Blog ProWritingAid in the Classroom Classroom Grammar: the Trouble with Teaching Tenses

Classroom Grammar: the Trouble with Teaching Tenses

Helly Douglas

Helly Douglas

UK Writer and Teacher

Published Jan 30, 2020


Do you find your students unwittingly change tense whilst writing? English is a hard language to master and understanding grammar takes years of practice. Tenses in particular can cause trouble with writing.

Planning how you will deliver grammar lessons in a fun and effective way will prevent boredom setting in. Using techniques such as dual coding will help students remember complex rules. Perfecting your editing process will help your class spot and correct their own mistakes.

Let’s look at why learning tenses might be problematic and explore a few simple suggestions to help your students secure their understanding.

  1. What are Tenses?
  2. Common Errors with Tenses
  3. 5 Ways to Help Students with Tenses
  4. Conclusion

What are Tenses?

Are there 13 verb tenses in the English language, or is it 16? Experts argue about the total amount. That’s part of what makes teaching tenses so difficult.

English is riddled with words that don’t like fitting into simple rules. That can make teaching them a nightmare! Starting with the main nine tenses is a good place to begin.

First look at the time frame:

  • Past: It has already happened
  • Present: It is happening now
  • Future: It is going to happen

These three time frames can be subdivided into three further sections to tell us how to look at the event: simple, continuous, and perfect.


With so many to understand, it’s no wonder that children can struggle to maintain the same tense throughout a piece of writing.

If you want to get your knowledge of tenses up to scratch, check out this useful guide from Perfect English Grammar. It has everything you need, including a set of infographics that would make a great classroom display.

Common Errors with Tenses

There are two errors you will often see in your students’ writing: shifting tense and forming irregular verbs incorrectly.

Shifting Tense

Writing might start out in the past tense and then drift into present tense. This often happens during exciting bits of a story. The child gets so caught up in the action that they unwittingly move into present tense.

Incorrect Irregular Verbs

There are many irregular verbs that don’t fit the expected pattern of adding the suffix ‘-ed’ for simple past tense. This can make it challenging for children to know how to express a verb in the past. They will often use the present tense verb or incorrectly apply an ‘-ed’ ending.

Let’s look at an example. Say your students need to describe a past tense event where people swim to a boat.

  • Correct: They swam to the boat.
  • Incorrect (using present tense): They swim to the boat.
  • Incorrect (applying -ed ending): They swimmed to the boat.

5 Ways to Help Students with Tenses

Children learn a lot about tenses through everyday conversation. Most children will pick up tenses naturally and will soon learn irregular verbs when they hear them. Reading aloud to your class is an easy way to expose students to as many verb formations as possible.

But, what else can you do to help them secure tenses?


1: Direct Teaching of Tenses

Whilst daily drilling and listing of verb forms will soon have your students yawning, there is a place for discrete grammar lessons. Make learning fun by playing games, drawing pictures, and making cartoon strips – grammar doesn’t have to be dull!

Instead of teaching each tense separately, consider grouping them. For example, you could teach all the present tenses together. This will help children see the link between them. There’s a great blog post on Busy Teacher that explains this idea in more detail.

2: Make Tenses Meaningful

Make learning tenses as interesting as possible by putting them into context. Use everyday experiences and get your class talking about themselves as they learn.

Ask lots of questions to help your children identify the tense they are using. For example, “Is this happening now? Is this still happening or has it finished?”

3: Dual Coding

Dual coding is based on the idea that creating mental images helps learning. By presenting visual images alongside text or speech, students are more likely to remember what they have learnt.

Use dual coding to teach tenses by making an illustration to represent the past, present, and future. Something as simple as the play, rewind, and fast-forward symbols used on a remote control would work. Every time you change tense, point to the appropriate button.

Another easy visual would be a timeline to emphasize the difference between past, present, and future. Children could sort sentences or write their own and place them on the timeline to aid their memory.

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4: Correcting Errors

When a child speaks or writes and makes a mistake with the tense, remember to focus first on what they are trying to say. You don’t want to put them off responding for fear of making a grammatical error. Accept their answer and repeat their sentence back correctly. You will only need to mention their mistake if they continue to make it.

