Aspect vs. Tense: Do we teach the difference?

MC900384040There 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.

What do you think? Take the poll.


8 Comments Add yours

  1. sabah says:

    Hi Jeniffer,

    I think you have a good point there. My question is if aspect won’t be understood until higher level, how this terminology will help the lower level? Knowledge is constructed throughout the learning process, so if you started introducing this concept to the lower level, would it be clear for the students what you mean by that? Let’s assume they’ve got it later on, what about all other resources and school’s material that use only the terminology (tense)? I think it will be a little bit confusing.

    1. Most textbooks I’ve taught from use only “verb tense” or simply “verb form.” A good number of other resources use “tense” broadly and loosely. I’ve seen upper level students comprehend and apply advanced grammatical patterns without knowing all the terminology. It’s possible to learn all the verb forms without knowing that some of those forms are called “progressive aspect” or “perfect aspect.” I think that’s the bottom line. The goal is to help students use language accurately. You can do that without teaching the term “aspect.”

      For some students, discussion of aspect can help shed light on the differences in meaning and usage, but I don’t think you can have that kind of discussion until an intermediate level or higher.

      One reason I decided to teach aspect in Lesson 7 of my series was to make sure students would be prepared for any confusion should they encounter different terminology. I also couldn’t in good conscience not explain that “verb tense” isn’t the most accurate way of identifying all the verb forms in the series. It is, however, the most convenient, in my opinion.

  2. Tom says:

    I simply tell my students “tense” is “time”. So simple future tense means “just/only/simply future time”..

    1. Hello Tom! I’ve used “tense” in a similar way. As I mentioned in earlier comments, I think it’s possible to teach all these verb forms without using the term “aspect.” In my videos, I can’t be sure of everyone’s background or current learning resources. There could be confusion over terminology. Since I was addressing upper level students, I felt the “footnote” was appropriate. I’ll continue to call the series Verb Tenses because it’s clear and convenient. I also hope hard-core grammarians will now accept my decision. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  3. thuy an says:

    Hello Jennifer,
    I am confused with this sentence: Going to the library and seeing the old serious librarian always ______________ me.( TERRIFY). Should I fill in the blank with terrify or terrifies?
    I am looking forward to hearing from you.
    Thank you.

    1. Hmm. Well, I see the subject as one event, one idea, so I would use “terrifies.” The speaker sees the librarian at the library right?
      Simply going to the library isn’t scary. It’s going there and seeing the librarian that’s scary.
      Compare: Going to the library and taking walks in the part ARE Michael’s two favorite activities.
      Does that make sense?

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