As ESL instructors, we often learn at least as much from our students as they do from us. But that truism was borne out in an unexpected way recently in my beginners’ evening ESL class as we wrestled, in time-honored fashion, with the simple past.
My students had gamely participated in a number of tried-and-true communicative activities designed to help them practice one of the trickiest skills: forming questions in the simple past. Avid futbol fans, they had interviewed each other about the 2014 World Cup results using prompts that I had helped them generate: Did Brazil lose? Did Germany win? Did Argentina beat the Netherlands? What was the score? We had listened to one student describe a recent trip to Hong Kong and students took turns asking her questions about her experiences there. I transcribed the discussion, and students worked in pairs to correct their errant grammar.
But after several weeks of practicing how to pronounce “-ed” endings and searching authentic texts for irregular verbs, these beginning students were still having a very hard time remembering not to use those “-ed” endings or the irregular form of the simple past in questions. Left to their own devices, they continued to ask each other questions such as “Did Colombia lost?” or “Did Monica went to Hong Kong?”
Until, suddenly, the light went on for one student. Excited, Esther exclaimed, “You need to put the past one time!” We all wondered what she meant. She said it again, “Is clear now. You need to put the past one time.” Still mystified, I asked her to come to the board and explain what she meant to the class. She pointed to the two sentences I had written on the board:
- Monica went to Hong Kong.
- Did Monica go to Hong Kong?
Rapping her knuckles on the word “did” in the question, she said, “Did is past. You need only one past.” In other words, to say “Did Monica went to Hong Kong?” would involve using the past “two times”: “did” and “went” are both “the past.” And that would violate Esther’s self-generated “put-the-past-one-time” rule.
I have studied X-word grammar, and introduced it in some of my classes. I have used the “Question Hand” to remind students of how to formulate questions in English. But for my money, Esther’s clear explanation—“You need to put the past one time”—tops all other mnemonic devices for teaching the question form of the simple past.
Have your students come up with a simple and elegant way to remember a grammar rule that you’d like to share?