Working on English Tenses: A Train Station

Pedagogical objectives

Oral expression

Linguistic objectives

Tenses and in particular the Present Perfect vs Present Perfect and the Continuous Past vs Simple Past contrasts.

Time words: still; for; ago; since.


Elementary/Lower Intermediate



Cuisenaire rods or similar


1 to 6 hours depending on the students’ readiness to make proposals and explore all the possibilities

General procedure

Only the teacher moves the rods. The teacher says nothing other than the phrases shown in green. The teacher does not model the sentences in blue – they are only produced by the students – not  usually correctly the first time, of course.

In this deductive approach, the students work out for themselves how to express their thoughts and feelings about a situation whose meaning is visible to them. The teacher’s role is to guide them to see what is considered significant in English and to formulate it accurately – the tense distinctions that are natural in English in this situation may not be made in the students’ native language(s). Because the meaning of the evolving situation is directly available, teacher explanations are redundant.
(Read more…)

Beginner Silent Way exercises using Cuisenaire rods

Some quotations from The Common Sense of Teaching Foreign Languages:

Words can become a reality to which we can relate, but they are retained only when they trigger images, their meaning …
… we need to find ways of working that first bring the truth to the fore and then present an associated sign that can stand for that truth when consistently associated with it.
… it was found that a set of Cuisenaire rods is a very good way of achieving that end.” (1)


Working with situations made with the rods… The meanings come from the situations not from the words… The overall result is that there are no really difficult forms which cannot be illustrated through the proper situation involving rods and actions on them about which [students] make statements… whose associated meaning is obvious.(2)

This means that the rods can be used by the teacher to create visual situations (or tactile ones for blind students) which trigger in the students a direct understanding of the meaning and to which they can give expression through the elements of the language they already know, relying on the teacher for those items, and only those, which they lack.

On pp 35-44 of The Common Sense of Teaching Foreign Languages Caleb Gattegno gives some examples (a red rod, two red rods, five yellow rods and two brown ones, pick up, Take a —- rod, Give it to me, Take a rod and give it to her, Take a blue rod and a black one, give the blue one to her and the black one to him, Take seven rods, put one here, two there and give me three, This rod is yellow and that one is blue, I am here, you are there, Is his rod blue?) of how to achieve this in the very first moments of learning a language. There are many other possibilities, of which a few are given below.

Some general considerations

For many of these exercises, the teacher sets out the rods on a table that can be clearly seen by all the students. If the class is large, the table can be raised and slightly tilted towards the students or the rods can be stuck on the wall with blu-tack. For other exercises the teacher may or may not distribute rods to one or more students. If the class is more than about 15 students in size, the teacher often uses the “fish-bowl technique.” That is, 2 to 6 students come to the front, take or are given rods and carry out the actions while the other students learn by proxy. Depending on the situation, the students at the front may be the only ones to speak or all the students may contribute. Naturally, the students working at the front are rotated frequently. After a structure has been presented in this way, all the students are given time to practice it in small groups.

Having set out the rods, the teacher indicates to the students by gesture that s/he is waiting for a response. In certain cases, the teacher also indicates by gesture that one or more students are expected to perform a certain action with the rods. In other cases, in addition to setting out the rods, the teacher might point to a rod or group of rods and say “Mr. Green” or “A street”.

The first response from the students may not be the one anticipated by the teacher. If it is appropriate to the situation, and does not demand a level of language beyond that of the students’, the teacher can accept it and the work will continue in the direction proposed by the students. If the response is inappropriate, or would involve structures too complex to provide a do-able challenge for the students, the teacher invites the students to make other suggestions.

