Once students have a good understanding of the past simple tense and the present continuous tense, teaching the past continuous tense is relatively easy. Once your students understand this grammatical concept, they will be able to accurately convey their experiences and construct detailed narratives about things that were ongoing at a specific point in the past. In this guide, we will show you step-by-step how to teach the past continuous tense using clear explanations, relatable examples, and lots of opportunities to practice. First, let’s take a look at exactly what the past continuous tense is and how to form it.
What Is The Past Continuous Tense?
The past continuous tense, also known as the past progressive tense, is a verb tense used to express actions or situations that were ongoing, continuous, or in progress at a specific point in the past. For example,
- She was reading a book when I called her.
- They were playing soccer in the rain.
In these examples, the actions (reading a book, playing soccer) were in progress at a specific moment in the past when another event occurred (when I called her, in the rain).
How To Form The Past Continuous
To form the past continuous tense, the auxiliary verb “to be” should be in its past form (was/were), followed by the present participle of the main verb (the -ing form). The structure for the past continuous tense is:
Subject + was/were + verb(-ing)
- He was playing soccer.
- They were watching a movie.
How To Form Past Continuous Negative Sentences
To make negative statements in the past continuous tense, simply add “not” after the auxiliary verb:
Subject + was/were + not + verb(-ing)
- She was not studying for the exam.
- We were not attending the conference.
Past Continuous Usages
The past continuous tense has several usages, which include:
- Describing an ongoing action in the past: The past continuous is used to indicate that an action was in progress at a specific time or during a period in the past. Example: At 6 pm yesterday, she was cooking dinner.
- Indicating two simultaneous past actions: When two actions were happening at the same time in the past, the past continuous can be used for both actions. Example: While I was doing my homework, my sister was watching TV.
- Interrupted past actions: The past continuous is used to describe an action that was in progress when it was interrupted by another action or event, which is usually expressed in the simple past tense. Example: I was taking a shower when the phone rang.
- Describing the background or setting of a past event: The past continuous can be used to provide context or background information for a story or event that took place in the past. Example: The sun was shining, and the birds were singing as they walked through the park.
- Showing a repeated or habitual action in the past (often with ‘always’, ‘constantly’, or ‘continuously’): The past continuous can emphasize a repeated or habitual action in the past, often to express annoyance or criticism. Example: He was always complaining about his job.
These are some of the main usages of the past continuous tense. Remember, the important point to convey to students is that the past continuous is used to talk about actions or situations that were ongoing or in progress at a specific time in the past.
How To Teach The Past Continuous: Step By Step
Step 1: Introduce the Tense
The first step to teaching the past continuous tense is to introduce what it is and when to use it. Tell students that the past continuous tense is used to describe an action that was in progress at a specific time in the past. Be sure to provide some examples to illustrate what you mean. Here are some examples you can use:
- Yesterday at 8 am, Tom was brushing his teeth.
- They were eating breakfast when the phone rang.
- She was walking the dog when it started to rain.
Step 2: Explain the Structure
Once students have a basic understanding of what the past continuous is, the next step is to show students how to form the past continuous tense. Explain that the past continuous tense is formed with the past form of the verb “to be” (was/were) followed by the main verb in the “-ing” form. Write the following structure on the board to help them understand:
Subject + was/were + verb(-ing)
Step 3: Practice Making Sentences
Next, it’s time for students to try and make their own past continuous sentences. Have students change some present tense sentences into the past continuous tense.
|Past Continuous Tense
|She plays soccer.
|She was playing soccer.
|They watch a movie.
|They were watching a movie.
You can find ready-made exercises and example sentences that you can use for this step in our Easy Guide To English Tenses.
Step 4: Introduce Time References
Once students understand how to form the past continuous, teach phrases like “while,” “when,” and “as” so that students can make more complex past continuous sentences that incorporate time references. Show students many examples so they can see how to use these time references correctly. Here are some examples you can use:
- She was reading a book while waiting for the bus.
- They were playing video games when their friends arrived.
- He was listening to music while working on his project.
- She was cooking dinner when the doorbell rang.
- They were watching a movie while enjoying some popcorn.
Step 5: Speaking and Listening Practice
The next step is to have students practice more with speaking and listening activities. Here are 6 activity ideas for teaching the past continuous tense:
- Storytelling: Have students create and share short stories that incorporate past continuous sentences. They can focus on describing background scenes, interrupted actions, or simultaneous past events.
- “What Were You Doing?” Game: In pairs or small groups, students can take turns asking each other, “What were you doing at [specific time] yesterday/last week/last month?” The other students should respond using past continuous sentences.
- Mime And Guess: One student acts out an action while the other students try to guess what the person was doing in the past continuous tense. For example, if a student pretends to play guitar, others can say, “You were playing the guitar.“
- Two Actions, One Story: Divide students into pairs or small groups. Give each group two action cards (e.g., “cooking dinner” and “talking on the phone“). Students must create a sentence or short story using both actions in the past continuous tense.
- Picture Description: Show a picture depicting a scene with multiple ongoing actions. Students take turns describing the scene using past continuous sentences. For example, if the picture shows a busy park, students can say, “People were playing soccer, and children were laughing on the playground.“
- Interrupted Actions Roleplay: In pairs, students can create short roleplay scenarios where one student is engaged in an ongoing action, and the other student interrupts the action with a simple past event. They should use past continuous sentences to describe the ongoing action.
Common Mistakes Students Make With The Past Continuous Tense
English language learners often make a few common mistakes when learning the past continuous tense. Some of these mistakes include:
- Incorrect auxiliary verb usage: Learners might use the incorrect form of the auxiliary verb “to be” (was/were) for the subject or use another auxiliary verb instead (e.g., “did” or “had”). Example mistake: I were studying. (Correct: I was studying.)
- Forgetting the -ing form: Students may forget to use the present participle (-ing form) of the main verb. Example mistake: She was read. (Correct: She was reading.)
- Misusing “when” and “while”: Learners might mix up or misuse the conjunctions “when” and “while” when describing interrupted actions or simultaneous actions in the past. Example mistake: He was eating breakfast when watching TV. (Correct: He was eating breakfast while watching TV.)
- Overusing the past continuous: Students may use the past continuous tense when the simple past tense would be more appropriate, especially for completed actions or single events in the past. Example mistake: I was going to the store. (Correct: I went to the store.)
- Confusing the past continuous with the present continuous: Learners might mix up the past continuous tense with the present continuous tense due to the similarity in their structure. Example mistake: *She is studying when I called. (Correct: She was studying when I called.)
Thanks for reading! I hope you found this guide to teaching the past continuous tense useful. Before you go, here are some related resources you might also like:
Past Continuous Exercises
Past Continuous Negative Exercises
Past Continuous Worksheets