English - Tenses


Choose the correct word or words to fill in the gap in the following sentence:

Michael __________ studying French for a year now.

a) will be b) will c) can be d) could be e) has been

When I teach children who have English as a second language, this sort of question can be a bit of a nightmare to explain. We all assimilate language and most of us can 'feel' the right answer. However, if you can't, there are some things to bear in mind.

Firstly, this is not about straightforward past, present or future tense. Your child may have to put something into an alternate tense but this question is looking to show whether they have a deeper understanding of language.

The key word for me is 'now'. If you were to take that out, you would be left with the option of several possibilities. The only version that makes sense with EVERY word in the sentence, is:

Michael HAS BEEN studying French for a year now.

If your child hasn't spotted the answer and is looking to rule out the wrong ones (always a good piece of advice) then 'will' should be immediately ignored as you cannot say 'will studying' in any format. At least all of the others are possible if put alongside 'studying', albeit only 'has been' will make sense with the word 'now'.

Example 2

Look at the following sentence and transfer it into the present tense.

Dawood was looking at the book when an idea came to him.

In a sentence like this the key is to pick out the verbs and see how many there are. The subject of the sentence, Dawood, (as I've said before, your children will be expected to recognise a non-English name as a name!) 'was looking' but also an idea 'came' to him. This means there are three words in the sentence which need attention. In my experience, there are two frequent errors made with this type of question - the first is that a child will simply not notice the secondary verb and leave it as it is. Train your child to scour the sentence quickly and efficiently by getting them to picture the scene and consider who is doing what. As soon as they reach a 'doing' word, underline it and move to the next.

The second problem I encounter is that the children only change a past continuous verb ('was looking') into a simple present tense rather than a present continuous one. If the sentence uses 'was' then its equivalent in the present tense will have 'is'.

The correct answer, given the two points I've raised, should look like this:

Dawood is looking at the book when an idea comes to him.

Example 3

Read the following sentence and change the verbs so that it is in the past tense:

I am standing in the car park and see a lorry going past.

As we looked at in the previous example, the key in any question about tenses is to pick out the verbs. There are all sorts of different verbs and only a few are worth learning about, even if you study English at a high level. Your child will be studying for 'SPAG' (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) SATs in class so should be taught enough of the key terms in school. In this sentence, 'am standing' and 'see' are verbs in the present tense. 'Am' is one of the many parts of the verb 'to be' which appears in conjunction with other verbs and is known as an auxiliary verb. Sometimes it is this part of the verb which needs changing and the other word remains the same.

The past tense of 'am standing' is 'was standing'. The past tense of 'see' is 'saw'. The new sentence should read:

I was standing in the car park and saw a lorry going past.

The word 'going' works perfectly well here so there is no need to change it.

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