Aspect vs. Tense: Do we teach the difference?
There can be no question about the importance of teaching the different verb forms in English. However, the debate begins when we consider terminology. On YouTube, I titled one playlist as Verb Tenses and I’ve included lessons on the present progressive and the past perfect. Now I’m moving on to future verb forms. Was my title a mistake? I think not. I had to give preference to convenience and practicality.
First of all, if I had used “Verb Forms” as my title for that series, viewers might have expected to see lessons on gerunds, the passive voice, and more. That title was too broad. Also, I’m aware that many resources use “tense” loosely and broadly, so most users doing a search would more likely use “tense” rather than “aspect” as a keyword. In the online word, content creators need to make their materials easy to find.
But is it misleading to group verbs in the progressive and perfect aspects in my discussion of verb tenses? I find that aspect is helpful to understand, but not until the higher levels. It’s somewhat like teaching adjectives such as interesting and bored to basic students and then later at a higher level pointing out those are really participial adjectives. By that time, they’ve also learned about the passive and understand the role of the past participle in other structures. Similarly, I teach the present progressive to beginners, but I don’t use the term aspect in my instruction. The concept makes more sense, I think, when students have been exposed to more forms. Then there are more pieces to build the puzzle and greater readiness to step back and see the larger picture.
Only now in Part 2 of Lesson 7 in my series do I plan to acknowledge the term aspect. I’ve chosen to limit my discussion, though. I simply introduce the term so that students are aware that it exists and that some sources might label forms they know by other names.
My main goal is to make the grammar clear to learners, and sometimes that means simplifying. Even without talking about “verbs in the progressive aspect,” a student can understand that progressive verb forms generally express ongoing actions or even a temporary situation. Likewise, learners might not be able to identify a verb form as an example of the “perfect aspect,” but they understand that those perfect forms express a relationship between two points in time.
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