Grammar: regular and irregular verbs
Practical suggestions for teaching regular and irregular verbs.
Teaching irregular and regular past tense verbs was, for a long time, one of my favourite activities. Unlike other parts of grammar it was cut and dried – the verb is either regular (add –ed) or not (change it, or not, in some other way). That being said, whenever I came to the list of irregular verbs with a class I always hoped that I would discover a secret or a shortcut to enable my students to learn the forms of irregular verbs without the arduous task of memorising them. I haven’t discovered it yet.
However, learning the form of irregular verbs is one of the few areas where, I feel, memorizing the 'list' actually works. I’ve lost count of the number of students I’ve met who can recall past tense verbs by saying them along with their infinitive forms. e.g. go-went-gone, see-saw-seen, buy-bought-bought, make-made-made etc. Here’s an example of what I mean:
Student: Yesterday, I go… the football game.
Teacher: You go yesterday?
Student: Ah, no... I (thinks, then mutters) go went gone… I went to the football game.
Nevertheless, I also know students who could recite the list of all the past tense irregular verbs off by heart and yet have great difficulty putting together a sentence like the one above, at least verbally. My advice would be that students need to have opportunities not only to memorize the form but also put it to meaningful use. Only then might they be able to fully ‘learn’ regular and irregular verbs.
Here are some activities that can help students with both form and use of irregular and regular verbs. These activities focus on the past simple, but they could be easily adapted to focus on the present perfect or the passive (if you wanted to focus on past participles).
Games (to memorize form)
There are several games that can easily be adapted to practise past tense verbs. Most of these are well known, so I will go through a few only briefly.
Ask students to make a 3x3 grid on a piece of paper. Tell them to look at their list of irregular verbs (most coursebooks have such a list at the back, otherwise find a list and copy it) and to complete their grid with nine infinitive verbs. When they have finished, start reading out past forms at random off the list. If the student hears the past form of a verb they have on their grid, they cross it out. The first to cross out all the verbs on the grid calls 'bingo' – and wins. Follow this up by asking students to work in pairs and to prepare a story using the verbs on their grid, in the past tense (see 'Stories' section below).
Tennis (or volleyball)
This activity involves students calling out verbs to each other, as if they were passing a ball over an invisible net. Here’s how it works:
- Student 1 says the infinitive of the verb. (e.g. run)
- Student 2 says the past form. (ran)
- Student 1 says the past participle. (ran)
If a student gets a word wrong (or pauses for more than 10 seconds), they lose. Students can do this in pairs, although with smaller classes I like to set up two facing chairs in front of the class and have students come up and play each other in front of the others. The student who wins stays (as the reigning champion) and another student comes forward to challenge.
Pelmanism (or Memory)
Prepare a set of cards with the infinitive on them (set A), and a set of cards with the past tense on them (set B). Put both sets face down on a table. Invite a student to pick up two cards. He/she must read the verbs aloud on the cards and decide if they match. If they match, he/she keeps them. If they don’t match he/she shows them to the others and puts them back down. Another student comes up and tries to get a matching pair in the same way. The above game is based on a small class (less than 12). You can do this with a large class by putting students into groups of four and asking each group to prepare their own cards. Again, a follow up using the verbs to create a story can be done.
Working with pronunciation
Give students a list of the irregular past tense verbs and ask them to group them according to the main vowel sound in each. If this seems too hard, you could give them verbs and find others that sound the same. For example, find the matching pairs of verbs in this list:
wrote could taught read ate drank
gave had woke went took bought
You could group the irregular verbs according to similar sounds and put them on a poster on the wall.
Regular verbs pronunciation
I once went to a workshop where the speaker told us that he had stopped insisting on the distinction between the /t/ and /d/ endings on past tense regular verbs (e.g. opened vs walked), preferring to focus on simply whether or not there was an extra syllable (like started, ended, visited).
It made a lot of sense to me, especially if we are looking for student production of these verbs in terms of international intelligibility. The important things are:
1. It is clear that the verb is in the past tense (so make sure that your students are pronouncing something at the end of the regular verb).
2. The extra syllable on verbs that end in a /t/ or /d/ is pronounced and that if it doesn’t then it isn’t pronounced.
Up until now, I’ve just focused on the form of the words, and their pronunciation. If you leave it at that then you may very well have students who can remember all the verbs but still not tell you what they did last weekend! So, we still need to put these verbs to use in a meaningful way. Here are a couple of activities:
Listen and recap
In this activity you give the students a list of irregular and regular verbs in their infinitive form (on a worksheet, or written on the board). You then tell a personal story, incorporating the past tense of the verbs. It’s best to prepare this ahead of time, bearing in mind what your students understand.
As the students listen, they must number the verbs they hear in order. When you finish, tell students to compare their order in pairs. They should then write the past form of all the verbs they heard. Check the answers with the whole class.
Now ask the students to try and retell the story together using the past tense verbs as cues. Finally, ask the students to tell a similar story based on their own experience.
Monday morning conversation
One way of getting a lot of past simple verbs out of the students is to simply start an informal chat with them at the beginning of the class. The simple 'What did you do last weekend?' on a Monday morning should throw up some past simple verbs. However, if your class is like some of mine, that question will often produce an uninspired 'Nothing'. To get around that, you can ask more leading questions about the weekend. For example:
1. Did anyone see … (name of film)? What did you think? Should I go?
2. Who went out this weekend? (wait for murmurs of yes, then ask) Where did you go? Did you go with friends?
3. I had a boring weekend. I stayed in. Did anyone else have a more interesting weekend?
4. I did something I HATE doing this weekend: I did (pause for dramatic effect) the ironing. Did anyone else have to do that this weekend? No? What housework did you do?
Allow students to answer, nominating different students from around the class. If students answer using the present tense you could simply reformulate their answers, while responding to what they actually say. For example:
Student: I make dinner for some friends.
Teacher: You made dinner? What did you make?
At the end of this, ask students to try and write three to four sentences summing up what they heard their colleagues say (incorporating correct past tense verbs).This kind of conversation with a follow-up is also perfect for classes after a holiday, or a special event.
One of the things that teachers often ask students to do with the past simple is to write a story. This is actually quite difficult for lower levels if there is no support given. There are different ways of giving support. These include:
- Pictures (I have a collection of postcards from museums that are great for story-writing, but even photos from magazines will do)
- A personal situation (e.g. tell a story about a strange coincidence, a time you were afraid, the last time you laughed)
- Leading questions (e.g. write about your last holiday. Here are some questions to help you (Where did you go? How was the weather? Did you enjoy it? …)
Finally, here is an interesting activity that I like to use with elementary students. Ask students to work in pairs and tell them they are going to jointly tell a story about a celebration (or whatever theme you choose).
Student A begins with a sentence they have to complete orally:
Last night we (go) to a... party.
Student B continues:
It (be) in a ….
And they continue like that, with the following sentences:
It (start) at…
There (be) … at the party.
And we (drink)…
Later in the evening we (meet)…
And then let them continue on their own, taking turns for each sentence (which they now invent).