The Verb Tense Activity Guaranteed to Improve Speaking Skills

Here’s the logical, efficient hack to teach your English students how to differentiate between past and present tenses and help them to improve their speaking skills.   It’s a timed flash-card game using 41 keywords normally associated with the four basic verb tenses in present and past.

Keywords like: always, already, still, last year which even your lower level students will understand.  Students come away from playing the game with a feeling of clarity and accomplishment about choosing between verb tenses.

Another upside is that the game gives your busy, stressed students time to practice conjugating in class.   It can be used with lower and upper levels, in a large class or one-on-one.   It’s great for use as the exercise of choice for the first day of a business intensive or broken into smaller pieces for lower levels.  And there’s hardly any prep if you plasticize the flash-cards and use them again or if ask your students to make their own set of cards.

I named the game after the Nike slogan:

The name of the game is : Just Do It from the Nike-logo

Photo credit : Nike logo by Wieden & Kennedy ad agency

Help your students to speak automatically.

We’ve all seen it.  You ask a simple question and your student hesitates formulating his response.  So many decisions to make before speaking:  Who? What? When?.  You can see his lips moving, silently sounding out the verb he’s chosen to use: “cut, cut, cut” or “swim, swam, swum”, searching his brain through the irregular verb chart he memorized years ago.

Throughout my 25-year career teaching business English in France every single one of my students had the same goal: to improve their speaking skills.

Businessmen and women are already stressed by constantly changing roles at work and now are forced to communicate more and more in English.  No matter the job title, ( secretaries, accountants, salesmen, project managers)  or personality type (introverted, extroverted, confident, shy) speaking was always the major hang-up with my students.

But why is speaking in English so stressful?

Its risky to speak english

Here in France, and maybe in the country where you teach too, educational level is so important for status at work. Spelling and grammar skills are scrutinized in emails and a  quick wit is needed in meetings where everyone speaks at once.

So you can imagine the stress when called upon to do these very same things in English!  Completely blocked and unable to speak,  some of my English learners would hide behind their emails instead of picking up the phone to communicate.

I wanted desperately to help my students.   To persuade them to accept the fact that they were going to make mistakes and to change their goal from accuracy (speaking perfectly) to fluency (being self-assured, friendly and open). In other words, to just be themselves in English.

Quest for a speaking activity

I racked my brain trying to find ways to help them improve their speaking skills quickly and less painfully.   It kept me awake at night

I remembered my French lessons where we drilled one verb tense per month and learned general vocabulary based on different topics.   My fluency in French came from learning to build a sentence around the verb and being at ease with choosing between verb tenses.

I thought maybe it would work for my stressed, blocked students.  Maybe it was hesitation choosing the right verb tense and lack of practice conjugating that hindered some of my students from expressing themselves spontaneously.   Whatever the exact reason for them being blocked, I had to build their confidence in speaking!

What’s so difficult about choosing between verb tenses?

I started beginning every course by evaluating verb tense skills and then reviewing what I deemed to be the most difficult tenses.  But it just wasn’t  effective for improving speaking skills.

And frankly, I was tired of explaining the differences between present simple and present continuous.  I was tired of handing out photocopies of present perfect exercises that my students would stuff away into their over-flowing notebooks, never to be reviewed.  Never to be really “learned”.

tired of explaining

Photo credit: Huffington Post

I thought to myself that there’s got to be a logical way for students to decide between tenses. A  way where they wouldn’t have to depend on explanations based on ‘feelings’ or ‘messages to convey’.   An exercise or a game to help my students ‘get it’ and use it automatically.

I was convinced that to achieve fluency, it was fruitless just to memorize the three forms listed in an irregular verb chart.  What was needed was a “hack” or shortcut to practice conjugating complete sentences in the past and present.  A fun game that any of my students could master and one that would foster the confidence and assurance needed to open the door to fluency.

Our brain remembers by association

I knew the more ‘associations’ we form with new material to be learned, the easier it is for our brain to pull up the answer.   I had read articles and even books on how to remember by association.   But what could I ‘associate’ with each verb tense to make ‘recall’ automatic?

1st idea:  I had been teaching my students to associate an image with each verb tense.  In short, it went something like this.  Present simple was an image of a habit.  Present Continuous an image of ‘plans and projects’.  Simple past an image of dates and details in the past like chronological order.  And for Present Perfect an image of life in general.

Not good enough. My students were still spending too much time ruminating.  The definition of fluency is automatic.  “Look further,” I told myself.

2nd idea: I looked at that irregular verb chart and ‘associated’ a time expression with each column. The first column I delegated to the present simple and associated the time expression ‘always’.  The second column represented past simple and I associated the time expression  ‘yesterday’ and for the third column I chose ‘already’.

I wrote these three words at the top of each column and asked my students to go down the list making a complete sentence with each verb and the keyword at the top of the column.

Not good enough.  The students liked the idea of conjugating with ‘keywords’ but the exercise quickly became tedious and boring as they struggled to find an object for each verb.  It just wasn’t inspiring or meaningful.  I was close but not there yet.

3rd idea:
   I was lying in bed when I thought of using more keywords and fewer verbs. I went through my favorite grammar book ”Oxford Grammar Practice – Basic” and made a list of all the ‘keywords’ generally associated with the four main tenses in present and past.   I found 41 different ‘keywords’ in the first go round.  Keywords like:  usually, yet, still, in 2010, last year, ever, since and for.

I made flashcards with the keyword on one side.   For the answer on the back,  I decided to use the verb “to do it” in first person and affirmative.  So now my students would no longer be expected to create a sentence but simply build one automatically with the same verb and object because fluency means automatic.

The clue word would be inserted into one of four choices:   “I do it”, ‘”I am doing it”, “I did it” and I have done it”.

Final Idea: The speaking skills activity would be:

1) associating 41 ‘keywords’ with the four main tenses in past and present.

2) practicing in first person

3) practicing in affirmative

4) practicing using only one verb ‘to do it’.

5) timing students as they go through the 41 flash-cards.

6) M&Ms for the fastest recorded time.

Here’s how best to present the game to your business English students.

Watch it in a video or Read on for more details.

Put away your irregular verb chart for now.

For some of my business English students, the irregular verb chart is one of the few ‘grammar’ lessons they remember. They memorized it like a song almost.   In fact here’s a fellow English teacher Jason from  rapping the irregular chart!   This is great fun for kids!

But In fact native English speakers are not taught this chart.  Rather they learn from early on short simple sentences in various tenses.  I wanted my students to eventually learn that irregular verb chart with simple, short sentences using keywords.  Just like a native.

So let’s concentrate on speaking skills and one verb “do, did, done”

Here’s the verb ‘to do it’ conjugated in four tenses, using first person singular and affirmative voice.Insert 41 keywords into four simple sentences

We want to keep the game simple in order to practice speaking ‘automatically’. In later lessons you can use the same flash-cards to practice conjugating negatives and questions and other irregular verbs. But that’s not the goal of the game.

The flash card game should go like this. “I always do it. I am doing it this week. I did it last week. I have already done it.”  All the way through the 41 cards.

The keyword games sounds like this.

Not only do the students learn to use the correct tense with each of the keywords, they learn word order.

Before presenting the speaking skills game, give them this handy one-page cheat sheet.

Just Do It Cheat Sheet Keyword Table

Students will make their own flashcards from this table, one tense at a time. Keyword on one side, and the answer conjugated on the flip side. There’s a link to download the cheat sheet below in the download blue box.   Or design a colorful infographic of your own.

Step N° 1: Introducing the present simple keywords

Just Do It Cheat Sheet Present simple keywords     Keywords present simple

Point out the list of keywords for present simple.  Look how many there are!  We use this tense a lot.  And this is by no means an exhaustive list, but instead a “useful” list and “doable” for any level.

Help your students to “see” the simple idea of habits as you go through each keyword. Lower levels may have to translate in order to get the picture but that’s totally OK.

You may need to draw a chart on the board like this one below, to depict the frequency of habits and routines, from 0% percent of the time to 100% of the time. Or pull out one of your favorite graphics like a bar chart so students can visualize it easily.   Ask lower level students to draw it in their notebooks so they can remember it better.

Draw a chart to depict frequency adverbs

Now associate the present simple phrase “I do it” with the idea of habits or routines.   When students hear the phrase “I do it” they need to feel the idea of habit and routine.

Point out the word order for present simple

You can explain at this point that these are called adverbs of frequency and they take a special place in the sentence, unlike regular adverbs which follow the main verb. I usually explain that singular words (adverbs) go before the verb and that a phrase like ‘every day’ should go at the beginning or at the end. Student’s choice.

Give your students plenty of time to make their flashcards

Allow plenty of time to make the flash-cards for speaking skills

Upper levels will probably prefer to have an already prepared set of cards but lower levels appreciate making a set that they can keep. You can find a link to a prepared set of flashcards ready to print below in the blue download box.

Students will need ample time to practice going through the flash cards before moving onto the next tense. This practice time will probably go quickly with upper-level students. Be careful not to bore them. They prefer to be challenged.

Why not use other verbs and be creative?

Some students are going to want to change it up and create their own sentences rather than sticking to just one verb “to do it” but discourage this.  Explain to them that that’s not the goal today.  The goal is fluency and developing the habit to automatically associate the clue word with the verb tense.  Let them know that you have a quiz ready to test their skills in all four tenses and with plenty of irregular verbs at the end of the game.  Find the link to download the quiz in the blue download box below.

Step N° 2:  Explaining the Present Continuous Keywords

Now that your students ‘feel good’ about the present simple, introduce the present continuous with the “straightforward” idea that it’s different from routine whereas present simple is all about routine.    You will want them to understand the difference between everyday  as “my habit” and  today  as “different from my habits”.

Just Do It Cheat Sheet Present Continuous keywords  Keywords present continuous

Word order in present continuous is not so easy especially the keyword “still”. To help them remember, try singing the song title by the German group Scorpion  “I’m still loving you”.    Works every time.

Present continuous is different from routine

Help your students to see how “routine and repetitive” present simple is compared to present continuous. In present simple, it’s over and over. So boring. But present continuous is all about new and “different”.

Today is different from every day.

Compare: “I’m doing it just  today, not every day.”

I added the word “just” to make the comparison more clear. The idea is understood when we use present continuous. Keywords with the word “this” are markers for present continuous such as “This week, this month, this year.” And words with “every” are great examples of present simple and routine such as “every week”, “every year”. Help your students to “see” that “today” is not every day. “Today” is different.

In fact, some actions are so rare, so different from our routine,  we have to put reminders in our agenda.

Like projects:

Present Continuous in my agenda and in my projects

Or: meetings and appointments.

Present continuous in my meetings and in my appointments

Or when we’re having problems:

Use present continuous when solving problems

Now shuffle the cards for the present and practice both tenses now.

Step N°3:  Presenting the Simple Past Keywords

When your students have a good grasp for the present, move onto simple past and associate the idea of dates.   

Just Do It Cheat Sheet Simple Past Keywords         Keywords simple past

If anyone makes a statement in the simple past such as “I did it”, my ear is waiting to hear “when”. I need a date.

Simple Past is all about chronological order

I want a date to “fix” that event or action on the timeline in my head.   Simple Past is all about chronological order.

Simple Past 'when I was at school'

The keywords with “when I was” are often indicators of the simple past. Point out to your adult students that they are not “in school” at the moment and that they are probably not on holiday either. These “periods” in the past are not associated with our present situation. Very important idea.

Simple Past 'Last time"

Remember keywords with “every” are associated with routine. Keywords with “this” are associated with the present continuous. Keywords with “last” are definitely used in the simple past. Last year, is not every year, and not this year.


Simple Past is history. No connection to the present.

Simple past is “history”. The keyword “yesterday” is not connected to “today. “Last month” is not “this month”. And “in 2010” is not “this year”.

TIP N° 2: For Simple Past “I did it”, students are used to associating the idea that “the action is finished”. OK that’s true, but it proves to be confusing when we begin to talk about the Present Perfect tense “I’ve done it” because those actions could be finished or not finished. Actions like “I’ve visited Spain (in my lifetime)”. That trip to Spain is long ago finished. So I like to insist on the idea that for the simple past, there is no connection to the ‘present’. No connection to today.  

Allow a little practice time for simple past but most students get it quickly. Now shuffle all the cards and try three tenses.

Step 3: Finally introduce the present perfect keywords

Just Do It Cheat sheet Keywords Present Perfect    keywords present perfect

Now we’re moving on to the present perfect. Here word order is more complicated because we’re introducing questions and negative forms. The simple idea here is “my life up to today”

Present Perfect my life up to today

We generally say that there are three ways to use the present perfect. 1) My life in general. But remember no dates, no details. 2) Since and for (the easiest idea for most students) and 3) Just or recentlyGet your students to see the connection to the present.

We often ask a general question in present perfect to begin a conversation. “Have you ever….? The understood message is ‘in your life’. No dates.

Present Perfect "In my Life" poem

In this insightful text, there are no precise dates. No reference to when ‘in my life’. This is an example of present perfect at its purest.

Present Perfect since and for

The idea of since and for is that the action began in the past and is still true today. This is probably the easiest context for learners.  It’s probably where they got the idea that actions in the simple past are “finished” and in the present perfect they’re not finished.

Present Perfect just recently

“I have just done it” means recently. Whether its “5 minutes ago” or “yesterday” is not important. Recently is good enough.

After you’ve given the students time to practice the present perfect keywords, mix them up with the simple past keywords. They will be slower and less sure of the difference between the two past tenses. When you see them fumbling, gently ask them “Is that a date? or “Can we add the phrase -in my life in general?”

Make title cards for each verb tense so students remember better

TIP N° 3: Some students remember ‘spatially’ so you could create a title card for each tense and students could place each keyword in its proper column.

Time your students' speaking skills

Students should aim to be under 3 minutes time when going through all 41 cards. Time yourself so more advanced students can try to beat your time!  My time:  1:23 !!!

Download the slide deck from SlideShare to present the game in class.

Practice with this Quizlet Flashcard set online

Quizlet instructions for flashcards

Go to and search for the ‘Verb Tense keywords’ under ellenBEA


About the author:   Ellen Dubois is a semi-retired Business English teacher and blogger who shares teaching tips and game templates.   She’s an advocate for creating games and competition to foster engagement and fun in the classroom. She hopes to  help other teachers find the joy of teaching Business English to adults and to succeed at making a living abroad.

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2 Responses

  1. Fantastic way of getting students to choose the right tense spontaneously! I’ve used a similar activity based on the same idea and it’s always worked wonders!
    I love your flash cards, thanks for sharing them!

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