The students’ first propositions will usually not be wholly correct. The teacher will help the students to correct themselves in various ways such as through finger correction(3), pointing to words on the Word Charts

Caleb Gattegno - Silent Way US English Word charts

Caleb Gattegno – Silent Way US English Word charts 1977 © Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.

and indicating pronunciation with the Sound/color rectangles chart and and/or with the Fidel (spelling charts). From time to time, the teacher may direct the students’ attention to a critical aspect of the situation they have been ignoring by a carefully worded question. The teacher can also ask students if they are sure of their answers (whether the answers are in fact correct or not) to encourage them to reflect on their criteria. The teacher’s silence is a tool, not a dogma.

American English sound-color chart

Caleb Gattegno – American English sound-color chart 1977
© Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.

The teacher may have to create 2 or 3 parallel presentations with the rods before the situation becomes unambiguous to all the students. Even when most of the students have shown by their responses that they understand the situation, the teacher continues creating parallel situations to give the students time to practice the new words and structures to gain facility and fluency. These new situations can be suggested by the students and can be done in small groups. The time necessary for this practice will be very variable depending on the complexity of the new structure and the rapidity of the students.

Caleb Gattegno - American English Fidel 1967 © Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.

Caleb Gattegno – American English Fidel 1967 © Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.

When students reply to questions, encourage them to give the shortest answers, as these are by far the most frequent in conversation. The nuances between the different possible answers can be worked on later. If you wish them to practice saying full sentences, do it in situations where it is most natural to do so, that is, in making spontaneous affirmative declarations.

At the end of a session the students can write the sentences they have said. At the beginning of the course this is best done by having several students all writing at once on the board. When they have finished their sentences, the other students are allowed to come and underline exactly (that is the exact letters, not necessarily the whole word) where they think they see a mistake. When the students have underlined all the mistakes they can see, the teacher underlines any others. At first, only the author of a given sentence is allowed to correct it. Only if s/he is unable to, can other students make corrections and only if none of them can, does the teacher, as a final resort, make gestures, ask questions, or use the wall charts to lead them to the answer. Later on, when students have developed most of the criteria they need for writing and spelling their sentences, this work can be done in small groups or set for homework.

The teacher may want to write down the students’ sentences, type them up, record them and then make them available for the students via email or an on-line site. That way students will have something to work on at home and feel they have “their” course in a tangible form. Beginners Dictations is based on such notes taken by teachers.

In what follows, the sentences in italics are said by the students only. The teacher provides unknown words by pointing to them on the word charts, on the Fidel spelling charts or on the sound-color chart
as s/he thinks appropriate. S/he may also write the word on the board if it is not on the word charts and will be used frequently during the lesson. Occasionally, the teacher will point a whole sentence, often to ask a question, but usually it is the students who are invited to point their sentences on the word charts. Pointing a sentence on the word charts is a way for the student pointing, and the others watching, to check their control and understanding of a new structure.

Have – has and I – she – he – you – we – they

The teacher gives a long rod to a student. To indicate possession, the teacher firmly closes the student’s fingers on the rod, which however remains visible to the other students.

(Later, the teacher will give one or more rods to other students.)

The teacher indicates to the students that s/he is waiting for them to speak.
(The students will probably already know “I& “you” but not necessarily the other pronouns)

Student A, “I have a blue rod.” (4) Only the student holding the rod is allowed to say this sentence.
Student B, “You have a blue rod.” This can only be said if the student speaking is speaking directly to Student A. who is holding the blue rod. It may be necessary to get the student speaking to stand up and face Student A to make this clear.
Student B, “Student A. has a blue rod.”Student B. must not look at Student A.
Student C, “She (or he) has a blue rod.”Student C. must not look at Student A. but address a third student or the teacher. Sometimes it may be necessary for the teacher to physically turn the speaker’s head to make this clear.

