Writing Tenses: Tense-Specific ESL Writing Prompts and Topics for Beginners, Intermediates and Advanced
Many students learning English as a foreign language struggle to use the different verb tenses effectively, appropriately and consistently. Frankly, I know a few native English speakers who could use a little practice. In any case, over the course of five years of teaching, I have found that writing prompts which focus exclusively on a single tense can be extremely helpful for students.
Effective use, especially in creative writing, develops over time as the student learns to shift between tenses for accuracy and effect. This approach is especially effective for students who are not particularly concerned with the various names of each tense, as it emphasizes the situations for which each tense is most often used. This allows students to "get a feel" for the different voices and how they all work together.
Below, I have supplied some of the more popular tense-specific writing prompts. I encourage anyone who uses these prompts for practice to leave some feedback about what worked, what didn't, and anything else that might be helpful.
Tips for Classroom Use
Before we jump in, here are some tips for using these prompts in the classroom.
- Collect your favorites and tweak them to suit your students' backgrounds.
- If doing these exercises orally, have your students write down the verbs used.
- For repeated situations such as, "running into an old friend on the street," compare the way different tenses affect the meaning of the answer.
Present Tense Writing Prompts
The present tense, in these cases, includes the simple present ("She always forgets something") and the present continuous ("I am coming"), as well as the trickier present perfect ("We have seen The Matrix far too many times") and present perfect continuous ("She has been singing since her second glass of wine"). However, it is of course possible to split the four into their own writing prompt, or to combine any number of them as is deemed necessary.
- Describe your daily routine.
- Describe a person (real or imaginary) in as much detail as possible.
- What's the most interesting thing you've learned in school or in life? State the facts.
- What is your favorite type of public transportation? Describe it. (This can be a mix of habitual or repeated actions, statement of fact or generalization and scheduled events in the near future.)
- "The uptown bus is always crowded in the morning, but the evening bus, which leaves at 6pm, is usually very quiet. I guess most people stay in the city for dinner after work."
Present Continuous (am/is/are + present participle)
- Describe your immediate surroundings. What are the people around you doing? What are you doing?
- You meet an old friend on the street and he asks you, "So what are you up to these days?" How do you answer? (This one in particular is best if combined with present perfect continuous, below.)
- Make up the most unlikable or annoying character you can think of and describe him or her. (This one is particularly popular with students who work in the service industry and have developed pet peeves.)
- "He is always talking too loud."
- "She is always complaining about how dry the bread is."
Present Perfect (has/have + past participle)
- You've lost all memory of the past and cannot remember when exactly anything happened. Your grandchild comes to visit you in the nursing home and asks you many questions. Write a conversation between you and your grandchild.
- "My, you've grown since I last saw you! How long has it been?"
- "I haven't seen you since my birthday party, three months ago."
- "Have you seen a movie in 3D?"
- "No, sonny boy, I have not seen a movie in 3D."
- "Have you been to France?"
- "Yes, I have been to France twice."
- What have you/has mankind/has science/has your child accomplished in (pick your time frame)?
- "Man has walked on the moon."
- "We have sent a monkey into space."
- "Doctors have [not yet] discovered a cure for cancer."
Present Perfect Continuous (has/have + been + present participle)
- You go to the doctor and she asks, "How have you been feeling?" How do you respond? Describe any kind of illness you like. Bonus points if you can also include possible reasons for your illness.
- You run into a friend on the street and he asks you how you've been and what you've been doing. What do you say in response? (Use both present perfect continuous and present continuous to describe things you have been doing and things you're still doing.)
Past Tense Writing Prompts
I'll present the past tense writing prompts in much the same way, although I strongly encourage teachers and students to recombine them as they see fit, and to explore the ways each tense supports and is supported by others. More advanced ESL or EFL students will find the recombination process to be an excellent opportunity to clarify their understanding of particular uses, and to explore common partnerships between the tenses.
- What did you do last weekend?
- Write a short fairytale. (This is perhaps most effective when combined with the past perfect)
- Describe a major historical event.
- Write what you know of your family history. For example, where are your parents and grandparents from? What did they do for work? (This is also good fun when combined with the past perfect.)
Past Perfect [had + past participle]
- Pretend you're a stern parent and your child has made some mistakes. Rather than just saying, "I told you so," construct more descriptive "if" clauses using the past perfect. (You can also give retroactive advice to parents from children, or from citizens to public officials, or from employees to their employer. Whatever suits the situation and student.)
- "If you had fed your fish as you had promised, they would not have escaped and eaten the dog."
- Come up with a scenario and an imaginary dialogue. (Reported speech combines past perfect with another tense, usually past or present simple. You can also assign a scenario to your students.)
Past Continuous [was/were + verb-ing]
- Describe a number of interruptions. (This will also require the simple past.)
- Set the scene for a murder mystery.
- "The storm was howling, and a dog was barking somewhere nearby."
Past Perfect Continuous [had + been + verb-ing]
- Continue the mystery and transition from stage-setting to the action! (Here, students use the past perfect continuous for its most common purpose: to express actions that were in progress before another action. They will see how it is used to add temporal layers to a story, or to force the plot to progress.)
- Explain the cause of something. (Provide your students with a selection of situations or images, such as someone in detention, someone in a wheelchair or a baby bird on the ground, and have them provide the cause)
- "The kid was in detention because he had been caught lying to his teacher."
- Compare with past perfect "if" clauses (see the 'stern parent' exercise) and determine the difference between the two.
- "If you had been feeding your fish every day, they would not have escaped and eaten the dog."
Future Tense Writing Prompts
Future Simple [will + verb in present form]
- Make a New Year's resolution or a promise. (Have your students make promises–either to themselves or others–using the future simple.)
- Make a prediction. What will the coming year bring?
Future Continuous [will + be + verb-ing]
- What are you doing tomorrow afternoon?
- "I will be playing soccer in the park."
- What will you be doing at 8 a.m. on Monday morning? (Provide a time in the future and have your students predict what they, their family, or their friends will be doing at that time.)
Future Perfect [will have + verb in past participle form]
- What will you have done by 3 p.m. on Sunday? (Have your students repeat the previous exercise. This time, have them state or guess what they, their family, or friends will have done by that time.
- "By 3 p.m. I will have finished playing soccer in the park."
Future Perfect Continuous [will have been + past participle]
The two main uses of future perfect continuous are: to explain the cause of a future situation or action; and to express a clear future duration.
Ex. "You will have been driving for more than six hours, so I will drive after dinner."
- Brainstorm future situations (or use the ones from the previous predictions exercise), then work backwards to supply a probable cause for said prediction.
- Brainstorm an encounter with someone, then postulate how the encounter ended.
Poll for ESL/EFL Teachers, Tutors, and Students
What subjects you would like material or lesson plans for? I would be very happy to provide exercises and explanations for any subject.
© 2012 buckleupdorothy