How to Teach the Present Simple

ESL Class
Speaking in Class. Erik Isakson / Getty Images

Teaching the present simple tense is one of the first, and most important tasks when teaching beginners. It's a good idea to teach the present simple of the verb 'to be' to begin with, and introduce simple adjectives to help students expand their understanding of the verb 'to be'. After English learners are comfortable with the present and past forms of the verb 'to be', teaching the present simple and past simple will be much easier.

Introducing the Present Simple

1, Start by Modeling the Present Simple

Most English learners are false beginners. In other words, they have already studied English at some point. Begin teaching the present simple by stating some of your routines:

I get up at six thirty in the morning.
I teach at the Portland English School.
I have lunch at one o'clock.

Students will recognize most of these verbs. Model some questions for the students as well. At this point, it's a good idea to ask yourself a question and provide the answer.

When do you have dinner? - I have dinner at six o'clock.
When do you come to school? - I come to school at two o'clock.
Where do you live? - I live in Portland.

Continue by asking students the same questions. Students will be able to follow your lead and answer appropriately.

2, Introduce Third Person - S

Once the students are comfortable speaking about their own basic daily activities, introduce the third person singular for 'he' and 'she' which will prove the most difficult for students.

Again, model the present simple third person 's' for the students.

When does Mary have dinner? - She has dinner at six o'clock.
When does John come to school? - He comes to school at two o'clock.
Where does she live? - He lives in Portland.

Ask each student a question and ask another for a reply, creating a chain of questions and answers changing from 'you' to 'he' and 'she'.

This will help students memorize this crucial difference.

Where do you live? - (Student) I live in Portland.
Where does he live? - (Student) He lives in Portland.

3. Introduce the Negative

Introduce the negative form of the present simple in the same manner as above. Remember to continually model the form to the students and immediately encourage a similar answer.

Does Anne live in Seattle? - No, she doesn't live in Seattle. She lives in Portland.
Do you study French? - No, you don't study French. You study English.

4. Introduce Questions

Up to this point, students have been answering questions so they should be familiar with the form. Make sure to point out the difference between 'yes / no' questions and information questions. Start with 'yes / no' questions encouraging students to answer in the short form.

Do you work every day? - Yes, I do. / No, I don't.
Do they live in Portland? - Yes, they do. / No, they don't.
Does she study English? - Yes, she does / No, she doesn't. 

Once students are comfortable with short 'yes / no' questions, move on to information questions. Make sure to vary the subjects up to help students become familiar with the tendency to drop the 's'. 

Where do you live? - I live in Seattle.
When do you get up in the morning? - I get up at seven o'clock.
Where does she go to school? - She goes to school at the University of Washington. 

5. Discuss Important Time Words

Once students become comfortable with the present simple, introduce important time words such as 'every day' and adverbs of frequency (usually, sometimes, rarely, etc.). Contrast these with common time words used in the present continuous such as 'now', 'at the moment', etc. 

She usually takes the bus to work. Today, she is driving.
My friend sometimes goes out for dinner. At the moment, he's cooking dinner at home.
Jennifer rarely talks to stranger. Right now, she's taking to a friend. etc.



Practicing the Present Simple

1. Explaining the Present Simple on the Board

Students will now recognize the present simple tense and be able to respond to simple questions. It's time to introduce the grammar. Use a present simple tense timeline on the board to stress the fact that this tense is used to express routines.

I also like to use simple charts showing the underlying structure of this tense.

2. Comprehension Activities

Once you have introduced the tense, and used the whiteboard to explain forms, continue teaching the present simple tense through activities which use the present simple in context. I suggest this reading comprehension about daily routines, or this interview listening comprehension.

3. Continued Activity Practice

Students have learned to recognize the present simple, as well as understand the form in comprehension activities. It's time to continue by having students use the present simple to describe their own lives in both spoken and written form. This detailed lesson on daily routines will help you continue the practice.

Expected Problems

Here are most common challenges for students when using the present simple:

  • Confusing with the present continuous for actions occurring at the moment of speaking.
  • Use of 's' in the third person.
  • Auxiliary verb usage in the question and negative form, but NOT in the positive form.
  • Placement of adverbs of frequency.