Forming Simple Past Tense Verbs

How to Teach the Past Tense
to ESL/EFL Learners

Forming Simple Past tense verbs is actually quite easy for regular English verbs. There is essentially only one rule to form a regular past tense verb (add "-ed" or just a "d" if the base form of the verb ends with an "e").

Irregular verbs are a bit trickier. There is no one general rule for irregulars and English language learners must simply memorize irregular verbs (e.g., bought, dealt, flew, ran, taught).

However, conjugating and forming Simple Past verbs is only the beginning of a Past Tense lesson.

As for all verb tenses, three things are essential to teach students learning English:

    (1) Conjugation,
    (2) Form, and
    (3) Function.

This page discusses each of these factors to help English teachers prepare lesson plans. 

Simple Past Conjugation

Conjugating Past tense verbs in the affirmative is pretty easy. There is only one conjugation of the verb no matter what the subject is.

Regular Simple Past tense verbs are conjugated by adding "-ed" to the end of the base form of the verb (e.g., walked, dressed, called, enjoyed, etc.). For verbs that already end with an "e," just add a "d" (e.g., cared, raced, decided, invited, etc.).

Here are examples of Simple Past conjugation of regular verbs:

  1. I talked. I walked. I danced. I cared.

  2. You talked. You walked. You danced. You cared.

  3. She/He/It talked. She/He/It walked. She/He/It danced. She/He/It cared.

  4. They talked. They walked. They danced. They cared.

  5. We talked. We walked. We danced. We cared.

Forming Simple Past Verbs (five forms of Simple Past tense verbs the ESL student must learn)

  1. Affirmative Usage (I talked. You talked. She/He/It talked. They talked. We talked)

  2. Negative Usage (I didn't talk. You didn't talk. She/He/It didn't talk. They didn't talk. We didn't talk.)

  3. Yes/No Questions (Did I talk? Did you talk? Did she/he/it talk? Did they talk? Did we talk?)

  4. Short Answers (Yes, I did. No, I didn't. Yes, you did. No, you didn't. Yes, she/he/it did. No, she/he/it didn't. Yes, they did. No, they didn't. Yes, we did. No, we didn't.)

  5. WH- Questions (e.g., When did she talk? Why did he talk? Where did they talk?)

The tricky thing for ESL students conjugating this tense is remembering to use the correct "helping" or "auxiliary" verb "to do" when conjugating Simple Past tense verbs in the negative and when forming questions ("yes/no questions" and "wh- questions").

Simple Past Function (when to use this tense)

The Simple Past verb tense has one primary function: to express an activity or situation that started in the past and ended in the past at a particular and specified time. Here are some examples:

    I finished the book last night.

    You didn't do all your homework last week.

    He traveled to Spain in 1985.

    We got up at seven this morning.

    She played soccer during college.

ESL Student Challenges

English language learners often have difficulty with the following things about the Past Tense:

  1. Remembering to use the correct helping verb ("to do") when forming Simple Past questions (e.g., Why did you eat all the cake?) and also the negative (e.g., I did not eat all the cake!)

  2. Knowing the correct conjugation of irregular verbs.

  3. Spelling rules for verbs that end with "y" (e.g., "study" becomes "studied") and some consonants (e.g., "drop" becomes "dropped").

  4. Confusing the function of the Simple Past with the "unspecified time" function of the Present Perfect (if the time is specified, use the Simple Past, if it is not, use the Present Perfect).

Additional Teaching Resource

For a more thorough explanation of forming Simple Past tense verbs, including irregular verbs and spelling issues, as well as exercises, I use Azar's, Understanding and Using English Grammar, but note that this ESL textbook is appropriate for higher intermediate and advanced ESL or EFL students (and their teachers!). I use it regularly.

See my ESL Textbook Evaluation page for useful books for lower levels.  

Related Articles

Irregular Verbs List - A comprehensive list of Irregular Verbs.

ESL Verb Tenses - A thorough discussion on teaching verbs to adults learning ESL or EFL.

From Forming Simple Past
to Teaching ESL to Adults Home

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