With a few good photos and a whiteboard, you can help your students better understand verb tenses. A common practice is to use a timeline, moving from left to right to show the passage of time. Dots or Xs usually mark completed actions or periods of time, and wavy lines often represent an action in progress.
Example: PAST PRESENT FUTURE
In 2001 Jennifer moved back from Russia to the U.S.
What if instead of dots, Xs, and wavy lines, you made use of photos? In advance you can prepare photos that clearly show an action or state. To make the presentation more personal and memorable, you can use snapshots of yourself at home or the students around the school. You can duplicate each photo so that you have sets of three or four. Let me share just one possible model using a set of four (all of the same image).
Teacher (T)/ Class (C)
T: Here’s a photo of Paul and Anna. [T tapes all four copies in a row, writing a time marker above each one from left to right: last month, last week, today, next week. This photo shows something that happened at least twice in the past, at least once today, and it will likely happen again next week. Who can tell me about Paul and Anna based on this information? Give me one sentence. [T may have to prompt C by providing first statement.]
C: Paul and Anna talk a lot./ Paul and Anna see each other often. / Paul and Anna spend time together./ Paul and Anny are friends./ etc. [T writes suggestions on board.]
T: Good. You all used the simple present: talk, see, spend, are… We need the simple present to show that something is true throughout time and that actions are habitual, that is, repeated often. Now what if I change the time markers like this? [T takes down one photo and writes above the remaining three photos from left to right: 3 years ago, last year, last month.] What you see in the photos is something of the past. It doesn’t happen anymore. How will our original statements change? [T may have to prompt C by providing first statement.]
C: Paul and Anna used to talk a lot./ Paul and Anna used to see each other often. / Paul and Anna used to spend time together./ Paul and Anny used to be friends./ etc. [T makes changes on board.]
T: Wonderful. So we need used to + the base verb to show that something happened regularly in the past, but no longer takes place or is no longer true in the present.
There are many other possibilities. For example, by taping two different photos one above the other and marking times of the day to indicate one event in progress (yesterday from 4:00pm to 5:00pm) and one at an exact time (yesterday at 4:45pm), you can help students perceive the differences between the simple past and the past progressive or the simple past and the past perfect progressive. Instead of words, think first in images. So get out the digital camera and start snapping!