How to Teach the Present Continuous to ESL Students

Classroom lessons

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Disclaimer: This article is designed mainly for teachers planning a lesson on present continuous. For a more comprehensive explanation and detailed usage of the form, please access Learn How to Use Present Continuous.



Teaching the present continuous usually takes place after the present, past, and future simple forms have been introduced. However, many books and curricula choose to introduce the present continuous immediately after the present simple. This order can be sometimes confusing as students may have difficulties understanding the subtlety of something that happens as a routine (as expressed by present simple) and an action that takes place at the moment of speaking (as expressed by present continuous). No matter when you introduce this tense, it's important to provide as much context as possible by using appropriate time expressions, such as "now", "at the moment", "currently", etc. 

How to Introduce the Present Continuous

Start by Modeling the Present Continuous

Begin teaching the present continuous by speaking about what is happening in the classroom at the moment of introduction. Once students recognize this usage, you can extend it to other things you know are happening now. This can include simple facts such as,

The sun is shining at the moment.

We're learning English at the moment.

etc.

Make sure to mix it up by using a number of different subjects.

I'm teaching the present continuous right now.
My wife is working in her office at the moment.
Those boys are playing tennis over there.
etc.

Ask Questions about Pictures

Choose a magazine or web page with lots of activity, and ask students questions based on the pictures.

What are they doing now?
What is she holding in her hand?
Which sport are they playing?
etc.

Introduce the Negative Form

To teach the negative form, use the magazine or web pages to ask yes or no questions focusing on eliciting a negative response. You may want to model a few examples before asking students.

Is she playing tennis? - No, she isn't playing tennis. She's playing golf.
Is he wearing shoes? - No, he's wearing boots.
Are they eating lunch?
Is she driving a car?
etc.

Once students have practiced a few rounds of questions, distribute magazines or other pictures around the classroom and ask students to grill each other on what is happening at the moment.

How to Practice the Present Continuous

Explaining the Present Continuous on the Board

Use a present continuous timeline to illustrate the fact that the present continuous is used to express what is happening at the moment. If you feel comfortable with the level of the class, introduce the idea that the present continuous can be used to speak about what is happening not only at the very moment but around the wider present (tomorrow, Sunday, etc.). It's a good idea at this point to contrast the present continuous auxiliary verb 'to be' with other auxiliary verbs, pointing out that 'ing' must be added to the verb in the present continuous form (subject + be (am, is, are) + verb(ing)).

Comprehension Activities

Comprehension activities such as describing what is happening in the photos in magazines or practicing with dialogue will help students solidify their understanding of the present continuous. In addition, present continuous worksheets will help tie in the form with appropriate time expressions, and review quizzes contrasting present simple with the present continuous might be very helpful as well.

Continued Activity Practice

It's a good idea to compare and contrast the present continuous with the present simple form once students have understood the difference. Also, using the present continuous for other purposes such as discussing present projects at work or speaking about future scheduled meetings will help students become familiar with the other uses of the present continuous form.

Challenges with the Present Continuous

The greatest challenge with present continuous is understanding the difference between a routine action (present simple) and an activity occurring at the moment. It's quite common for students to use the present continuous to speak about daily habits once they've learned the form, so comparing the two forms early on will help students understand the differences and avoid potential mistakes. The use of the present continuous to express future scheduled events is best left for intermediate level classes. Finally, students might also have difficulties understanding that stative verbs may not be used with continuous forms.

Present Continuous Lesson Plan Example

  1. Greet the class and talk about what is happening at the moment in class. Make sure to pepper your sentences with appropriate time expressions such as 'at the moment' and 'now'.
  2. Ask students what they are doing at the moment to help them begin using the form. At this point in the lesson, keep things simple by not diving into the grammar. Try to get students to provide correct answers in a relaxed conversational manner.
  3. Use a magazine or find pictures online and discuss what is happening in the picture. 
  4. As you discuss what the people are doing in the photos, begin to differentiate by asking questions with 'you' and 'we'. 
  5. At the end of this discussion, write up a few example sentences on the whiteboard. Make sure to use different subjects and ask students to identify the differences between each sentence or question. 
  6. Point out that the helping verb 'be' changes, but note that the main verb (playing, eating, watching, etc.) remains the same.
  7. Begin contrasting the present continuous with the present simple by alternating questions. For example: What is your friend doing at the moment? and Where does your friend live? 
  1. Get student input on the differences between the two forms. Help students understand as necessary. Make sure to point out the differences in time expression and use between the two forms. 
  2. Ask students to write out ten questions, five with the present continuous and five with the present simple. Move around the room helping students with any difficulties. 
  3. Have students interview each other using the ten questions. 
  4. For homework, ask students to write a short paragraph contrasting what a friend or family member does every day and what they are doing at the moment. Model a few sentences on the board so that students clearly understand the homework assignment.