Writing Tenses: Tense-specific ESL Writing Prompts and Topics for Beginners, Intermediates, and Advanced
Making friends with ALL the grammatical tenses!
Many students learning English as a foreign language struggle to use the different tenses effectively, appropriately, and consistently. Frankly, I know a few native English speakers who could use a little practice. But in any case, over the course of five years of teaching I have found that writing prompts which focus exclusively on a single tense help students in the last two categories: using a tense appropriately and consistently. Effective use (especially in creative writing) develops over time, as the student learns to shift between tenses for accuracy and effect. This approach is especially effective for students who are not particularly concerned with the various names of each tense, as it emphasizes the situations for which each tense is most often used - thus allowing students to naturally "get a feel" for the different voices and how they all work together to get us where we need to go.
Below I have supplied some of the more popular tense-specific writing prompts I've developed for teachers' use and for students who would like a little extra practice. I encourage anyone who gives this a try to come back and tell us all about it - what worked, what didn't, and anything else that might be helpful. I'll update this occasionally, with feedback from the students with whom I use it.
Tips for Classroom Use
- Collect your favorite and tweak them to suit your students' background.
- If doing the exercises orally, have your students write down the verbs used.
- For repeated situations (such as 'running into an old friend on the street', compare the way different tenses affect the meaning of the answer.
Nice and Slow: the Present Tense
The present tense, in these cases, includes the simple present ("She always forgets something") and the present continuous ("I am coming"), as well as the trickier present perfect ("We have seen The Matrix far too many times") and present perfect continuous ("She has been singing since her second glass of wine"). However, it is of course possible to split the four into their own writing prompt, or to combine any number of them as is deemed necessary.
- Describe your normal daily routine.
- Describe a person (real or imaginary) in as much detail as possible.
- What is the most interesting thing you've learned in school? (or in life; the idea is to focus on stating facts)
- What is your favorite type of public transportation? Describe it. (This can be a mix of "habitual or repeated actions," "statement of fact or generalization," and "scheduled events in the near future." For example: "The uptown bus is always crowded in the morning, but the evening bus, which leaves at 6pm, is usually very quiet. I guess most people stay in the city for dinner after work.")
Present Continuous [am/is/are + present participle]
- Describe your immediate surroundings *right now*. What are the people around you doing? What are you doing?
- You meet an old friend on the street and he asks you "so what are you up to these days?" How do you answer? (This one in particular is best if combined with present perfect continuous, below.)
- Make up the most unlikable or annoying character you can think of, and describe him or her. (For example: "He is always talking too loud"; "She is always complaining about how dry the bread is." This one is particularly popular with students who also work in the service industry and have developed pet peeves. They write a paragraph describing the worst customer ever.)
Present Perfect [has/have + past participle]
- You've lost all sense of past time and cannot remember when exactly anything happened. Your grandchild comes to visit you in the nursing home and asks you many questions. Write the conversation between you and your grandchild. (For example: "My, you've grown since I last saw you! How long has it been?" "I haven't seen you since my birthday party, 3 months ago." "Have you seen a movie in 3D?" "No, sonny boy, I have not seen a movie in 3D."; "Have you been to France?" "Yes, I have been to France twice.")
- What have you/has mankind/has Science/has your child accomplished in (pick your time frame)? Think, for example, along the following lines: "Man has walked on the moon." "We have sent a monkey into space." "Doctors have [not yet] discovered a cure for cancer."
Present Perfect Continuous [has/have + been + present participle]
- You go to the doctor, and she asks you "how have you been feeling?" How do you respond? Describe any kind of illness you like; bonus points if you can also include possible reasons for your illness.
- You run into a friend on the street and he asks you how you've been and what you've been doing. (Use both present perfect continuous and present continuous to describe things you have been doing and things you're still doing.)
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Past Tense Writing Prompts
Now then! Onwards and upwards, eh? So I'll present the past tenses in much the same way, although I strongly encourage teachers and students to recombine them as they see fit, and to explore the ways each tense supports and is supported by others. More advanced ESL or EFL students will find the recombination process to be an excellent opportunity to clarify their understanding of particular uses and to explore common partnerships between the tenses.
- What did you do last weekend?
- Have your students write a short fairytale. (This is perhaps most effective when combined with the Past Perfect)
- Describe a major historical event.
- Have students write what they know of their family history - for example, where their parents and grandparents came from, what they did. (Also excellent good fun when combined with the past perfect.)
Past Perfect [had + past participle]
- Pretend you're a stern parent and your child has made some mistakes. Rather than just saying "I told you so", construct more descriptive 'if clauses' using the past perfect. For example: "If you had fed your fish as you had promised, they would not have escaped and eaten the dog." You can also give retroactive "advice" to parents from children, or from citizens to public officials, or from employees to their employer. Whatever suits the situation and student.
- Reported speech: combines past perfect with another tense, usually past or present simple. For this, give your students a scenario (or have advanced students come up with their own) and have them imagine the dialogue.
Past Continuous [was/were + verb-ing]
- Interrupting Starfish! Have your students describe a number of interruptions. This will also require the simple past.
- Set the scene for a murder mystery: "The storm was howling, and a dog was barking somewhere nearby." Etc!
Past Perfect Continuous [had + been + verb-ing]
- Continue the mystery: transition from stage-setting to the action! Here, students use the past perfect continuous for its most common purpose: to express actions (or situations) that were in progress before another action. They will see how it used to add (temporal) layers to a story or to force the plot to progress.
- Explain something to me: Provide your students with a selection of situations or images (i.e. someone in detention, someone in a wheelchair, a baby bird on the ground) and have them provide the cause: The kid was in detention because he had been caught lying to his teacher.
- PastPerfectContinuous If clauses: compare with the past perfect if clauses (see the 'stern parent' exercise) and determine the difference between the two. For example: "If you had been feeding your fish every day, they would not have escaped and eaten the dog."
Want More Detail?
A few people have requested more in-depth discussions of specific activities. You can find one on using the past tenses to write a Mystery Story or Ghost Story here and one spotlighting the present continuous and the present perfect continuous here.
If you would like to request additional details for anything presented here, or another sort of lesson, please leave a comment.
Into the Future!
Future Simple [will + verb in present form]
- New Years Resolutions! A major use of the future simple is in making promises. Have your students make promises - either to themselves or others - using the future simple.
- Predictions: what will the coming year bring?
Future Continuous [will + be + verb-ing]
- Do your students have plans for tomorrow afternoon? You will be playing soccer in the park, if they would like to join you! Alternatively, you can provide a time in the future (near, not so near, specific, vague: it's all good) and have them predict what they, their family, or their friends will be doing.
Future Perfect [will have + verb in past participle form]
- Have your students repeat the previous exercise (provide a time in the future) but this time, have them state or guess what they, their family, or friends will have done by that time.
Future Perfect Continuous [will have been + past participle]
- The two main uses of future perfect continuous is to explain the cause of a future situation or action ("You will have been driving for more than six hours, so I will drive after dinner") and to express a clear future duration ("His child will be turning 6 years old next month").
- With the first, you can have students brainstorm future situations (or use the ones from the previous predictions exercise) and have them work backwards to supply a probable cause for said prediction.
- With the second, return to the exercise where they brainstormed things they were in the middle of (present continuous or present perfect continuous: for example, when they ran into a friend on the street) and have them "put a cap on it" - i.e. supply or postulate an endpoint to the situation.