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A fresh perspective on verb form instruction: using a ‘perspective list’ approach to help learners understand and use verb forms in English by Arizio Sweeting

Introduction

One of the most complex and challenging English language areas that learners have to master in the development of their interlanguage is the use of verb forms, especially the correlation between tense, time and aspect. This possibly occurs because English language teaching methodologies which deal with these grammatical categories somewhat struggle to establish a clear relationship between these three grammatical elements (DeCarrico: 1986).  As a result, it is common for many learners of English, and even teachers, to consider the learning of verb forms a difficult obstacle to overcome. Could this be because a great deal of time in lessons on verb forms is dedicated to learners trying to correctly label tenses? Could it simply be because classroom activities in verb–teaching instruction tend to strongly focus on form rather than the manipulation of meaning?   Whatever the answers to these questions may be,  the fact is that, in general,  “learners often do know what the correct tense-aspect form is for a given verb — it’s when to use it that continues to present difficulties” (Larsen-Freeman: 2001).

In this current article, I shall say nothing new about the teaching of verb forms. I simply want to describe an approach I have devised and used with my learners as an attempt to help them understand and use English verb forms with some degree of confidence and accuracy, and then mention, in brief, the advantages and disadvantages of this approach and, with the help of examples, discuss its implications for the language classroom.

The ‘Perspective Checklist’: its rationale, its components and its advantages and disadvantages

Rationale

The ‘perspective checklist’, which is the subject of this article, is a simple and systematic approach which seeks to help learners to more easily access the meaning of verb forms by training learners to focus more directly on essential elements of meaning, which in this article I shall call ‘perspectives’, in order to more accurately interpret and deliver intended messages.

Components

Understanding each of the components on the checklist is paramount to learners being able to apply it when presented with verb forms in practice activities. Therefore, I recommend that some classroom time is devoted to familiarising learners with each of the components on the checklist before they start using it in class.  These components are, as can be seen in Figure 1, the most common English ‘perspectives’  learners would normally encounter in their everyday interactions outside the classroom environment. These are: time, fact, event, completeness, duration, mood and function.

                                                                                                                           Figure 1

As you will see above, the ‘perspective’ elements of time, fact, event and so on have been organised in a bullet-point sequence on the checklist, with time as the first item and function, the last. All the other ‘perspective’ items in between these two, however, have been randomly listed, as there is no need for these to be put in order on the checklist. 

So, why should time and function receive specific positions on the checklist?

Time

Generally speaking, when it comes to time, it is unarguably true that time governs all in life. Language is no exception. According to Lyons, the use of tenses in English is contextual and time-dependent (1995). For this reason, the first ‘perspective’ on the checklist has to be time since any given event in one’s life will always be governed in the physical world by time, i.e., whether past, present, future or relationships among them. Here are some examples:

# Statements Time
  1.  
I live in Brisbane. (present)
  1.  
I’m living in Brisbane at the moment. (present)
  1.  
I lived in Brisbane three years ago. (past)
  1.  
I’ve lived in Brisbane since 2005. (past-present)
  1.  
I’ve been living in Brisbane all my life. (past-present)
  1.  
I’ll live in Brisbane next year. (future)
  1.  
I think I’ll live in Brisbane then. (present-future)
  1.  
I might live in Brisbane when I finish university. (future)

 

Function

As for function, the checklist interprets this ‘perspective’ as the speaker’s intentions or purpose for communicating, as in the examples that follow.

# Statement Functions
  1.  
The neighbour’s children are noisy. stating a fact
  1.  
In my opinion, Bill’s telling fibs. expressing an opinion
  1.  
He’s always biting his nails. complaining about bad habits
  1.  
I’ve been writing letters all morning. emphasising duration
  1.  
I’ll cook dinner tonight, if you wish. making an offer

 

Leech, Cruickshank & Ivanič (2001) define function as “the various things we can do with language” and emphasise, “if you speak you have a reason: the words have a function or purpose”.

With this definition in mind, I have chosen to strategically place the ‘perspective’ of function at the bottom of the checklist to suggest that functions underline language production of either lexical or structural forms in a communicative situation.

What about the ‘perspectives’ of fact, event, completeness, duration and mood?

Fact

The ‘perspective’ of fact relates to situations which are general, universal and always true, including those of a scientific nature e.g. water boils at 100 degrees Celsius.