The teacher gives different rods to other students to create this situation:

Some students have to share rods so that “we” and “they” can be elicited:

“We have an orange rod.”
“They have a brown one

too – either – neither

The desire to say “too” often comes up spontaneously without any special prompting from the teacher who can then seize the opportunity to introduce the related words “either” and “neither”.)
Student A,“I have a blue rod.”
Student B,“I have a blue rod, too.”
Student C,“Me, too.”
Student D,“I do, too.” The teacher can ask which of these last two is the more informal – in the native language or by using gestures.
Student E,“I don’t have a blue rod.”
Student F,“Me, neither.”
Student G,“I don’t, either.” The teacher can again ask which is the more informal.

do / does for questions

The teacher indicates that questions should be asked, either by saying, “Now, ask a question” or by writing a large “?” on the board.

Student A to Student B,“Do you have a blue rod?”
Student B,“Yes, I do.”
Student A to Student F,“Do you have a blue rod?”
Student F,“No, I don’t.”or“No, but I have a green one”
Student E to Student F,“Does Student E. have a green rod?”
Student F,“Yes, she does.”
Student B to Student A,“Does Student G have a blue rod?”
Student A,“No, he doesn’t.”or“No, but he has a green one.”

Other possible student sentences:

“Do they have a brown rod?”
“Yes, they do.”
“No, they don’t.”
“No, but they have an orange one.”

different – same

and my – her – his – your – our – their

and mine – hers – his – yours – ours – theirs

My rod’s blue and your rod’s blue, too.
My rod’s blue and yours is, too.
Our rods are the same colour.
His rod’s blue and her rod’s green.
Their rods are different colours

The “same as” and “different from/than” should probably be left to another time if all this is new to the students.

For practice outside of class they can do this interactive exercise: my – your – his – her – its – our – their

some – any

(This is maybe not the best way to introduce them for the first time but is good for practice afterwards.)

The teacher gives additional rods of the same colour to each student. For example, one more blue rod to the students who already have blue ones, two or three more green rods to the students who have green ones, etc. The teacher indicates to the students that they should continue to ask questions.

“Do you have any blue rods?”
“Yes, I do.”
“No, I don’t.”
“No, but I have some green ones”
“Does he have any green rods?”
“Yes, he does.”
“No, he doesn’t.”
“No, but he has some blue ones.”
“Do they have any blue rods?”
“Yes, they do.”
“No, they don’t.”
“No, but they have some red ones.”

How many… ?

The teacher ostentatiously counts out different numbers of same coloured rods to each of the students but in such a way that only the student receiving the rods knows the actual number. At least one of the students is not given any rods. The teacher indicates s/he wants a question asked.

Student A,“How many rods do you have?”
Student B,“Two.”I would accept“I have two”but ask them which is more frequent in conversation. For me,“I have five rods” is not really acceptable at this level because it is too difficult to make clear the slight difference of emphasis.
Student B,“How many rods do you have?”
Student L,“None.”or“I don’t have any.”

Long and short

The teacher lays a blue rod and a green one on the table like this:


The teacher makes a gesture indicating the length of the blue rod and indicates that the students should say something. If necessary, s/he points to the word “long” on the word charts.

“The blue rod’s long.”
“A long, blue rod.”

The teacher makes another gesture indicating the shortness of the green rod.

“The green rod’s short.”
“A short, green rod.”

Comparing rods

The teacher makes a gesture indicating simultaneously the lengths of the two rods. As necessary, the teacher points to “-er”, “longer” (making sure the students notice the difference in colour on the charts of the “g” in “long” and the “g” in “longer” and pronounce each correctly) and “than”. To ensure that the students pronounce “than” with the reduced schwa vowel (and not with the full pronunciation as shown on the word charts) the teacher could point it first on the sound-color chart or on the spelling charts. With the teacher’s help, the students should be able to work out for themselves how to say:

“The blue rod’s longer than the green one.”


“The green rod’s shorter than the blue one.”

without the teacher having to say or point on the word charts to the whole sentence.


Then, the teacher adds a red rod like this:

and points to “-est” on the word charts.

“The red rod’s the shortest.”
“The blue rod’s the longest.”

