When I started teaching English online a year ago, at the start of lockdown, I had no idea about how to teach the tenses. I couldn’t have told you that there were twelve tenses, never mind when or how to use the present perfect or the past simple.
Frankly, I was shocked that I had been studying and working with English my entire life and yet had no idea about the inner workings of the language.
The fact was that I had changed domains: from being a writer and editor, I was now a teacher and explainer. I suppose an analogy would be if a racing car driver swapped roles with a mechanic. Both the mechanic and the driver work with a car, but one drives it, and pushes it to the edge of its ability, while the other has an in-depth knowledge of pistons and tyre pressure.
The tenses are part of the mechanics, or inner workings, of the grammar of the English language. Having a clear understanding of how to use the tenses will improve your English, but you will still have to get behind the wheel and drive the car. Worrying too much about getting your grammar perfect, will make you stall in conversation. Which is why my course, 30 Lessons to Improve Your English, combines grammar, exercises, pronunciation, reading and speaking.
The twelve tenses are made up of present, past and future. However, some linguists argue that there are only two forms of the verb – present and past – as the future form relies on the use of auxiliary verbs (helping verbs like will or shall that express the mood or tense of a verb), to discuss actions after the present moment.
However, I think it is more useful for students to learn that there are twelve tenses in English, each with a simple, a continuous, a perfect and a perfect continuous form. Once you have learned the present tense, the other tenses are easier to learn because the forms remain the same.