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How to Teach Past Simple Regular/Irregular Verbs

We're often told we should put the past behind us, not dwell in the past, etcHowever, ESL students must do just thatto
learn the simple past tense. As they learn that regular verbs simply need an ed suffix, they jump for joy. 'This is not so
hard!', they think. Then we hit them with the endless lists of irregular verbs to study, and their enthusiasm deflates like a
balloon before your very eyes. Dont add to the confusion.

Follow these steps to teach the past simple and keep your students right on track:
How To Proceed

1. 1
Introduce the Past Simple of regular verbs
Give an example in Present Simple: I talk to my sister everyday. Lead in to past simple: Yesterday, I talked to her.
Write this on the board. Give more examples with regular verbs and write each verb in its past form on the board.
T: I visited her. We watched TV. She cooked lunch. We listened to music.
Make sure students understand that the past form is the same for all persons. Give as many examples with regular
verbs as needed.

2. 2
Practice Past Simple of regular verbs
Go around the class and make statements in present simple, which students must change to past simple:
T: I sometimes walk in the park.
S: You walked in the park yesterday.
Nows a good time to practice the different pronunciations of the ed past form. Trythis worksheet where students
are required to group verbs according to their pronunciation.

3. 3
Introduce the Past Simple of irregular verbs
Give an example in present simple: I have lunch at 12 every day. Lead in to past simple: Yesterday I had lunch at 12.
Write this on the board. Give more examples with irregular verbs and write each verb in its past form on the board.
T: Yesterday I spoke to a friend. We went to the movies. We saw Eclipse. My friend ate popcorn. I drank soda.
Make sure students understand that the past form is the same for all persons.
Give as many examples with irregular verbs as needed.

4. 4
Practice the Past Simple of irregular verbs
Go around the class and make statements in present simple, which students must change to past simple:
T: I usually drink orange juice for breakfast. S: Yesterday you drank orange juice.
To help your students study these verbs, give them this worksheet. For extended practice, try this one.

5. 5
Introduce the Past Simple Negative forms
Say, 'Yesterday I talked to John. I didn't talk to Sarah.' Give more examples alternating between affirmative and
negative statements:
Sarah had lunch at 12. She didnt have lunch at one. You went to the gym yesterday. You didnt go to the movies.
And so on with all persons, singular and plural. Write the negative form on the board. Then have students do the
same, always alternating between affirmative and negative statements.

6. 6
Introduce the Past Simple Interrogative forms
Model questions with did:
T: Did you come to school yesterday?
S: Yes./No.
T: Ask me!
S: Did you come to school yesterday?
Continue with more questions from students. Model questions with what time, where, when, why, etcWrite
examples on the board. First, they ask you, then they ask classmates, then they ask a classmate about another
classmate (What did Bobby do last night?), and so on. Make sure they ask questions in all persons, both singular and
plural. If they are unsure as to how to ask a question, model it for them first.

7. 7
Introduce the Past Simple - Short answers
Ask yes or no questions and teach students to give short answers:
T: Did you come to school yesterday?
S: Yes, I did./No, I didnt.
Students ask classmates yes or no questions, and classmates reply with short answers.

8. 8
Provide extended practice
Tell students that the best way to learn which verbs are regular and irregular, and remember the past form of irregular
verbs is through lots of practice and not necessarily memorization. Youll find hundreds of Past Simple
worksheets at that will help them do just that.
Keep in mind that there are endless options for practice. Ask them to write about their last vacation for homework.
Have them give a presentation on what people did 100 years ago. But no matter what you choose to do, just make
sure your students practice the past simple in context, and not by memorizing lists of verbs. Its the best way to
Worksheets serve as an important tool in supplementing, reinforcing, and expandin

lessons. No matter how good or complete the content of your textbook or curriculum m

there will always be a need to fll in the gaps in knowledge and skills your students


The value of worksheets in teaching English as a Second Language is clear.

