How to teach irregular verbs?

Teaching ESL as an afterschool activity is often seen as a job in which your primary task is to entertain and keep the students engaged. More often than not, teaching and testing aren’t the main focus of the class. Some topics are quite difficult to make fun, especially if they are complex and essential. Irregular verbs are one of such topics.

One of my regular students struggles a lot with irregular verbs. Not for the lack of trying. He’s a shy person who had problems speaking to me in English as he felt a bit awkward speaking in any language other than his own. Recently, he started opening up, and I must say that I can already see the results. I’ve realized that even though I can understand him, others who aren’t teachers or don’t spend as much time with him as I do, wouldn’t be able to communicate with him easily. The main issue is the use of infinitive verbs when talking about the past. It got me thinking of different ways in which I can help him with this issue while keeping him motivated and interested. This led to intensive research of different methods that I could use in our lessons to make sure that Past Simple and irregular verbs are no longer overwhelming.

Group the verbs

This is an approach that I used in the past and may keep on using it. First of all, it is less scary showing a set of 10-15 verbs at once. I used to start by writing the infinitive forms and eliciting the meaning in my students first language. Then I asked them for the verbs and their Past Simple and Past Participle forms, which they were already familiar with. I never gave them the theme of the groups because they were always able to predict it after the first example or two. I was looking for the perfect grouping, and I found this chart created by Learn English with Katie on TpT (available for free!). The only change I would add to this chart is putting the meaning in the student’s L1. Since we are already memorising, we may as well develop their vocabulary. Otherwise, I think that the groupings are clear and straightforward.

Here is an example of the first group, which deals with verbs that change their form to ew-own and ew-awn in Past Simple and Past Participle, respectively. Another great thing about grouping the verbs is that you can also practise the pronunciation of these verbs. This method makes it easier to remember the correct way of saying the words. I remember that some of my groups loved repeating these sets of words because it was fun to say them aloud.

Put the verbs in sentences

The said student also has a hard time with the third person in Present Simple form. I was looking for the way to make the best of This student also has a hard time with the use of -s/-es in Present Simple. I was looking for a way to make the best of both worlds. During my research, I stumbled up an approach suggested by FluentU that helps with the verb introduction but at the same time revises the use and structure of different tenses.

I’ve already started teaching in this way. We started by talking about a daily routine of a made-up person, Roberto (named by the student). It was a perfect opportunity to help him with the third person use and high-frequency verbs. Once we finished talking about Roberto’s daily routine, I talked about mine to contrast the first and third person and we ended this part with his.

After this short revision, we changed all the sentences to the Past Simple. I made sure to use a wide range of irregular verbs and contrasted them with a few regular ones. For example, the sentence I get up at 7:30 every day, changed to Yesterday, I got up at 7:30. Once I feel confident in his use and understanding of Past Simple, I will slowly introduce the Past Participle form. There are so many verbs that I don’t want to overwhelm him even more.

DIY picture dictionary

I believe that the use of visuals may help with understanding and memorising the new vocabulary. Before introducing any new verb or sentence that is the focus of our class, I draw a bunch of pictures to create some narrative. I start by saying example sentences to show what I want him to do. Once he gets into the flow, he takes control and creates his narrative. This approach may not be for everyone, but I wanted to see if the pictures will help him memorise the meaning and the use of sentences. I also use a lot of colours when writing new words. We have different colours for different tenses to make sure that they are easy to spot when needed.

Play games!

There is no better way of learning than having fun and playing games. I thought of memory, as it is quite easy to set up and the rules are well-known and understood by everyone. If you teach online, you can go to WordWall and play without any further preparation. The only thing that you need to do is to label each tile separately, or you can label the rows as letters and columns as numbers, as shown below. If you play in a classroom, there are so many online creators who have prepared such games for you, such as Peter Laufer and his TpT free resource. If you want to play while following the covid protocol, you can also play memory on the board as suggested by ESL Library.

Regularly check if your students study

Testing your students isn’t the most fun way of checking if they revise at home, but it certainly can be effective. Instead of the typical tests, you can ask your students to pick a card or sticks (as suggested by Virginia is for teachers) with the infinitive form of verbs and say their Past Simple and Past Participle forms before they leave. Nothing motivates students more than leaving the classroom. This quick revision should jog their memory and maybe give them a reason to study at home.

How do you teach irregular verbs? I’m still looking for the perfect solution that would work for me and my students. For this moment, I’m just going to mix different things until I’m sure that past tenses aren’t an issue anymore! Fingers crossed that it will work out!

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