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Writing Tenses: Tense-Specific ESL Writing Prompts and Topics for Beginners, Intermediates and Advanced

I have written short articles on living and working abroad, teaching, and the globalization of the English language.

Use these prompts to help your students master verb tenses.

Use these prompts to help your students master verb tenses.

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 that 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.

Simple Present

  • 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 6 pm, 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.

Past Simple

  • 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."
What will mankind have accomplished by 2020?

What will mankind have accomplished by 2020?

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 backward to supply a probable cause for said prediction.
  • Brainstorm an encounter with someone, then postulate how the encounter ended.

© 2012 buckleupdorothy


Claire on February 09, 2020:

I've come back to these a few times now... I find targeted writing exercises enormously useful for my students, and there are some great ideas here. I would love to see a collection of writing exercises for other grammar points \too (for example, countable and uncountable nouns - maybe designing a restaurant menu, describing your favorite meal, taking a fridge inventory...). This is already a great list though. Thanks for sharing!

Grace Tan on August 29, 2018:

This guide has been very helpful. Thanks.

feshop18 on March 12, 2018:

very nice article and below is feshop new link 2018

dragonballcartoon on February 26, 2018:

Nice explanation for beginners. Here is another site which I found useful.

happyblending on April 15, 2017:

To be honest I want to learn from you. But can I suggest you something from a student point of view?

I would be grateful if this all grammar terms are taught in a practical manner. I mean you can show some examples of short stories, and at the bottom you can explain the wrong uses of tense.. why its wrong.. what is appropriate.. like wise you can show some examples.. I will be first if you keep a contest.. Ha Ha

Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge.

Moses on November 18, 2016:

Great post! I like the ideas, esp with the perfect tenses. It's hard to find a variety of real life applications and activities for those. Thanks for the post!

Siva kumar on January 21, 2016:

Haiii......good evening ,

I wanted write an article about past so which tense could be come ?

Please guide me ...

Thank you .

buckleupdorothy (author) from Istanbul, Turkey on November 29, 2012:

Thanks for stopping by, you guys! I'm so glad that you found this helpful. If you have any questions or a specific kind of activity or exercise that would be useful for you, please let me know and I would be very happy to write something for you.

Sailaja from India on November 29, 2012:

Gr8. I like this hub. I hail from a country where english is the second language. We speak english but without understanding the grammar. Your's is a good hub for people like me. Keep it up. Expecting more hubs like this. :)

Missy Mac from Illinois on November 14, 2012:

Thanks for the interested article. You are correct! Students should understand how to use each tense and practice helps strengthen achievement. Thanks again!

Joshua Zerbini from Pennsylvania on June 05, 2012:

Your welcome! All right I have done one hub, but there will definitely be more to follow!

buckleupdorothy (author) from Istanbul, Turkey on June 05, 2012:

Thanks Josh, and welcome! I'm looking forward to reading your own work!

Joshua Zerbini from Pennsylvania on June 05, 2012:

Great hub, well written and very informative. Voted up and useful, keep up the good work!

buckleupdorothy (author) from Istanbul, Turkey on April 26, 2012:

I've found the same thing to be true with my students - but these exercises are particularly appreciated because you can start out simple and then work in other tenses as they start to feel more confident. That way they both learn the specific uses, how to use them consistently, and how each added tense can make their writing more mature and nuanced. It's such fun to watch!

Kymberly Fergusson from Germany on April 26, 2012:

Some great writing prompts for English students at all levels!

I struggle to find ideas for conversation classes - the student want to work on tenses, but hate contrived exercises designed to work with only one or two tenses. Strangely, they are much happier when they write answers to the same exercises! Perhaps it's due to a fear of getting it wrong.