Worksheets help students:

review and understand already-taught materials in a new way

learn through a variety of different methods

develop writing and spelling skills

have fun in doing challenging grammar and vocabulary building assignments

keep their minds active and engaged

learn new words and phrases on a topic

make inferences, evaluating choices, and drawing conclusions

refresh and help retain grammar points and vocabulary they have just learned

visualize the new words through photos

continue learning outside of the classroom

Crossword puzzles help teachers:

supplement textbooks and curriculum

extend and reinforce existing lessons

keep students interest

provide extra homework or classroom assignment to improve English skills

employ additional methods of presenting grammar and vocabulary

reinforce already-taught structures and vocabulary words

review and test students with a less intimidating and threatening tool
Grammar: regular and irregular verbs
By Lindsay Clandfield
Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate,
Advanced Type:Reference material, Teaching notes

Practical suggestions for teaching regular and irregular verbs.

Teaching irregular and regular past tense verbs was, for a long time, one of my favorite
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
memorizing them. I havent discovered it yet.

However, learning the form of irregular verbs is one of the few areas where, I feel, memorizing
the LIST actually works. Ive lost count of the number of students Ive met who can recall past
tense verbs by saying them along with their infinitive forms. GO-WENT-GONE, SEE-SAW-
SEEN, BUY-BOUGHT-BOUGHT, MAKE-MADE-MADE etc. Heres 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 9 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. Heres 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. (RUN)
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 up 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 dont
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 doesnt then it isnt

Meaningful practice

Up until now, Ive 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

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. Its 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:

Did anyone see (name of film)? What did you think? Should I go?
Who went out this weekend? (wait for murmurs of yes, then ask) Where did you go? Did you go with
I had a boring weekend. I stayed in. Did anyone else have a more interesting weekend?
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 storywriting, 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

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.
We (eat)
And we (drink)
Later in the evening we (meet)
He/she (say)
And then let them continue on their own, taking turns for each sentence (which they now invent).

Activities for Past Tense of

Irregular Verbs in ESL
As an ESL teacher, you need lots of activities for past tense of irregular verbs in ESL. Although there are
just 180 irregular verbs in English, the most commonly used verbs are all irregular. In fact, seven out of
ten times we use a verb, it is an irregular one. It is your responsibility to make sure your students can
understand and properly produce the irregular forms.

Activities for Past Tense of Irregular Verbs in ESL

Since irregular verbs are so common, you can practice them in almost any type of activity. Offer your
students variety to keep them interested and allow students who learn in different ways to shine.

Written Exercises

Your textbook will have written exercises for practicing the past tense of irregular verbs, but you can also
create your own:

For beginning students, make a matching activity, where students have to match the present tense verb in
the first column with the corresponding past tense verb in the second column.
High beginner and intermediate students will enjoy a more challenging exercise where they have to
choose the correct past tense form from multiple options. Write several sentences in the past tense,
leaving a blank instead of the verb (both regular and irregular). Offer two choices for each missing verb:
one formed like a regular verb, and the other an irregular verb form.

Writing Activity

Make up a story or discuss a current events story in class. Have students rewrite the story in the format of
a news article in the past tense. Encourage them to use irregular verbs by giving them a list of verbs to
use. For instance, if the story is about a burglary, students would need to use such words as stole
and broke into.

Speaking Activities

Oral storytelling is a natural way to practice irregular verbs in context. In an intermediate or advanced
class, ask a student to tell the class about a past event or time in his or her life. If the student cannot think
of a suitable event, offer a prompt, such as, "What was your best vacation?" or "What was your first job?"
Another storytelling activity that can practice irregular verbs is a chain story. Start the story yourself with
a simple sentence in the past, such as, "Yesterday, I went to the store." Each student will have to add a
sentence that uses an irregular verb in the past to continue the story, such as, "I met a clown there." Go
around the room until every student has had a chance.


Games make great activities for past tense of irregular verbs in ESL. Classroom games wake students up
and provide a dose of healthy competition. Assignonline games as homework. Students love the fast pace
and immediate feedback of online games.
Irregular Verb Bingo: Before class, prepare a card with 25 irregular verbs in the past tense written on it in
a 5x5 grid format for each student in the class. Each grid should be different, so draw from a pool of up to
50 verbs, and make sure to vary the positions of common verbs on the cards. You will call out the present
tense of an irregular verb, and students will mark the past tense if they have it on their grid. The first
student to get five in a row wins. If you want the grids to be reusable, give students buttons or paperclips
to use as markers.
Basketball: To play this game from the Marks English School, a student chooses a basketball shot worth
one, two, or three points. After answering the question, the student shoots the ball, and if he gets the
answer right, the ball goes through the hoop and he scores. If he scores enough points, he wins the game,
and there are sound effects and animations.
SpeedWord: This game practices spelling irregular past tense verb forms as quickly as possible. Students
get ten seconds to spell each form correctly, and receive feedback after attempting ten words.
Let your imagination be your guide as you develop more activities to explore the past tense of irregular
verbs. There are an endless variety of options.