Event

On the checklist, an event means a single action, either a regular or repeated action, as a feature of one’s daily life, e.g. I get up at about 6 pm or a completed act with an explicit or understood time marker as in I lived in Brisbane three years ago and in a context in which the absence of time-specification is acceptable if the situation is present, e.g. Someone walks into a bedroom in the morning, looks at the state of the bed and says in reference to what happened the night before, Someone slept in this bed.

Completeness

Although the ‘perspective’ of completeness on the checklist primarily aims at describing finished and completed actions and/or situations, especially those which occurred at a specific time in the past, the coverage of this ‘perspective’ will also encompass events without an explicit time reference i.e. unspecified past events which are usually expressed by the  Present Perfect Tense.  In general, the identification of this ‘perspective’ is facilitated by the evidence of adverbials and clues in the context.  These elements will be referred to as ‘peripheral information’ in this article.

It is important to highlight that the term ‘peripheral’, however, should not be interpreted as its dictionary definition of ‘an activity or issue which is not very important compared with other activates or issues’ (Collins Cobuild Advanced Learners’ Dictionary: 2004: 1067).

Instead, it should be read as information which can be attached to the edges of statements to signal time references which can assist learners decide on appropriate tense-aspect forms. In the statements above, three years ago is peripheral information which helps to indicate a finished and completed past action with specific time reference, a ‘perspective’ feature of past simple forms.

Duration

In terms of duration, the ‘perspective’ conveyed is that of an ongoing and / or temporary event, which could be either a past, present or future event. For example, in the statements that follow, the focus lies on the ongoingness of the events rather than the events themselves: I’m working hard at the moment, I was cooking when the phone rang, I had been studying for hours when I realised it was after midnight, I have been cleaning the house, I will be lying on the beach this time next week.

Once again, it is important to notice the use of ‘peripheral information’ in some of the statements above. Similar to what occurs with the completeness ‘perspective’, these contextual clues are useful temporal referential for both speakers and interlocutors to locate the events on the time continuum.

Mood

The ‘perspective’ of mood refers to the speaker’s attitude(s) to the event i.e. the speaker’s intention to add extra information to the context so that it expresses different underlying meanings such as probability, obligation, necessity, ability, success, permission and condition. Essentially, mood is usually marked by the inclusion of a modal auxiliary verb such as will, must, may, might, could, to name a few, in the statement.

Advantages

Generally speaking, one of the main advantages of the ‘perspective checklist’ approach seems to be that, like existing visual representational approaches for tense-aspect instruction, it proposes to scaffold the learning of verb forms by giving learners the opportunity to more confidently marry familiar tense-aspect forms with intended meanings (Collins: 2007). 

This is particularly true for lessons in which teachers seek to distinguish tense-aspect forms with very subtle differences such as the Present Perfect Simple and the Present Perfect Continuous in statements such as I’ve worked for this company for over ten years and I’ve been working for this company for over ten years.

In everyday usage, there is minimal and possibly no difference at all in meaning between these two forms in the contexts above. However, the fact that there is a choice is at most times puzzling to learners of English. In simple terms, when faced with the choice between the two, if the context contains the progressive form, English will tend to give preference to it rather than the simple form. However, it is very unlikely that explanations of this sort will easily convince language learners.

Using the ‘perspective checklist’, learners are encouraged to look at the nuances in these statements with a more analytical eye, for instance, by focusing on and interpreting the statement which uses the simple form –have worked—as an event which began in the past and is still true in the present time and   the statement using the progressive form – have been working—as an intention on the part of the speaker to emphasise duration. In other words, in the former statement, the emphasis was solely  on the time and event ‘perspectives’, whereas in the latter statement, the emphasis was put on the ongoing process of the act of working, which also started in the past and continued up to the present time. 

Another advantage of the ‘perspective checklist’ is that it works as an approach which avoids the need for metalanguage. That is, learners are not expected to label verb tenses e.g. past simple, present perfect, future continuous, at first, especially, as learners are quite often able to do this very well anyway in the language classroom. The objective of this approach is, at the end of the day, to eliminate obstacles and facilitate understanding of meaning.

Moreover, once the learners have become used to applying the ‘perspective checklist’ to access meaning of verb forms, they seem to also become more aware of the need for monitoring their own language models. The classroom discussions on meaning which the checklist generates can be very beneficial for building learners’ confidence in engaging in self- and peer-correction interactions as will be illustrated below from a classroom moment I witnessed while teaching a TESOL methodology course in Brisbane, Australia,  just a few weeks after I had  introduced the group to the ‘perspective checklist’ approach.