When marking work, look for common errors across the class to address in discrete grammar lessons. When you spot an individual mistake, talk to the student or set a simple task to help them correct it.

5: Editing Work

Your class will spot more mistakes when they read their work aloud. Adding in actions or role play will help them hear when they’ve accidentally changed tense.

Look at examples of writing that include errors. Use highlighters to underline the mistakes and ask your students to explain which words tell them the tense is wrong. They could also re-write pieces into a different tense and explain the difference.

ProWritingAid has a comprehensive grammar check that is invaluable for students typing writing tasks. Rather than just auto-correcting, this check will explain why the tense of the sentence is wrong and offer a solution.


English is not an easy language to learn and grammar is often heavily weighted in tests and exams. Get your students understanding tenses by having fun in grammar lessons and making the learning contextual.

For children learning English as an additional language, expect it to take longer. English can be a confusing language, especially at first. It is normal to see errors in written work even when students seem almost fluent in speech.

Children normally pick up grammar through everyday conversation. Reading aloud is an excellent way to help them learn irregular verbs and hear tense changes.

Before long, you’ll have your class keeping to a consistent tense in every piece of writing.

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Helly Douglas

Helly Douglas

UK Writer and Teacher

Helly Douglas is a UK writer and teacher, specialising in education, children, and parenting. She loves making the complex seem simple through blogs, articles, and curriculum content. You can check out her work at or connect on Twitter. When she’s not writing, you will find her in a classroom, being a mum or battling against the wilderness of her garden - the garden is winning!

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The way to teach perfect is to explain that the action is perfectly, completely finished. Even Perfect English Grammar doesn't get it. Otherwise the word perfect is simply gibberish to the student.
After reading your article, I suspect that your students are lucky to have you.
Does Pro Writing Aid show you when you change tense? I can't find it. Thank you.
Tough question to answer! ProWritingAid will point out when you are mis-using a tense in the grammar and style reports, but there is not a specific "tense" report. I hope this information is helpful! :)
MIXING PAST AND PRESENT TENSES The following paragraph has a mixture of past and present tense. I believe it to be grammatically wrong but, to my mind, it doesn't jar when I read it back and it gives the reader a sense of immediacy. My question is: Is it an absolute no-no or is there a degree of artist license here? Archie flicked on the chainsaw’s master switch and pumped the primer a few times. Resting the saw on the ground he gave the cord a good hard yank. It clacked through its gears but didn't catch. The second pull bit and snapped back stinging his fingers as it recoiled. “Son of a….” he yelped. The third pull sprung the chainsaw into life with a metallic shrill sending out a cloud of blue smoke that wafted across the laundry. Archie let it idle in a high-pitched grumble and then tested it with a few pumps of the throttle that sent the chain shinning around the blade. “Seems okay” he yelled over the noise before killing the master switch. “I guess the real test will be halfway through a tree.
Have you ever heard the saying "rules are made to be broken?" I find it an oversimplified cliche in all honesty, but it is kind of a crucial element of writing. As a writer, you've got to know the rules really really well so that when you feel strongly that your stylistic choice supersedes the grammatical rule at hand, you GO FOR IT. Barring total confusion, I say follow your stylistic impulse here... with caution. And remember - the choice is ultimately up to you!
I am wondering why prowritingaid ignores verb tense inconsistencies. Example of sentence with no errors found: At that time, she accepted Jesus in her heart and learned that Jesus loves her. The checker recognized that “At that time,” can be dropped. But the present verb loves, which is inconsistent with the past verb, learned, was ignored.
Thanks for the question! Our software does its best to highlight potential issues based on structure and common word use, but, at the end of the day, it is software. Occasionally it will get things wrong. If there is a clear mistake, then we can do our best to fix it, but if it's simply based on misunderstood context, then it's best to just hit ignore and move on. If you'd like to report a specific issue for us to review, please email us at and include an example (or multiple examples) of the issue. Thanks!
Thank you for sharing this informative article. I hope you share more info on the same topic. Grammer program for kids
We are glad you like it! We have lots of articles on the way so stay tuned!

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