The teacher adds more rods, one by one, until it becomes clear that the form doesn’t change however many more rods there are.

The teacher removes all these rods and lays out the orange and blue rods side by side like this:

“The orange rod’s a little longer than the blue one.”
“The blue rod’s a little shorter than the orange one.”

Then the teacher replaces the blue rod with the red one.

“The red rod’s much shorter than the orange one.”
“The orange rod’s much longer than the red one.”

Comparing people

Having removed all the other rods, the teacher places a brown rod and a black rod upright on the table and says, “Mr Brown. Mr Black.” The students will usually spontaneously propose,

“Mr Brown’s longer than Mr Black.”

The teacher points to “tall” on the word charts (or on the sound-color charts if the pronunciation is likely to be a problem).

“Mr Brown’s taller than Mr Black.”
“Mr Black’s shorter than Mr Brown”

Unless for some reason it would be socially embarrassing, the teacher can ask two students to stand up.

“Student A is taller than Student B.”
“Student B is shorter than Student A.”

a lot/a few and small/large

Then the teacher places three red rods upright around Mr Brown and about twelve red rods around Mr Black. The teacher gestures to the red rods and says, “children”. If the meaning of “children” is not immediately clear to the students (if they have understood, they will laugh at the size of Mr Black’s family) the teacher can pick up a red rod and make a baby rocking movement with his/her arms.

The teacher hides Mr Brown and his family with the lid of the box to indicate to the students that they should only talk about Mr Black and his family.

“Mr Black has a lot of children.”
“He has a large family.”

Then, the teacher hides Mr Black and his family and displays Mr Brown and his family.

“Mr Brown has just a few children.”
“He has a small family.”


Then, the teacher shows both the families together.

“Mr Black has more children than Mr Brown.”
“Mr Brown has fewer children than Mr Black.”

Next the teacher places a lot of green rods next to Mr Brown and a few next to Mr Black and says “Apples.” If necessary, s/he draws an apple on the board.

“Mr Brown has a lot of apples.”
“Mr Black has just a few.”
“Mr Black has fewer apples than Mr Brown.”
“Mr Brown has more apples than Mr Black.

How many…?

The teacher indicates that the students should ask questions.

“Does Mr Brown have a lot of children?”
“No, he doesn’t.”
“How many children does he have?”

Countables and uncountables

Then the teacher puts a large lump of Blu-tack (5) near Mr Black and a small lump near Mr Brown. It is important to use something that is visibly and tangibly uncountable so that students form a clear mental image of the concept which may not exist in their native language. Blu-tack is what I’ve found easiest to carry around for this purpose.

“Mr Black has a lot of Blu-tack.”
“Mr Brown has just a little Blu-tack.”
“Mr Black has more Blu-tack than Mr Brown.”
“Mr Brown has less Blu-tack than Mr Black.”
“How much Blu-tack does Mr Brown have?”
“Just a little.”

The teacher continues to give Mr Brown and Mr Black countable and uncountable objects. At first, the rods represent only countable objects, and uncountables are things that are themselves uncountable: paper, Kleenex, money… Then, when the distinction is clear to most students, rods can also represent uncountables but are placed in neat piles whereas, when they represent countables, they are scattered about.

When there are 4-6 representations each of countable and uncountable objects on the table, one of the weakest students can be asked to sort them into two groups. To do this the teacher draws two chalk circles on the table (or virtual circles if no chalk is available) and puts some “children” in one circle and some Blu-tack in the other. Then, the teacher gives some of one of the other objects to the student and indicates he has to place it/them either with the “children” or with the Blu-tack. Only when the student has finished sorting all the objects are the other students allowed to point out any mistakes. It is important to make them wait until the end because the weak students will often correct initial errors of their own accord as they see a pattern developing. This way, they are not robbed of a chance to make the discovery on their own by those who have made it themselves just a few minutes earlier.


A Mr Green is added and given varying numbers and amounts of children, paper, etc.

