlined below to introduce the past progressive and compare the two tenses. Once I explain the purpose of the past progressive to my students, show them a diagram like the one on the left, and give them a few hints (see the “time marker” and “trick” sections below), they seem to grasp it and retain it a lot more easily.

SIMPLE PAST

1. FORM: BASE V + -ED (AND VARIOUS IRREGULAR VERB FORMS)

The ending -ed is added to the base form of the verb. The good news is that there are no differences in endings like there are with other verbs tenses (except for the BE verb: we use was for the first and third person singular—I, he, she, it, singular count nouns, non-count nouns—and were for the second person singular—you—and the first, second, and third person plural—we, plural you, they, plural count nouns). Unfortunately, there are a lot of exceptions to forming the plural with -ed—these verbs are called irregular verbs. There are a lot of irregular verb lists you can google on the Internet for easy reference. See the Fun Activities section below for ideas on how students can practice irregular verbs.

2. USE

The simple past is used for a completed past action. It’s important to point out to students that with the simple past, we know when the action took place because of the time marker in the sentence.

3. TIME MARKERS:

  • yesterday
  • the day before yesterday
  • last (last week/month/year/etc.)
  • ago (two days ago, three weeks ago, etc.)
  • when + another past clause

4. EXAMPLES:

  • My mother went grocery shopping yesterday.
  • We played basketball after school last Thursday.
  • ate a lot when I was a child.

PAST PROGRESSIVE — MAIN USE

1. FORM: WAS/WERE + -ING V

The past progressive is formed by taking the past BE verb and an action verb + -ING. Remind students that we use was for the first and third person singular (I, he, she, it, singular count nouns, non-count nouns) and were for the second person singular (you) and the first, second, and third person plural (we, plural you, they, plural count nouns).

2. USE:

The main function of the past progressive is to show a continuing (long) action getting interrupted by a short past action. Using the words long and short helps students understand this use.

3. TIME MARKER:

The time marker when is common for this case.

4. EXAMPLES:

  • was studying when my friend called me.
  • We were playing soccer when it started to rain.
  • They were singing in the auditorium when the alarm rang.

*Note: Don’t forget to remind students that you can start the sentence with either the independent clause OR the dependent clause with no difference in meaning. Also remind students that a comma must be used when a dependent clause begins a sentence.

  • She was reading when the doorbell rang. (independent clause starts the sentence)
  • When the doorbell rang, she was reading. (dependent clause starts the sentence, comma is used, no difference in meaning between the first and second example)

5. TRICK:

Have students memorize common “short” action verbs so they’ll easily recognize when the past progressive is needed. Short action verbs include: started, began, called, arrived, rang, came, landed, hit, and went out (as in the power went out or the lights went out).

PAST PROGRESSIVE — SECONDARY USE

1. FORM: WAS/WERE + -ING V

(See notes under Main Use — Form.)

2. USE:

A less common function of the past progressive is to emphasize that an action continued for a long time. It is less common because the simple past is an acceptable, more common substitute.

3. TIME MARKER:

The time marker while is common for this case.

4. EXAMPLES:

  • The children were watching TV while their parents were talking. (correct)
  • The children watched TV while their parents talked. (also correct)
  • He was doing his homework while she was playing a video game. (correct)
  • He did his homework while she played a video game. (also correct)

*Note: Don’t forget to remind students that you can start the sentence with either the independent clause OR the dependent clause with no difference in meaning. Also remind students that a comma must be used when a dependent clause begins a sentence.

  • She was playing the guitar while he was playing the drums. (independent clause starts the sentence)
  • While he was playing the drums, she was playing the guitar. (dependent clause starts the sentence, comma is used, no difference in meaning between the first and second example)

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