Writing: Using the Past Progressive to Create Atmosphere in a Story

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
—Anton Chekhov

Writing is a skill that English learners usually find challenging. Writing in a second language is even tougher. Not only do students need to understand and apply grammar, spelling, and punctuation rules, but they also need to know how to compose a paragraph, story, or essay! Guiding learners step by step through the writing process can help—check out How to Write a Paragraph and our Writing section in the Project Depot for tips and writing activities.

Another way to help students write is to teach them ways to start a story. The past progressive (past continuous) verb tense is a great way to create atmosphere and set the mood of a story. For a good example, our Spotlight lesson this week, UFO Report, uses the past progressive to set the scene of the story. In that lesson, students will also practice using the past progressive by writing the first few lines of various stories.

The Past Progressive Tense

Remind learners how the past progressive (was/were + -ing verb) is used in English (see Simple Past Vs. Past Progressive for help and a printable chart to hand out).

Creating Atmosphere

Tell your students they can do some or all of the following to start their story.

1. Describe the Weather

Common verbs: raining, pouring, snowing, howling, blowing

  • It was pouring outside.
  • It was snowing heavily.
  • The wind was howling through the trees.

2. Describe the Scene

Common verbs: hurrying, walking, rushing, talking, greeting

  • Everywhere I looked, people were rushing by.
  • Traffic was at a standstill, and everyone was honking their horns.
  • When I arrived, the group members were greeting one another enthusiastically.

3. Describe the Clothing and Accessories

Common verbs: wearing, carrying, sporting

  • He was wearing a long, dark trench coat.
  • She was carrying a black briefcase.
  • He was sporting a goatee and a smug look on his face.

4. Describe the Action

Common verbs: driving, going, running, walking, talking

  • They were driving along a long, winding road.
  • I was talking to my boyfriend on the phone for hours last night.
  • We were running late, and we were arguing.

5. Add a Surprising (Short) Action

Common verbs: appeared, rang, hit, crashed, went out

  • Suddenly, the power went out, and we were plunged into darkness.
  • All of a sudden, the car in front of me swerved off the road.
  • To my surprise, a UFO appeared in the sky.
Now your students are ready to begin their own stories! Check out UFO Report for examples and more practice with the past progressive and creating atmosphere.

Other Writing Resources

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Tanya Trusler

Tanya is a freelance editor and writer with an extensive background as an ESL teacher. She edits lesson plans, creates new materials, and writes weekly blog posts for ESL-Library and Sprout English. Her company is Editing to a T. Follow her on Twitter (@tanyatrusler) and Google Plus.

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