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ESL Teaching Ideas
for Past Continuous Verbs

How to Teach Conjugation,
Forms, and Functions

The best ESL teaching ideas for Past Continuous verbs (also called Past Progressive verbs) must include three essential components. These are:

(1) Conjugation,

(2) Form, and

(3) Function.

The Past Continuous tense is appropriate for teaching beginning ESL students. Intermediate learners may also benefit from a review of the Past Continuous; and I find that my advanced ESL students also often need a refresher on the functions of this tense.

First Step in Teaching the Past Continuous Verb Tense

Teaching ideas for Past Continuous verbs must include a review of the irregular verb "to be" in the Past Tense.

Before a grammar lesson focusing on Past Continuous verbs, ESL teachers should ensure that students remember how to conjugate the irregular verb "to be" in the past tense. The verb "to be" is the essential helping verb (or auxiliary verb) used to form this tense.

The conjugation of the irregular verb "to be" in the past is as follows:

    I was. You were. She/He/It was. They were. We were.

Forming the Past Continuous/Past Progressive

The Past Continuous is formed by combining the past tense of the helping verb "to be" (was or were) with the "-ing" (or the Present Participle) form of the main verb.

Construction looks like this:

    subject + was/were + -ing

For example, "She was eating breakfast" ("eat" is the main verb and "was" is the helping verb).

The Present Participle of the main verb will always be the same, no matter who or what the subject is. It's the helping verb in Past Progressive conjugation that will change according to the subject. The helping verb will be either "was" or "were" depending on the subject.



Past Continuous Verb Conjugation (using miscellaneous common verbs, for example)

Here are some examples of conjugated Past Continuous verbs.

  1. I was talking. I was walking. I was dancing. I was thinking.

  2. You were talking. You were walking. You were dancing. You were thinking.

  3. She/He/It was talking. She/He/It was walking. She/He/It was dancing. She/He/It was thinking.

  4. They were talking. They were walking. They were dancing. They were thinking.

  5. We were talking. We were walking. We were dancing. We were thinking.

Past Continuous Verb Forms (five forms the ESL student must learn)

  1. Affirmative Usage (I was reading. You were reading. She/He/It was reading. They were reading. We are reading.)

  2. Negative Usage (I wasn't reading. You weren't reading. She/He/It wasn't reading. They weren't reading. We weren't reading.)

  3. Yes/No Questions (Was I reading? Were you reading? Was she/he/it reading? Were they reading? Were we reading?)

  4. Short Answers (Yes, I was. No, I wasn't. Yes, you were. No, you weren't. Yes, she/he/it was. No, she/he/it wasn't. Yes, they were. No, they weren't. Yes, we were. No, we weren't.)

  5. WH- Questions (e.g., When was I reading? Where were you reading? Why was he reading? How were they reading? What were we reading?)

Functions of Past Continuous Tense (when to use the Past Continuous)

The Past Continuous/Past Progressive verb tense has two functions.

Function #1: To express an activity that was in progress at a particular time in the past or when another action happened that interrupted the first activity (the activity that was already in progress).

Teaching ideas for past continuous Function #1 should include giving examples of this function. Here are some examples.

    Example 1: "Last night at eleven o'clock, the teacher was still preparing his Past Continuous lesson plan." In this example, the teacher started preparing his ESL lesson before eleven o'clock and was still preparing it at eleven o'clock.

    Example 2: "Mary was reading her favorite book when the phone rang." In this example, Mary was reading her favorite book and then the phone rang and interrupted her reading activity. She may or may not have continued reading after the phone rang. We don't know from this sentence.

Function #2: To talk about two activities that were in progress simultaneously in the past.

Of course, teaching ideas for past continuous Function #2 must also include some examples.

    Example 1: "Jane was cooking dinner while her roommate was setting the table." Both activities were occurring simultaneously.

    Example 2: "The baby was crying when we were trying to sleep." Both activities were occurring simultaneously.

You may notice that "when" is useful for both functions of the Past Progressive. "While" is commonly used for the second function of this verb tense.

Article Related to Teaching Ideas for Past Continuous Verbs

See ESL Verb Tenses for more information about teaching Past Continuous verbs as well as a thorough discussion on teaching all verb tenses to adults learning ESL or EFL.

Additional Resource

Azar's, Understanding and Using English Grammar, is an excellent textbook for teaching ideas for Past Continuous and all other verb tenses. I use it regularly with my students. It has exercises and excellent explanations. This resource is best for intermediate and advanced ESL/EFL learners.


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