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How to Teach Present Simple To Be (Positive)
The present simple tense accounts for around 60% of tensed verbs in English and for this reason is often the first tense taught in course books. Several units of a course book are typically devoted to teaching the present simple, starting with positive, negative and interrogative statements using the verb to be.
When to Teach
The present simple is typically introduced at beginner and elementary levels. To be is the first verb to be introduced in this tense in its positive forms. This is then usually followed by negative and interrogative forms.
We use the present simple tense with “to be” to express states that are true at the moment of speaking e.g. “I am hot”, “You are Spanish” and “She is 27”. Subject pronouns stand in for other nouns including names of people or, in the case of it and they, things.
|Subject + to be||Contracted form||Description|
|I am||I’m||First person singular|
|You are||You’re||Second person singular|
|He is||He’s||Third person singular male|
|She is||She’s||Third person singular female|
|They are||They’re||Third person singular unknown gender|
|It is||It’s||Third person singular non-human|
|We are||We’re||First person plural|
|You are||You’re||Second person plural|
|They are||They’re||Third person plural|
Some languages (such as Chinese) do not usually end a syllable with a consonant sound (or only with limited consonants). This typically causes these students to add a vowel to the end of pronouns, the verb, or the contracted form.
Problems for Students
Some languages such as Russian omit the verb “to be” from sentences altogether. As such these students are likely to attempt to make sentences with just the subject pronoun. Part of this may also be because students struggle to hear the pronouns when they are contracted. Students therefore require plenty of exposure to hear the different forms.
Different languages can vary in the variety of subject pronouns that are available to its speakers. Such factors for the variety include:
English does not distinguish number in the second person, though other languages do i.e. in the question “How are you?”, you could mean one person, or everybody in the room.
Inclusive or Exclusive:
With the first person plural pronoun (i.e. we) there can be ambiguity as to whether it includes the listener or in fact refers to the speaker and one or more other person. This could be a problem for speakers of languages where different pronouns exist to mark this e.g. Vietnamese.
Many languages do not have different gender pronouns, and some (such as Chinese) have added them only due to European influence. In English, “they” is also a third person singular pronoun if the gender is unknown. Generally, this is not taught to such low level students. Further, an interesting point is the possible addition to the language of genderless third person pronouns. This is to recognise people who identify as neither gender. Given that some 30 or more pronouns have been suggested, English gender pronouns could soon become much more complicated.
When referring to non-human entities, some languages (e.g. Russian) use the masculine and feminine third person pronouns depending on the gender of the noun. In English, gendered pronouns generally don’t refer to non-human nouns with the notable exceptions of pets and ships (which are always female).
Many languages have more and less formal versions of “you” including French, German and Russian. Japan famously has a very complicated system of second person pronouns. English achieves formality through other means.
Consequently, students often feel confused initially about the correct pronoun to use. The biggest problem tends to be with the use of third person pronouns.
Since this is typically covered in the first lesson of elementary courses, the context of greetings and introductions is often used. Often this develops into, or out of, countries and nationalities.
Greetings and Introductions
Assuming students will have taken a beginner course, or have had some exposure to English, they should be familiar with some common greetings and introduction phrases. Therefore these can be presented in short dialogues. After modelling, drilling and having students practise the dialogues (as they are presented and with the students’ own details), the language point can be highlighted in the models. Students can do a form of guided discovery by having a table to complete from the examples, and matching the subject pronouns to pictures.
Countries and Nationalities
Often books chose such countries that students are likely to know, although I always like to find out how much students know by giving them a blank world map and having them work in teams to name as many countries as they can. One benefit of this approach is that students consolidate their knowledge of neighbouring countries, which are often the most useful. Further however, students also move from the simple countries that everyone knows to teaching each other some of the other countries. I generally challenge students to come up with both the name of the country and the adjective for the nationality, awarding points accordingly. At this level it’s sensible to have a clear rule about spelling. Since it’s early in the course, a one letter rule (one letter can be wrong, missing or additional) or spelling is unimportant providing it makes sense, seems reasonable.
From this game, various sentences can be formed with most of the pronouns. If the class is completely multilingual (i.e. every student is from a different country) or only contains one gender including the teacher, some made up examples on the board can fill in the gaps. As “it” is only usually for non-human entities, it doesn’t really describe nationality. However, nationality adjectives are generally the same as origin adjectives. Therefore “it” could be used to describe the origin of something in the classroom.
Controlled practice activities typically start by encouraging students to complete sentences with the correct form of ‘be’ based on the pronoun. Progressive activities may ask students to select the pronoun, or make whole sentences from prompts e.g. Maria Sharapova / Russian / Tennis player.
A common activity that teachers use for practising this grammar point is for students to assume different identities. To do this, the teacher gives students some alternative information which they use during dialogues. Such information could include a different name, nationality, age, marital status and job. Giving students a table to complete should ensure students say all of the information. As students will not be able to form questions at this point, students can use the phrases “Tell me about you?” and “What about …?”
There is one clearly evident problem in that this only practises one of the forms, I am. However, one way to get around this is to divide the class into two groups. Once the groups have asked everybody, students pair up with a partner from the other group. This way they can tell their new group about the people in the other group (practising he and she). Further still, students can report back on people who have the same information (practising we and they).
In pairs, students have worksheets with different information about a group of people. Students take turns to describe the people they have, while their partner completes the empty information. Of course, this means students are primarily using third person pronouns. However, leaving blank spaces for the students to write their own answers will include the first person.
Guess About Your Partner
If students haven’t already asked everyone in the class, they can make guesses about their partner. E.g. “You’re 21”. The other student can confirm or deny the sentence with a simple “yes” or “no”. This game encourages students to use the second person and provides a fun way to get to know each other.
This is basically twenty questions with sentences. After students have got to know each other well, the teacher can choose one student in their mind. Students then make statements and the teacher confirms if they are true or not. When the class know, they can guess. To discourage early guessing, students can have just one life which they lose if they are wrong. Students will need to say “It is a man/woman” at the beginning, following which they can use “he” or “she”. Alternatively, they can use “they”.
Songs are a great source of language. Because listening is enjoyable (subject to taste), students often don’t mind listening to songs repeatedly. Therefore they come to know the lyrics, which if containing clear examples of a language point, provide memorable examples for students. The following songs contain several examples: