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Essential Time Expressions

Common time expressions that students often misunderstand or are unaware of

I am continually astounded by students who have studied the Present Perfect Continuous and Future Continuous but seem to be coming across “the day after tomorrow” and the distinction between “in two weeks” and “two weeks later” for the first time in my classes. This article is a list of such time expressions, along with some ideas on how to teach them. Those “neglected time expressions” are:

  1. “In” and “after/later”; “ago” and “before”
  2. “Very often” etc
  3. “Once every two weeks” etc.
  4. “Minutes” and “about”
  5. “In the morning” and “a.m.”
  6. The many uses of “ever”
  7. The three meanings of “when”
  8. “This”, “last” and “next”
  9. “Last week”/“In the last week”
  10. The general meanings of “in” and “at”

1. “In” and “after/later”; “ago” and “before”

Students are often unaware that “I have a meeting on Monday, so I’ll see you in two days” and “I have a meeting on Monday, so I’ll see you two days later” actually have different meanings. “In” is much more common as it is used to mean “from now”, whereas “later” and “after” mean “after that time”. There is the same distinction between “ago” and “before”, with “before” often used with the Past Perfect in sentences like “I wasn’t surprised because I’d seen him two days before” because it means “before that time”. It can help to tell them that “in” is the opposite of “ago” and “after/later” is the opposite of “before”, especially for the many students who are more familiar with “ago” than with “in”.

2. “Very often” etc

Especially at low levels, textbooks often present just “never”, “sometimes”, “often”, “usually” and “always”, and expect students to talk about their habits using them. Even for the very rare classes who don’t know all these already, that takes away the real communication of most speaking activities because they are forced to lump together most of their activities as things they do “sometimes”. Adding at least two new ones from the list “almost always”, “very often”, “hardly ever”, “very rarely” and “almost never” makes communication more real, makes them feel like they are learning something new, and means there are more communication games that you can play – all without adding to the complexity of the lesson at all.

3. “Once every two weeks” etc.

Textbooks also often ask students to talk about their routines with the expressions “once/twice/three times/four times a day/week/month/year”. When students struggled to really communicate without the expressions “once every two months” etc I used to blame my practice activities, but now I just teach it. Although it does add a certain amount of complexity, the rule is fairly easy to teach – you can’t say “once a six months” because “a” can’t be put in front of numbers or with a plural noun, as it means “one”.

4. “Minutes” and “about”

Another thing textbooks often expect students to do is to answer the question “What time is it?” without ever teaching them how to say times like 14:03. The options in this case are “three minutes past two (in the afternoon)”, “fourteen oh three”, “two oh three p.m.”, “about five past two (in the afternoon)”, “just before five past two (in the afternoon)” and “just after two (o’clock in the afternoon)”. Which one you want to teach would depend on the students’ level and what they already know, with the two easiest probably being the ones with “oh” and “about”.

5. “In the morning” and “a.m.”

Something you might have missed in the examples above was how the combinations “three minutes past two p.m.” and “fourteen oh three in the afternoon” didn’t make it into the list. This is because they belong to two totally separate systems for telling the time, in the same way as you can’t say “fourteen o’clock”.

6. The many uses of “ever”

Students often learn the useful rule of thumb that “ever” is used with the Present Perfect (Simple), but in fact it is the opposite of “never” and you can replace any example of “never” with “not ever”. “Ever” can also be used in any question that “never” could be an answer for. Examples of uses with other tenses include “I don’t think I will ever go there” (future), “Don’t you ever clean your room?” (Present Simple) and “Did you ever go to The Louvre when you lived in Paris?” (Simple Past).

7. The three meanings of “when”

“When” has different meanings in the three sentences “When I got home, my wife was wearing a gorilla outfit”, “When I got home, my wife put on a gorilla outfit” and “When I got home, my wife had destroyed my gorilla outfit”, being “at the time”, “after” and “before” respectively. Presenting this can save potential confusions and even be a good way of first introducing the Past Continuous and/or Past Perfect tenses.

8. “This”, “last” and “next”

Although students have usually studied prepositions of time and had their errors corrected, many of them don’t seem to know the very simple rule that “this”, “next” and “last” take no articles or prepositions, so that “in 2011” is “this year” not “in this year” and “at the weekend” is “next weekend” and not “at next weekend”.

9. “Last week”/“In the last week”

This is one that I have found books teach more often nowadays, but my students are often coming across it for the first time. Typical contrasting sentences include “Have you had any accidents in the last year?” and “Did you have any accidents last year?” Presenting this point in context like this shows the difference straightaway as “last year” means a finished time and so can’t be used with the Present Perfect tense. The Present Perfect is used to show a connection to the present, and so “in the last year” in that example sentence must mean in the twelve months up to now, as indeed it does. In fact, “in the last twelve” months is often used in this kind of sentence, to avoid ambiguity and because such questions tend to be more official than conversational. In contrast, you can’t say “Did you have any accidents last twelve months?” to mean last year.

10. The general meanings of “in” and “at”

Students have often been taught “in March” and “at seven o’clock”, sometimes with the more general explanation that “at” means a more precise time than “in”, with “in” being used to mean sometime within longer periods like months, years and decades. What is less commonly taught is that those two prepositions have the same distinction between them when used to talk about space. For example, in the sentences “There was a pigeon in Waterloo station” and “The train arrived at Waterloo station”, the pigeon is somewhere in the space of the station and the train is seen as arriving at a point at the end of a line. This doesn’t work with the “on” in “on Monday” and “on the desk”, or with the “at” for special periods like “at Xmas”, but I still find students appreciate any sign that English is a bit logical!

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net May 2011
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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TEFL.net : ESL Lesson Plans : Classroom Ideas : Grammar, Vocabulary : Essential Time Expressions