Teaching about tense and time

Why is it important to know how to teach tense and time?

The 1999 National Curriculum for English at Key Stages 3 and 4 has the following requirements:

Writing – Language structure

Pupils should be taught the principles of sentence grammar and whole-text cohesion and use this knowledge in their writing. They should be taught … the structure of whole texts, including cohesion, openings and conclusions in different types of writing [for example, through the use of verb tenses, …]

The Key Stage 3 National Strategy: Framework for teaching English: Years 7, 8 and 9 contains the following objectives:

Year 7: Sentence level

Sentence Construction & Punctuation

Pupils should be taught to:

  • keep tense usage consistent, and manage changes of tense so that meaning is clear;

Stylistic conventions of non-fiction

Pupils should be taught to:

  • revise the stylistic conventions of non fiction:
    • Information, which maintains the use of the present tense and the third person …;
    • Recount, which maintains the use of past tense, clear chronology and temporal connectives;
    • Explanation, which maintains the use of the present tense and impersonal voice….

Year 8: Sentence level

Sentence construction and punctuation

Pupils should be taught to:

  • explore the effects of changes in tense, e.g. past to present for vividness.

Strengths and weaknesses in KS3 pupils’ use of tense and time.


  • In general, KS3 writers already use the tense system accurately and sensitively in their speech and in short pieces of writing.


  • the ability to write extended accounts, making a choice of tense at the outset and maintaining it until the end of the writing.

Examples of KS3 Writing

These examples are both taken from imaginary writing, and both illustrate the difficulty of maintaining consistent tenses. The verb where the tense slips from present to past (or vice versa) is in bold.

1. Instruction: “Imagine you are Juliet”

Or maybe if I drink the poison my family would realise that I killed my self because I didn’t want to marry Count Paris.

2. Instruction: “Imagine you are going to direct this scene [from A Midsummer Night’s Dream]. Explain how you want the lovers to play their parts.’

The lovers would play their parts in the ways that they would all stand out, and produce the performance needed therefore producing an enjoyable play to watch. The characters need to be in control of what they are doing then they will perform better on the day presenting a good worked out performance by the director.

There is another example of inconsistent tenses in KS3 writing in the main discussion of tense, and another in the self-assessment exercises.


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