Present simple versus present continuous – the hassle of it all
When it comes to teaching the present simple and present continuous tenses, most teachers are bound by coursebooks and syllabuses to teach them in tandem or one after the other.
For nigh-on fifteen years, I’ve had the unfortunate displeasure of hearing Polish students mix up the present simple and present continuous tenses. Perhaps it’s not really about confusing these tenses. It’s more to do with the rampant overuse of the present continuous tense.
STUDENTS WHO MUDDLE THE PRESENT SIMPLE AND PRESENT CONTINUOUS TENSES - WHO’S TO BLAME?
In the Polish context, the blame lies with the Ministry of Education for implementing daft syllabuses, Heads of Departments of Foreign Language Education for sticking blindly to each English language syllabus that comes their way, and English language teachers for teaching in a way that was completely opposite to the way that they probably learned English and other languages.
When it comes to teaching the present simple and present continuous tenses, I highlighted in an earlier post the need for teachers to avoid presenting tenses and grammar items to students according to their perceived level of difficulty. The idea that the verb ‘be’, closely followed by the present continuous tense and present simple tense, must be taught first pervades almost every single English language syllabus in almost every country of the world. Obviously, the present simple tense is not very easy at all to master because only a small minority of students apply it when they should.
Disgustingly, in my view, Polish kids repeat present simple versus present continuous gap fill exercises year after year as they trudge their way through their junior and high schools. Not to mention their private language schools.
1. My father always ________ TV after work (watch)
In true robotic fashion after three years of nonsensical training, most students will quite rightly put watches in the gap. In the real world, however, most of these students say “My father always watching …” or “My father is always watching ... “
Why is that? Why can so many students get the theory right but completely fall down when it comes to speaking?
I have a few hypotheses:
1. Teachers overload students with exercises on the present continuous
2. Teachers overload students with mixed practice gap fill exercises in which students are expected to decide whether a present simple form or present continuous form must go in the gap
3. From a very young age, students of English form an unhealthy habit regarding the use of “I’m” - “I’m” with adjectives, “I’m” with present continuous, so “I’m” with more or less anything.
Don’t get me wrong. Some teachers work wonders with young kids. However, such instructors might be half the problem. They teach the present continuous tense to young kids because it’s fun. I mean: “The monkey is jumping up and down”. “The dog is barking at a tramp”. “The boy is running in his garden”. It’s all fun and games, but such linguistic joviality has the potential to damage students’ control over grammar in years to come. Sometimes, even thirty years down the line. Very occasionally, forever - because students can’t undo fixed habits.
TEACHING THE PRESENT SIMPLE AND PRESENT CONTINUOUS TENSES - IS IT ALL WORTH IT?
My plan for teaching the present simple and present continuous tenses is quite straightforward. Do not teach the present continuous to children at all. In my view, it shouldn’t be introduced to students before they reach the age of fifteen. Let’s be honest, we use the present simple tense far more than the present continuous tense. We want kids to talk about their families and hobbies - in the present simple tense. We want them to talk about their routines - in the present simple tense. Why throw a spanner in the works and dish out ridiculous exercises on the present continuous tense?
In the real world, how often do people use the present continuous tense? Well, not very often. Sure, when somebody rings someone else on the telephone, the caller might ask: “What are you up to?” And the receiver might respond: “Oh I’m just writing a few emails to clients”. Such rare use of a tense does not justify so many wasted hours at school doing fruitless gap fill exercises.
If even the most dedicated eighteen-year-old Polish students of English continue to make the same old verbal bloopers with these tenses, then clearly the grammatical syllabus which dominates the teaching landscape of Polish schools should be consigned to the rubbish bin.
HOW CAN STUDENTS MASTER GRAMMAR TENSES AND USE THEM CORRECTLY IN THE REAL WORLD?
When it comes to teaching the present simple and present continuous tenses, the name of the game is not really “teaching”. It’s more about giving students freedom of expression and the platform to personalise grammar structures.
Students of English should not be filling in gap fill exercises. They should be writing and recording true stories using the present simple tense. They could also do with adding structures and tenses to their Word-Phrase Tables and creating personalised sentences with them. A Word-Phrase Table doesn’t just have to exist for the recording of discrete vocabulary items.
I’ve come down quite hard in this post on Education Ministries, Curriculum designers and teachers. I used to be one of those teachers who dished out gap fill exercises.
I think my point here is about selectivity. Just because the present simple tense might be taught in week 3, it doesn’t mean that the present continuous tense has to be taught in week 4. It’s as if teachers and schools the world over have been brainwashed by this outdated and ineffective idea of a grammatical syllabus.
In fact, the present continuous shouldn’t be taught at all until students are mature enough to be in control of their speech and notice their mistakes.