Spanish Grammar: Approaching Preterite vs. Imperfect

Teaching the preterite and imperfect tenses doesn’t have to make students so… tense.

January 17, 2019
Audrey Irias

Teaching the preterite and imperfect tenses doesn’t have to make students so… tense. When I first started teaching, I went with the textbook and taught the preterite tense around April/May in Spanish 1, and maybe spent a week (!) on the imperfect tense. I would really dig into the preterite tense come second quarter (October) for Spanish 2 and the imperfect tense around December.

Once I felt comfortable teaching it, the next year, I started frontloading the key irregular expressions starting in January, presented as bellwork questions, such as “¿Adónde fuiste ayer?” They already knew interrogative expressions and timeline words like “ayer,” so I could focus on fuiste. I didn’t go into teaching them conjugations. I simply put “EX: Fui a…” on the board and they finished the sentence on that first day. Once they wrote their personal sentences down, I asked students where they personally went, and occasionally used a student as a model, pointing to them and making a conversation, as I said, “Él/ella fue a [place]. ¿Y tú, Eva? ¿Tú fuiste a [repeated place]? ¿No? ¿Adónde fuiste?” They stayed in the yo form for that class, or longer, depending on how quick they picked it up. When two students said they went to the same place, I dramatically stated it in the ustedes and then the ellos/ellas form of where they went. The nice thing about this approach was that when I decided to teach the grammar later on, they not only already knew how to state where everyone went, but they yelled it to me at high decibels.

When I would teach them the imperfect tense, at first, I would teach it to them separately, since they could so easily remember the “-aba” and “-ía” endings. The whole difficulty would then be remembering how to decipher what they would do all the time in the past versus an isolated incident.

To introduce when to use which tense, I incorporated the Bricklayer Story, told originally by Gerard Hoffnung in 1958 at the Oxford Union: Bricklayer Story. Before reading it aloud (or having students take turns reading it aloud), I told them they had to snap their fingers if they heard an action that was a one-time occurrence or they had to continuously stomp their feet or bang on their desks if an action was on-going. It was slow starting at first, but most students understood the concept by the end of the story (and were busting at the seams!). This very much allowed me to then broach the “when do I use the preterite versus the imperfect” topic very easily!

I just found the same story here, as an animated video. If you turn the sound off, you can have the students guess the tenses without hearing the English version. You could even have your students with high vocabulary knowledge guess what the expression for that verb is in Spanish. It is a cute video!

Then, I got to thinking: we talk about what we “did” this morning or yesterday, and even what we “used to do,” much more than what we typically “do,” so it makes more sense to give them the tools sooner. It makes sense to teach at least the yo and form to them from the get-go, even if the rest of the conjugations are not approached or involved until a later point.

Now, I teach the yo and form of the most common verbs, not as a list of conjugations, but rather as a part of a preview vocabulary list, before reading an authentic article, part of a reader, doing a MovieTalk, etc. It allows me to teach all three (and more!) tenses, even starting at Level 1. If I have a low-level class, I give maybe 7–10 words, and they are the most difficult vocabulary plus the present tense. If I think my students can handle it, I give maybe 12 words, and make comments like, “When you see a word ends with –aba, it means ‘what you used to do,’” etc., to frontload the topic. I do broach the topics that I previously taught, like when to use which tense, but it is more organic. After we have gone through various stories, students start saying, “I see some words in the past end with ‘-aron’ and some with ‘-aban.’ When do I use which?” For the most part, they are able to make great educated guesses because they have seen them ad nauseam in context, but then I take a few classes and teach when to use which tense and it clears any remaining questions up.

I hope that my evolution of teaching helps!

Posted By Audrey Irias | Teacher’s Discovery

Audrey Yates Irias started learning Spanish at age 10 in a FLEX program in her elementary school, because her aunt lived in Puerto Rico. She was so enamored with learning languages that she dove in head first, and took multiple years of French and Spanish in high school. Following her passion, she was a double major in Spanish and French Education and a TESOL minor, at Illinois State University—during which time she studied in Spain and France. She taught for 11 years in both traditional as well as virtual classrooms. In 2016, she earned her master’s in Translation and Interpreting from the University of Illinois.

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1 comment

  1. I appreciate you sharing this blog article. Much obliged.

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