I used to understand this…
Eventually, every English learner needs to master speaking, reading, and writing about the past. I’ve previously offered advice on teaching the simple past and comparing the simple past with the past progressive, but what about the short, common past expression used to? I've often found that my students make mistakes with this expression, especially in negative statements and questions. So what’s the best way to teach them how to use used to?
Used To + Base Verb
Used to is always followed by a base verb. Don’t forget to tell your students that used to follows the normal past verb rules: it becomes use to with the auxiliary verb did in questions and negative statements.
See section 4 below for examples—make sure you give your students lots of examples with did and didn't so that they'll remember this change!
Used to is a unique expression in English. Its form and function are similar to a modal (i.e., it gives extra information about the verb and is followed by a base verb). Used to shows that an action was performed repeatedly in the past, but is no longer performed in the present. It is commonly used when talking about long periods in the past (e.g., childhood, school years, past job, etc.).
- I used to eat meat, but I don’t anymore.
- They used to study English every day in high school.
- Did you use to play video games when you were a child?
- Did my sister use to sing when she was little? I forget.
- I didn’t use to play the piano as a child, but I took lessons later on.
- My teacher didn’t use to give us any homework. Now we get homework every day!
4. Tricky Points
Don’t forget to point out to your students that used to + base verb is NOT the same as the past participle of the verb use followed by an infinitive verb! This can be confusing for students. Try giving them the following examples:
- He used to work out every day. (Form: used to + base verb. Meaning: He worked out often in the past but doesn't anymore.)
- This machine is used to make student ID cards. (Form: use (present passive) + infinitive verb. Meaning: Making student ID cards is the machine’s function.)
When use indicates the function of something, it is almost always in the passive voice. Tell students that if they see the be verb before used, it is likely indicating function, not a past habit/routine.
And as previously mentioned, make sure you remind students that used to becomes use to when used with the auxiliary verb did. (See the examples above.)
Try our lesson Simple Past - I used to in our Basic Grammar Sentences section. This six-page lesson has a pair activity, a writing exercise, a speaking activity, and a fun word search that will have your students using used to correctly in no time!
6. Fun Activity
When I teach used to, I often have my students do the following pair activity. Have them draw two columns on a piece of paper. One column has the title “When I was a child…” and the other says “Now…” (I often write it on the board to show them). If you teach children, you could make it "Two years ago..." and "Now..." instead.
Brainstorm topics as a class, such as food, transportation, games, hobbies, family, etc. Try to come up with 10 topics. Next, give them a few examples of your own, such as “When I was a child, I used to ride my bike. Now I drive a car.”
Students can now ask their partners questions about the topics and write down their answers. (E.g., “What did you use to eat when you were a child? What do you like to eat now?”) Make sure your students answer the questions about their childhoods using used to!
Alternatively, you could get your students to write their own answers for homework and discuss them with a partner the next day.
What about be used to and get used to? Students often mistakenly believe that these expressions have the same form and meaning as used to, but there are important differences. Find teaching tips, activities, and a comparison chart on Used To, Get Used To, and Be Used To.
Here’s to using used to correctly!