Teaching multiple tenses

I just read this in Ben Slavic’s blog and it offers such and interesting perspective. I have always wanted to teach more than one tense at a time, but was concerned that it would throw the students into disequilibrium. I have found that when I did my children’s books that the students handled it just fine. In fact, the first year students understood it just as much if not more than the second year students. Here is what been has to say:

Verbs are fluid. The brain handles complex tense changes naturally in every day speech from a very early age. It does so with ease.

So, as counterintuitive as it may seem, if we could but return to real intuition, we would feel how natural it is to ask stories in the past tense and read them in the present.

Of course the imperfect, twin sister of the preterite, would have to join the other two for a three tense rainbow. And the subjunctive, being a mood and somewhat capricious and emotional, would show up just about anywhere, and so now we are up to a four verb rainbow. And, of course, in any good story, there is some kind of ridiculous demand being made on someone, so the imperative mood usually finds its way into a story, mostly during dialogues, as rainbow stripe number five.

When we thus just speak naturally to the kids, not dumbing anything down, they respond magnificently. Indeed, it is the teacher who, by teaching a story in only one tense and then having the kids read in the same tense, limits the learning.

Textbooks further complicate the myth that the kids can’t learn more than one tense at a time by presenting tenses in different levels in different chapters and books. This practice is beginning to come to an end now, as communicative based teaching takes hold in our nation’s classrooms.

When teaching is for authentic communication, students emerge after the first year of study with  a healthy relationship with this rainbow of verbs that is based on sound and meaning, not cognition. Each new sentence the students decode for meaning in a story is yet one more stroke of the brush on the verb rainbow, deepening further and enriching more deeply the color of that stripe, until, finally, a deep and vibrant knowledge based on sound and meaning, not mere cognition, overarches our students’ learning.

To reiterate, we don’t learn languages one tense, one level, or one chapter at a time over many years in stratified form. That’s not how we learn. I used a subjunctive in a story today. The kids didn’t bat an eyelash. It was a form of the verb “to be”. They knew that it was a form of the verb “to be” and that’s all they cared to know about it.

That is because their listening was based on sound and meaning – they were focused on the message, not the medium – with apologies to Marshall Mcluhan. They were not focused on anything resembling the breaking down of language into little pieces using cognition, learning things for points on a test, or to get the right spelling, or  similar drivel. They were decoding sound into meaning. That is the beauty of it. Any grammar explanation would have confused over 90% of them and interrupted the delicate neurological processes that were then going on at the time of the English grammar explanation.

We teach grammar by using proper speech when we speak to our students. Proper speech includes an entire rainbow of verbs. Who ever heard of a rainbow with just one color? It is a fine thing that the old colorless rainbows offered to language students in the last century, rainbows of drab grammar sadness, are finally being replaced by real rainbows.

I wonder if this requires a teacher who is comfortable and fluent. I can admit that I need to be more confident in the language. I have been scarred by years of poor language instruction. The kind of instruction that leads to analyzation and not fluency. I want to give my kids the best, though. I want them to have what I didn’t have. I know that they can achieve so much if they are shown the way.


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