How will you teach the future tense to your students?
The simple future is a bit more complicated than the other simple tenses in English. We have more than one way of making a future sentence. We can use will + base verb, be going to + base verb, or be + -ing verb (the present progressive form).
What’s the difference between these forms? How can we teach them to our students? In this post you’ll find information on the three future forms, fun activities using the future (for warm‑ups or fillers), and links to related lessons.
Will + Base Verb
The future modal will is used with the base form of the verb.
This form is used when you are deciding future plans at the moment. For example, if someone invited you to go to a party next Friday, you could answer, “Sure, I’ll go.” Will + base verb is generally considered to be more formal than be going to + base verb.
- A: Do you want to go to the movies later? B: Sure, I’ll go!
- She will do whatever her mother tells her to do.
- When you enter the room on Monday, you’ll see a sign‑up sheet on the table.
Be Going To + Base Verb
The modal expression be going to is used with the base form of the verb. The be verb is conjugated according to the subject (am, are, is).
It’s important to tell students that going to is often reduced to gonna. Remind them that while the reduced form is very common in speaking, it’s not often used in writing (except in casual writing such as a text message to a friend). Most students think it’s fun to practice reduced forms, so encourage them to use gonna in speech.
This form is used when plans have already been made in advance. For example, if you have plans to go camping next weekend and someone asks you what you are going to do, you could answer, “I’m going to go camping next weekend.” Be going to + base verb is considered to be more casual than will + base verb.
- He’s going to study all night for his test.
- They’re going to go to Disneyland next spring.
- I am definitely going to call you tomorrow.
Be + -ing Verb (Present Progressive)
The present progressive (be and the -ing form of the verb) can also be used to indicate a future time. The be verb is conjugated according to the subject (am, are, is).
Occasionally, English speakers use the present progressive as a future form. It is used the same way as be going to—when plans are already made. For example, if you have plans to go camping next weekend and someone asks you what you are going to do, you could answer, “I’m going camping next weekend.” The present progressive is a casual way of forming the future (slightly more casual than be going to + base verb, in my opinion).
- My roommate is going to Hawaii in November.
- We’re planning to discuss this in the next meeting.
- I’m starting a new book tomorrow.
Two Future Verbs
What happens when we use two future verbs in the same sentence?
Unlike the other simple tenses, English does NOT use a future form twice in most sentences. The future form is used in the independent clause and the simple present is used in the dependent clause.
Make sure students realize that the order of the clauses can change in a sentence with no difference in meaning, so the best way to know which clause is dependent (and therefore requires a simple present verb) is to look for the adverb of time (when, while, etc.).
Remind students that because the form in the dependent clause is the simple present, third person singular subjects take a verb ending in ‑s.
You can also remind students to use a comma after a dependent clause when it is used to begin a sentence (see the last example below).
- I will call you when I arrive in Las Vegas tomorrow.
- She is going to apply to university when she graduates.
- When my friend comes over next weekend, we’re going to study for the final exam.
Goal-setting is a great activity to practice the future. Have students interview each other about their future goals and plans. Make sure they use be going to + base verb and/or the be + -ing verb. Have them practice saying “gonna.”
Get students to practice using will + base verb by telling each other's fortunes. They can write fortunes on pieces of paper, pass them around, and read out their fortunes to each other. Or you could find a simple palm-reading task online (such as Wiki's guide) and have partners read each other’s life lines, head lines, and heart lines.
3. Travel Plans
Put students into small groups and have them plan an imaginary trip. They can decide where to go, how long they’ll stay, what they’ll bring, what they’ll do, etc. During their planning as they make decisions, have them use will + base verb. Later, when they report their trips to the class, they can use be going to + base verb or be + ‑ing verb to describe the plans they’ve already made.