“Mr Green has the most paper.”
“Mr Green has the least money.”

There are many more situations that can be created. Students themselves are very inventive at proposing different ideas that can be represented in similar ways.


1) The Common Sense of Teaching Foreign Languages, Caleb Gattegno, p 35.

2) Idem, p 43

3) In “finger correction” each finger on the hand of the teacher or of the student, represents one word of the sentence the student has said. The student “reads” the sentence as the fingers are pointed to in turn. Problems are indicated, for example, by pressing two contiguous figures together to show the need for a contraction; one or more fingers are bent down to eliminate unnecessary words; two fingers are crossed to show that the position of the two words represented should be inverted. “The problem is here” is said and a particular finger or fingers are pointed to so that the student can locate the position of the problem. All these conventions are quickly developed between the teacher and the class without any need for overt explanations.
Towards the end of this article there’s an illustrated description of finger correction: Discovering the Silent Way – John and Susana Pint.

4) Or “I’ve got a rod.” However, even if this is at least equally probable in some teachers’ dialects, there may be pedagogical reasons for preferring to start with the more regular “I have a rod” form.

5) Blu-tack is what Silent Way teachers often use for fixing their charts to the wall. Blu-tack looks like a lump of Plasticine or chewing-gum and is sold under different names and colours.

© Glenys Hanson, 2015. An earlier version was published on the Une Education Pour Demain website in 2001.

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“Some Silent Way exercises for beginners using Cuisenaire rods” by Glenys Hanson”is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

English Verb Tenses: a dynamic presentation

…using the Cuisenaire Rods

The reasons for presenting the English verb tense system

This article describes an exercise I often do in class when I hear a student sigh, after making yet another mistake, “I never know which verb tense to use!” and I see the rest of the class nodding in agreement. These people are usually French adults whose four to eight years of school English has left them with a lot of words, but very few criteria for organising them into correct sentences. They may have a few, half remembered, over simple “rules” such as “The Present Perfect means the action began in the past and continues in the present” but generally they feel that English is a language with no grammar and getting sentences right is something mysterious which hopefully just comes with practice. Others, having had a lengthy and rigorous training in French grammar, either feel that English is somehow more primitive then French or they try to apply French grammatical concepts to English. Neither of these attitudes having led to much progress in the language, they are usually quite happy to attempt a new way of looking at English verb tenses. This new way is of course only new to them; it is one that has been accepted by most academic grammarians for over a hundred years but has yet to filter down to school textbooks. My objective in writing this article is not so much to describe or defend this theory of English verb tenses, but to show how it can be presented in class in a game-like way. I shall attempt to describe step by step, everything significant I and my students say and do in a typical presentation. Naturally, each group of students responds differently, so this is a synthesis of my experience with dozens of groups over the past 30 years during which time my own understanding of English tenses has evolved considerably.

An example of a scientific model

I introduce the activity by explaining that what I am proposing is a different model of verb tenses from that they learnt at school. I use model in the scientific sense and refer to the well-known examples of the Ptolemaic and Copernican models of the planetary system to make it clear that a model is neither true nor false, but only a more or less economic and/or useful presentation of facts. The English students were taught at school was not incorrect, but it was presented in terms of a model which was originally devised to describe the functioning of a completely different language – Latin. However adequate this model may be for explaining the complex system of declensions and conjugations expressed through suffixes in Latin, there is no reason to suppose it appropriate for English which has no such declensions and almost no conjugations.

