Studiu de specialitate – Main difficulties encountered by elementary school pupils in dealing with the sequence of tenses


Autor: prof. Mihaela Rîțã
Școala Gimnazialã Nr. 1, Corbeni, jud. Argeș

Sequence of Tenses is a very difficult to teach grammar point. In fact we never find this heading in textbooks, especially at elementary level.
In this study I attempt to identify the main difficulties encountered by elementary school pupils when dealing with the Sequence of Tenses.
Pupils start studying English as a compulsory subject in the third grade. But the study of the Sequence of Tenses starts in the sixth grade. From my experience, I’ve noticed that pupils rarely make mistakes when dealing with only one tense. Difficulties appear when they have to use two or more tenses. Below are examples of grammar errors that most pupils make. The *sentences are wrong:
1. Mixing up the tenses
Sometimes, in compositions, pupils begin with a verb referring to past time but don’t keep the same form all through:
*They asked him to be captain, but he refuses.
They asked him to be captain, but he refused.
Past Simple and Past Continuous with when or while as linking words.
It is difficult for pupils to understand that the past continuous describes a background activity and the past simple describes something that happened in the middle of this background activity. They sometimes use when instead of while and vice versa:
* I was having dinner when the doorbell was ringing.
I was having dinner when the doorbell rang.
* Tim swam in the sea when he was seeing a shark.
Tim was swimming in the sea when he saw a shark.
* He was staying with Kelly while he first met Cathy.
He was staying with Kelly when he first met Cathy.
The combination of tenses Past Simple / Past Perfect offers another example of typical confusions pupils make. Our pupils’ tendency is to use the past simple instead of the past perfect. In this way the notion of anteriority disappears. The reason of this confusion would be that the Romanian equivalent of the past perfect, mai mult ca perfect, is less and less used nowadays, being replaced by perfect compus.
*When he called the police the robbery took place.
When he called the police the robbery had taken place.
*She read “Gulliver’s Travels” before she saw the film.
She had read “Gulliver’s Travels” before she saw the film. (fragment)

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