The simple past is a very common verb tense that is learned early on by English language learners. The past progressive (also known as the past continuous), on the other hand, can be tricky for students to learn because it is not commonly used in English. In my experience, presenting this verb tense using the diagram and chart seen here helps students grasp it more quickly. See if this works for your students, too!
See detailed explanations, charts of the time markers and irregular verbs, examples, practice lessons, and fun activities in my blog post Teaching the Simple Past. You could also use the comparison chart above to review this common verb tense.
was/were + -ing verb
The past progressive is formed by using the Be verb in the past tense (was for singular subjects except you / were for plural subjects and you) and an action verb + -ing.
There are two functions of the past progressive:
1) The first, which is far more common and useful, is to show a continuing (long) past action getting interrupted by a short past action. Using the words long and short helps students understand this use better.
2) This tense can also be used to show two long continuing actions that happen at the same time in the past. Note that you can also use the simple past for both actions, but sometimes we use the past progressive to emphasize the length of the actions.
3. Time Markers:
The time marker when is common for this the first use. Both when and while can be used for the second use.
Use 1 Examples:
- 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.
- When the power went out, we were working at our desks.
Use 2 Examples:
- The children were watching TV when their parents were talking. (correct)
- The children watched TV when their parents talked. (also correct)
- He was doing his homework while she was playing a video game. (correct)
- He did his homework while she played a video game. (also correct)
5. Important Reminders:
A. Don’t forget to remind students that you can start the sentences with either the independent clause (a Subject-Verb[-Object] structure that can stand alone) OR the dependent clause (that begins with the adverb “when” or “while” and can’t stand alone) with no difference in meaning. Students shouldn’t memorize the past progressive as always occurring first in the sentence, because this isn’t always the case. 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)
B. It’s also possible to use the past progressive when a clock time is mentioned instead of a clause. Examples: 1) What were you doing at 8 p.m. last night? (The meaning is: What were you doing when it was 8 p.m. last night?) 2) I was studying at 8 p.m. last night. (The meaning is: I was studying when it was 8 p.m. last night.)
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). Point out to students that the past progressive is common for accidents, natural disasters, etc. (e.g., I was driving when I hit a tree. / We were taking a test when the earthquake struck.)
7. Practice Lessons:
Try our other past progressive materials for practice with this verb tense.
- Find four past progressive lessons in our Grammar School – Basic Grammar Structures and Grammar Stories sections.
- Find six past progressive lessons in our Library – Past Continuous Stories section. These lessons also include a digital component that students can do in class or at home.
- Find 16 past progressive dialogues in our Conversation Station.
- Past Progressive Game – What Were You Doing? Check our blog on Thursday to find Tara Benwell’s fun activity.
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