Have you ever stopped to think about why we teach the past tenses separately?
When I first started investigating TPRS as a teaching method, a lot of things clicked with me (and some didn’t) but one of the tips that made the most sense was that it didn’t make sense to teach past tenses one at a time. I think I know why we do it, because we think that breaking it into two steps will make students be able to do it better. However, there are several glaring problems with this.
- No one uses them that way.
Speakers do not use them separately; the whole point of how the past tenses (in Spanish, and in French too I think?) work is that how they work together.
- They often don’t follow the “rules.”
You know this is true. As soon as you teach that the sudden past is used for something or other then some student finds some example and says, “But, Señor, why is it descriptive past in this part?”
“Um…um…” You don’t know. I don’t either. My standard answer is “Because the choice was all in the speaker’s/writer’s head and we’re not in there.”
- Acquisition doesn’t happen that way.
When children are learning language they (of course) do not acquire one past tense and then the other. My kindergartener, when telling a story, will use them in equally correct and incorrect ways with the same frequency.
- Learners can’t do it one at a time any better anyway.
We often try to introduce past tense (with Spanish it’s usually the sudden past) at the end of Level 1 through the middle of Level 2, but a lot of students will not even reach Intermediate Low by the end of Level 2 and won’t get out of Intermediate at the end of four levels, which is what it takes to accurately choose and manipulate the past tenses more than half the time. Isn’t that a relief? It isn’t just your students who STILL can’t come up with me lastimé after you’ve drilled it and killed it! So if it turns out we’re not actually gaining anything by separating them, why do it?
After I started approaching the past as a communicative goal, things started to make a lot more sense to all of us. One of my major goals for Spanish 3 – out of only 3 major goals – was refining the ability to narrate a story, because this is something we all do all day every day. We approached and practiced the past tenses together and throughout the entire year as part of the communicative function of narrating a story. It was beautiful. It was so much easier for me to contrast them, and it was so much easier for students to understand their use. Here are a few tips we learned along the way:
- Introduce it as a timeline. (This post started out to be all about this timeline, and then I realized we needed some background first, so watch soon for a separate post illustrating this technique of storytelling as a timeline.) From the first story to the last, draw a horizontal line and mark the beginning of the story and the end. The sudden events are above. The descriptive events are below. This visualization not only divides the concept of the two, but also shows how they tend to cluster in various parts of the story.
- Instead of dividing by tense, divide by subject. Work on he/she for a while (it fits well with retelling stories you’re using as comprehensible input). Then add yo, and the rest, one by one or two at the most. Students will extract patterns better.
- Include the irregulars all the time. Irregular (especially preterit) verbs are some of the most common verbs used in the past. It’s counterproductive and difficult to keep saying “Don’t use that one, we’re not there yet.”
- Mark and focus on transitions. Transitions are a key skill in themselves but also tend to trigger one type of verb or the other (“When I was a little girl….” “And suddenly….”).
- Ask about it (in TL) the whole year. The skill of narrating in the past is very slow to develop; if you’ve been teaching any length of time you know this. Every time you read a story, ask. Every time you look at a news article, ask. Every time students tell a story, ask. Here are questions that come up almost every class period throughout the whole year in Spanish 3 and 4 for us:
- what time is this in?
- is it sudden or descriptive?
- how do you know?
- what caused it?
- can you use it in a similar way?
- why did you pick that way to say that verb?
- should it be descriptive or sudden?
- can you fix it?
- who can help [her] fix it?
Work on the past tenses together and make it part of a large focus of an entire level. You’ll watch it make more sense to students and be easier for you to teach as learners begin to narrate the past faster and with more accuracy. If your learners have achieved intermediate level and are ready to work on refining verb endings, my free verb pack for Spanish includes both past tenses and the complete verb pack includes eight illustrated charts. They’re a handy reference that help students visualize the structures that help them grow to be more accurate in their language production.
Go tell a story and have fun doing it!