A picture is worth a thousand words…
Students are introduced to the simple past tense early on in their English learning. It is commonly used and relatively easy to learn (aside from having to memorize irregular verb forms). However, the past progressive (also known as the past continuous) can be confusing since it’s not as commonly used in English.
Try using the method outlined below to introduce the past progressive and compare the two tenses. Once you explain the purpose of the past progressive to your students, show them a diagram like the one above, and give them a few hints (see the “time marker” and “trick” sections below), they should be able to grasp this tense and retain it a lot more easily.
Base V + -ed (and various irregular verb forms)
The ending -ed is added to the base form of the verb. The good news is that there are no differences in endings like there are with other verbs tenses (except for the BE verb: we use was for the first and third person singular—I, he, she, it, singular count nouns, non‑count nouns— and were for the second person singular—you—and the first, second, and third person plural—we, plural you, they, plural count nouns).
Note that there are a lot of exceptions to forming the plural with -ed. These verbs are called irregular verbs. Hand our Irregular Verb List out to your students, and see the Fun Activities section below for ideas on how students can practise irregular verbs.
The simple past is used for a completed past action. It’s important to point out to students that with the simple past, we know when the action took place because of the time marker in the sentence. This is important so that students learn when to use the simple past vs. the present perfect (see the second section of my blog post on 5 Easy Steps for Teaching the Present Perfect and the Present Perfect Progressive to see how I explain this difference to students).
3. Time Markers
- the day before yesterday
- last (last week/month/year/etc.)
- ago (two days ago, three weeks ago, etc.)
- when + another past clause
- My mother went grocery shopping yesterday.
- We played basketball after school last Thursday.
- I ate a lot when I was a child.
5. Fun Activities
Have fun practicing irregular verbs with games like Tic Tac Toe, Hotseat, and Concentration (find basic instructions by googling the game names; substitute base verbs/irregular verbs for numbers or images). Check out Irregular Verb Bingo in our Grammar Practice Worksheets lesson on the Simple Past.
One of my go‑to activities is Irregular Verb Ball Toss. Bring in a small ball (or use an eraser or other small, soft object) and call out a base verb. Toss the ball to a student who then has to say the irregular verb form. Repeat by having that student call out another base verb and tossing the ball to another student. Continue until all students have had one or two turns each, with you making corrections as needed.
Past Progressive – Main Use
was/were + ‑ing V
The past progressive is formed by taking the past BE verb and an action verb + ‑ING. Remind students that we use was for the first and third person singular (I, he, she, it, singular count nouns, non-count nouns) and were for the second person singular (you) and the first, second, and third person plural (we, plural you, they, plural count nouns).
The main function of the past progressive is to show a continuing (long) action getting interrupted by a short past action. Using the words long and short helps students understand this use.
3. Time Marker
The time marker when is common for this case.
- I was studying when my friend called me.
- We were playing soccer when it started to rain.
- They were singing in the auditorium when the alarm rang.
Don’t forget to remind students that you can start the sentence with either the independent clause OR the dependent clause with no difference in meaning. Also remind students that a comma must be used when a dependent clause begins a sentence.
- She was reading when the doorbell rang. (independent clause starts the sentence)
- When the doorbell rang, she was reading. (dependent clause starts the sentence, comma is used, no difference in meaning between the first and second example)
Have students memorize common “short” action verbs so they’ll easily recognize when the past progressive is needed. Short action verbs include: started, began, called, arrived, rang, came, landed, hit, and went out (as in the power went out or the lights went out).
Past Progressive – Secondary Use
was/were + ‑ing V
(See notes under Main Use – Form.)
A less common function of the past progressive is to emphasize that an action continued for a long time. It is less common because the simple past is an acceptable, more common substitute.
3. Time Marker
The time marker while is common for this case.
- The children were watching TV while their parents were talking.
- The children watched TV while their parents talked.
- He was doing his homework while she was playing a video game.
- He did his homework while she played a video game.
Note: Don’t forget to remind students that you can start the sentence with either the independent clause OR the dependent clause with no difference in meaning. Also remind students that a comma must be used when a dependent clause begins a sentence.
- She was playing the guitar while he was playing the drums. (independent clause starts the sentence)
- While he was playing the drums, she was playing the guitar. (dependent clause starts the sentence, comma is used, no difference in meaning between the first and second example)
Try our Grammar Practice Worksheets, Basic Grammar Sentences, and Grammar Stories sections for many lessons on the simple past and the past progressive. This Past Progressive lesson has exercises that directly contrast the two verb tenses.