The two learners, who will be referred to as L1 and L2 below, were talking about their previous weekend experiences. One of the learners, L1, made a slip with the use the past simple form and was prompted to self-correct by the peer, L2. Here is a simplified transcription of their conversation:

L2: What did you do at the weekend?

L1: I’ve been to the Valley* on Saturday.

L2: Time? (pointing to the first box on the ‘perspective checklist’)

L1: Sorry…past…I WENT to the Valley…on Saturday.

L2: Oh, how was it?

 * Fortitude Valley is an entertainment precinct in Brisbane, Australia.

Disadvantages

Like any other work in progress, this approach is not immune to drawbacks. Perhaps, one of the major disadvantages of the ‘perspective checklist’ I perceive at this stage, is the fact that it may not suit all types of learners, especially those who depend a lot on explicit knowledge. As Byalistok (1978) points out, this probably occurs because “exactly what happens when the learners are presented with new knowledge depends largely on individual learning strategies”. In my own classroom practice, mixed reactions to the approach have been observed, with some learners embracing it from its introduction, while others reject it when faced with the absence of explicit teacher explanations.

Another disadvantage which seems to arise from the use of this ‘perspective checklist’ is that it tends to work better with higher level learners, as lower-level learners usually  require more interlanguage development in order to use the various ‘perspective’ components of the checklist for context manipulation.

Implications for the Language Classroom:  activities using the ‘perspective checklist’

Although some theorists on verb-form instruction argue that classroom activities which focus exclusively on meaning have a negative effect on form production by learners, as teachers tend to overlook problems with form to accommodate interlanguage development (Seedhouse, 1997), the need for more context-analysis activities in language instruction is unquestionable.

From my point of view, this is due to the fact that, current classroom practice which deals with the teaching of verb forms seems strongly characterised by form-focused approaches. Is this, as Collins (2007: 299) suggests, a consequence of the fact “many of the exercises which focus on tense and aspect in published materials are at the sentence level and they often require learners to generate the correct form of the verb for a given a given context”. Is it simply the end-product of the ‘indoctrination’ of teachers in teacher-education programs? There are no simple answers to these questions, and certainly, this is a discussion beyond the scope of this article.

Therefore, let us now concentrate on how this approach works in the classroom with the help of a few sample activities. Let us begin with a classic activity from the ESL classroom — Dictagloss (Wajnryb, 1990).

Dictagloss

Dictagloss (Wajnryb, 1990), an activity which has secured prestige in research literature because of its usefulness for developing learners’ awareness of the correlations between form and meaning (Kowal and Swain 1994, Swain 1998), fits nicely with the rationale of  ‘perspective checklist’ approach for context manipulation, as can be seen in the description that follows.

  1. Select a short text containing different types of ‘perspectives’ learners need to notice.
  2. Make sure the text includes a range of adverbials and contextual clues i.e. the ‘peripheral information’.
  3. Write the ‘peripheral information’ on the board.
  4. Using the checklist, learners work together and decide on the time reference for the ‘peripheral information’, which at a first glance could vary between past, present, future.
  5. Dictate the text at normal speed to the learners.
  6. Learners take notes on the key information and then work in small groups or pairs to reconstruct the text using the key information and the ‘peripheral’ clues.
  7. When the learners have finished reconstructing their version of the text, they should underline all the verb forms.
  8. Learners finally revise their text, focus on the verb forms and analyse their meaning using the ‘perspective checklist’.

Timelines

One tool teachers use for helping learners understand the ‘perspective’ of time in ESL is time lines.  As Scrivener (1994) suggests:

A timeline attempts to make the flow of time visible, and thus enables learners to see more clearly exactly how one tense differs from another, or how a single tense can refer to different ‘times’. (my italics)

For this reason, combining this classic technique with the ‘perspective checklist’ is a useful strategy to help learners to talk about and visualise verbal meanings. In summary, it works like this:

  1. Learners are given a card with a set of ‘peripheral information’ e.g. yesterday, since then and so on.
  2. Using the ‘perspective checklist’, learners decide on the time references for each ‘peripheral’ clue.
  3. Emphasise to learners that it is possible for some clues to refer to more than one time ‘perspective’ e.g. on Tuesday, which could be either past, present or future.
  4. After that, learners are given a series of statements which they should match with the clues.
  5. While matching the clues with the statements, the learners should use the ‘perspective checklist’ to identify other relevant ‘perspectives’ such as fact, duration, completeness, duration and so on.
  6. At this stage, learners should also revise their time lines so that they correspond and clearly illustrate all the relevant ‘perspectives’ noticed in the statements.