Creating a mental image: the bubble

My first step is to create a mental image in the minds of my students. I say, “As English speakers we imagine ourselves in the centre of a bubble – something like a chewing gum bubble – which is infinitely elastic. For example…” I put a red rod near one student, Catherine, and a blue rod further away from her. “Which of these rods is ‘here’ for you and which one ‘there’?” Catherine says, “Here.” pointing to the red one and “There.” pointing to the blue one. I ask the class, “Where is the limit of Catherine’s bubble?” They gesture to indicate somewhere between the red rod and the blue one. Then I put a yellow rod beyond the blue one in relation to Catherine, and cover the red one with my hand without moving it. I say to Catherine, “Now look at the blue rod and the yellow one and say which is ‘here’ and which is ‘there’.” Catherine points to the blue rod and says ‘Here‘ and the yellow rod and says “There“. I ask the class again, “Where is the limit of Catherine’s bubble now?” and they indicate a point between the blue rod and the yellow one. Then I open the door and throw a green rod into the corridor and say to the whole class, “Everybody can play now, which rod is ‘here’ and which is ‘there’?” They have no hesitation in saying that the one in the room is “here” and the one in the corridor is “there“. When I ask, “Where is the limit of our bubble?” the students reply, “The classroom.” We continue in the same way but with virtual rods, one in the building and one in the street, the one in the street and one in London, the one in London and one on the moon, etc. until we have expanded our bubble to the size of the universe.

Then I ask,

Have the rods moved?
So what causes us to say ‘here’ or ‘there’?
“Our point of view./It’s a question of relativity.”
“This image of the bubble works not only for space but for time, too. We’ll come back to it, but first I want to ask you some questions about tenses.”

What is a tense and how many are there in English

Here I check that everyone knows the difference between time and tense because in French there is only one word. Then I ask them how many tenses there are in English. The only people I have ever found (other than English teachers, and not even all of those) who could give a rapid and confident answer were students preparing the CAPES (the French competitive examination for secondary school teachers) and those who had previously done courses with my colleagues. Usually they either say they do not know or start muttering to themselves and counting on their fingers and come up with any number between 3 and 10. My next question is about the function of tenses, “What do they do? Why do they exist?” Somebody will say something on the lines of “They situate an action in time.” I accept this for the moment. Then I ask, “How do you recognise a tense when you see or hear it?” and I will get an answer about endings or suffixes to the verb. So then I ask, “How do you recognise that a word is a verb?” This usually leads to a silence so I write “gollar” on the board and ask if anyone knows what it means – so far no one has – and then if they know if it is a verb.

Of course they do not. I then write “a gollar” and ask them again and they say,

No, it’s a noun.”
“What proves it’s a noun?”
“The ‘a’ in front.”
“What can you put in front to test if a word is a verb?”

Here I often get the answer “to” so I write “to London” and ask for a better test and usually get “I“, so I write “I gollar.” I ask if in this sentence they are sure “gollar” is a verb, so far everyone has agreed they are sure. Then I point to “a gollar” and ask,

“Is there anything here which indicates time?”
“And in “I gollar.”, is there anything to indicate time?”

They are obliged to answer “No.” but it is often obvious that some people are not comfortable with this answer. So I say, “Let’s leave ‘gollar‘ and use a common action verb you all know ‘play‘.” and I write “I play.” on the board. “You said before that tense was a question of endings, so what endings can you put on ‘play’?” As they make suggestions I write them on the board like this:

I play.
He plays.
I played.

At this point someone always suggests ‘-ing‘ so I write: I playing. and of course they all point out that it is impossible, so I say, “Then ‘playing’ is not a verb according to our test.” Sometimes they accept this, and sometimes someone protests, “But ‘I am playing’ is the Present Continuous of ‘play’.” So I write up, “I like playing.” and ask what tense it is and if playing is the verb here. If I still feel there is resistance I might say, “In terms of the model you learned at school, you’re right. This model is different. Can you wait a bit to see what advantages there might be to looking at these words in another way?” and I rub out “I playing.” but put ‘playing‘ in brackets under the list. Then I ask them if the difference between ‘play‘ and ‘plays‘ is one of time or person and when they answer ‘person‘ I bracket them together on the board and then I ask them for the second time how many tenses there are in English and everybody agrees, some reluctantly, that there are just two.