Irregular Verb Chat Board

I often begin a high intermediate or advanced level grammar class (yes, at my school, we do
have dedicated grammar classes - and they last three hours and meet three times per week!
For more on teaching grammar, click here.) with a review of irregular verbs. Irregular verbs are
important building blocks of our language. Making mistakes using irregular verbs are not 'fatal'
(they do not usually impede comprehension of what the speaker is saying), but they do mark the
speaker as not being well educated. In the case of not knowing them for the advanced
Cambridge exam, repeated errors of many irregular verbs will lower a student's marks in writing,
speaking, and English-in-Use. In addition, verbs such as teach, bring, and seek when used in
the past tense may not be comprehensible to a non-native speaker if they do not recognize the
root changes in spelling and pronunciation.

Here is a game board that I created for my intermediate through advanced level classes. I had
tried using other similar boards, but they did not have enough verbs in my view; this one has 72
irregular verb forms. With this chat board, students practice using irregular verbs to make up
questions and answers in the present perfect and simple past. For the fastest students, it takes
about 20 minutes to do the whole board (but I've had classes spend 30 to 40 minutes on it). You
can judge if the students are engaged or starting to lose interest. I usually ask fast finishers to
go back and review the verbs that they didn't land on during the 'game.'

There are several advantages of using this board for communicative activity. First of all, the idea
of using grammar in a game changes the mood of the students. They are given a model for how
to ask yes/no questions using the present perfect followed by a simple past wh-question
(information question), which requires a longer response. You can add to the activity by
requiring students to ask an additional follow-up question using any verb to gather more
information from their partner.

Second, students control the speed at which they perform the activity and can do it
independently. The teacher can circulate around the room, listening to pairs, trios, or larger
groups as they are asking and answering questions using the appropriate structures. Errors can
be corrected quickly, and the teacher can also answer questions when students are unsure of

Irregular Verb Chat Board (print an 8.5x11 copy) Below are the model question and response
forms that I write on the white board.
Equipment needed: Chat boards, dice, game pieces
Directions: If two students land on the same verb, they either move back or forward one to a
different verb. Also students should understand that if they answer 'no' to the first question, their
partner must continue asking a question until they respond, 'Yes, I have.' After a 'yes' response,
the partner can then ask a wh-question. To speed up the activity, students can always answer
'yes.' It doesn't have to be true, and this is often fun and funny because students must make up
information to respond to the wh-question:
Yes/No Question: Have you ever [verb/past participle]....?
Answers: Yes, I have./No, I haven't.
Wh-Question: When did you [verb/base form]? Why did you [verb]? (What...?, How...?,
Who...?, Where...?, How much...?, How many....?
Answers: I [verb/simple past] yesterday./I [verb/simple past] because.... and so on.
**Exceptions: With the verb 'be', we do not use 'do' or 'did' to ask wh-questions. In addition,
verbs such as 'cost' are not generally used with people as the subject, unless you're talking
about how much slaves cost in the 1800's.
Student A: "Have you ever bought a car?"
Student B: "No, I haven't."
Student A: "Have you ever bought a bicycle?"
Student B: "Yes, I have."
Student A: "When did you buy a bike?"
Student B: "I bought a bicycle two years ago."

Finally, students in both conversation and grammar-focused classes all seem to appreciate that
this simple activity using dice (a die) and game pieces (or small scraps of colored paper, jelly
beans, m&m's, etc.) makes the reality that they're practicing grammar easier to digest.

This kind of board has multiple functions. For more advanced level students, it can be used to
practice the second, third and mixed conditional forms. Again, you should model the structure
on the board for students, and then let them have a go at it. I hope you enjoy using this 'chat
board' in your own classes.