 

Error Correction Blockbuster

 

Brumfit (1984: 56) suggests that “correction should have either no place, or a very minor place, in fluency work, for it normally distracts from the message”.  Personally, I tend to disagree with this belief. I think that engaging learners in correction activities in which they are encouraged to analyse and justify linguistic errors can be very empowering and communicative at the same time. Communicative games, for example, are particularly motivating and ‘can provide intense and meaningful practice of language’ (Wright, Betteridge & Buckby: 1983: 1).

Here is an example of an activity which matches the use of the well-known lexical game, Blockbuster, with the ‘perspective checklist’. Although the element of competition is used, the main focus of this activity is to raise learners’ awareness of how much they are actually able to self-monitor their own models for errors and even justify why these errors occur.

 

  1. Before class, write errors with verb form produced by the learners on the error correction blockbuster chart. This chart should resemble a bee-hive with at least 25 spaces in the shape of a stop sign.
  2. In class, organise the learners into small groups or pairs and give them an error correction blockbuster chart and counters, preferably counters in two distinctive colours.
  3. Each group or pair divides themselves into two teams: A and B.
  4. The objective of the activity is to go from one extreme of the chart to the other, preferably from top to bottom or vice-versa.
  5. The activity starts with one player from one of the teams selecting a square from the chart and correcting the error with verb form for meaning,  using the ‘perspective checklist’ to justify his or her analysis.
  6. If the player’s explanation is accurate, he or she gets to put a counter on the space.
  7. Then, a player from the opposite team has a turn and repeats step ‘e’ above. However, this time the player has to try and block the progress of the other team across the chart by choosing a space in the other team’s trajectory.
  8. The winner is the team that manages to first trace a line across the chart.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is undeniable that “tense and grammatical aspect are challenging features of English to master and an ESL/EFL learner’s L1 may indeed result in the formulation of inappropriate hypothesis about how tense-aspect forms work in English” (Collins, 2007: 302). In some way, this may be caused by the fact that learners sometimes spend too much time looking at verb forms from the same angle in the classroom and this is probably very limiting to their linguistic development, as it may not allow them to observe that, in general, verbal meaning, unlike verbal form, is changeable and context-dependent. For this reason, I am a strong believer and advocate for the use of new approaches which lend a fresh perspective to the learning and teaching of verb forms in English such as the ‘perspective checklist’ approach which has been described in this article. However, I would also like to emphasise that this approach is intended as part of a complex investigative process I am conducting as an attempt to make my learners to become more confident in their selection of verb form for best communicating their intended message, and not offered as an authoritative statement on the topic.

References

Brumfit, C. (1984) Communicative Methodology in Language Teaching Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Byalystok, E. (1978) A theoretical model of second language learning Language Learning 28/1.

Collins, L. (2007) L1 differences and L2 similarities: teaching verb tenses in English ELT Journal 61/4: 295-303.

DeCarrico, J. (1986) Tense, aspect and time in the English modality. TESOL Quarterly, 20, 665-682.

Kowal, M. & Swain, M. (1994) Using collaborative language production tasks to promote students’ language awareness Language Awareness 3/2: 73-91.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2001) Teaching Grammar in M. Celce-Murcia (ed.) Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language: 231-66. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Leech, G. Cruickshank, B. Ivanič, R. (2001) An A-Z of English Grammar & Usage (2nd Ed.) (p. 170) Essex: Longman.

Lyons, J. (1995) Linguistic Semantics Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scrivener, J. (1994) Learning Teaching (p. 103) Oxford: Macmillan Heinemann ELT.

Seedhouse, P. (1997)Combining form and meaning ELT Journal 51/4: 336-344.

Svalberg, A (1986) Teaching tense and aspect: a systematic approach ELT Journal 40/2: 136-145.

Swain, M. (1998) Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tregidgo, P. S. (1984) Language Close Up: How far have we got with the present perfect? ELT Journal 38/4: 286-289.

Wajnryb, R. (1990) Grammar Dictation Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wright, A., Betteridge, D., Buckby, M. (1983) Games for Language Learning (New ed.) (p.1) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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