The beginning of the presentation

For the next step I use a large piece (about 90 cm by 55 cm) of white flip chart paper on a table, eight paper clips, a box of Cuisenaire rods and two markers of different colours. I ask the students to come and sit around the table as close as possible. On the right hand side of the piece of paper (from the students’ point of view) I draw a large circle to materialise the “bubble”. I divide the bubble into four equal “boxes”. On the left hand side of the paper I also draw four “boxes”. When they have finished, the students will have laid rods on the paper so that it looks roughly like this (only roughly, because real rods are of different lengths).

English Verb Tenses: a dynamic presentation - coloured rectangles - labelled

English verb tense system – coloured rectangles – labelled


For the convenience of readers here, I have labelled the boxs 1S, 1C, 1PC, 1P, 2S, 2C, 2PC, 2P. (1 = base tense, 2 = distanced tense, S = Simple, P = Perfect, C = Continuous). Naturally in the classroom situation I and the students simply point to the box concerned and say “Here”.

If I give it to the students as a handout it is not labelled and looks like this:

The colour code

Sometimes I let them choose their own colours, sometimes I direct them to using certain colours so that I can use a paper version later on as a reference. The colours I use are:

pink = any action
red = the verb be
yellow = the verb have
black = the verb do
orange = any modal verb
green = -ing
a white cube = -ed or the past marker in irregular verbs
a beige cube = the past participle (often called the -en form)

I use two slightly different coloured cubes (I take advantage of the fact that in different boxes of rods, the “white” rods can be a little different in colour) because sometimes it is useful for students to pay attention to the difference between the Past form and the Participle form, but often it is not.

Here is what the rods represent written out as sentences plus the other words the students will have written on the paper by the end of the exercise:

English Verb Tenses: a dynamic presentation - words

English verb tense system – words

English verb tense system – words (PDF)

The beginning of the exercise

I ask the students to give me the shortest form of their verb beginning with “I...” they say, “I play“. I pick up a paper clip and say “I” and then a pink Cuisenaire rod and say “play” and ask, “Inside the bubble or outside?” The students answer, “Inside” and I place them side by side in the top right hand quarter inside the bubble, 1S. Then I ask for another construction beginning with “I“. They usually say “I played” and I ask again, “Inside or outside the bubble?“, they answer, “Outside” and I pick up a paper clip, a pink rod and a small, white rod and place them, in that order, in the top right hand “box” outside the bubble, 2S. I ask for another construction; they might say, “I am playing”. I push the box of Cuisenaire rods and the paper clips towards them and say, “Now, it’s your turn to play.” They understand that they have to take a paper clip and a certain number of rods and put them on the paper. It is usually clear for them that they have to decide to put the “sentence” either inside or outside the bubble, but it is not always clear to them that they have to put it in one of the “boxes”. Neither is it always obvious to them that “-ing” should be represented by a separate rod. They discuss these questions among themselves and when eventually (it can take ten seconds or ten minutes) they agree on which rods to use and where to put them, I do not indicate whether or not I consider they are right but ask for another construction. They continue in the same way until they have found the eight constructions. If someone suggests, “I will play” I say, “Keep it till later”.

The discussion around “I have played”

A good group – I mean one that is sensitive to the problems and willing to discuss them – can spend over an hour on this. The most interesting discussions are usually about where to place “I have played“. Many French people feel that it should be half in and half out of the bubble. I insist that they choose one or the other. Only if it is clear that they have no criteria for making this choice do I intervene. I ask them which part of “I have played” (represented by a paper clip and three rods of different colours) represents the action. If they point to all three rods, I pick up the white rod and ask,

“What does this represent?”
“Is that an action?”

Then I pick up the rod representing “have”, maybe a yellow one, and ask the same questions. Then I ask again which rod represents the action and they point to the pink one. My next question is, “Which rod represents the verb?” If they again point to all three rods, I point to, “I gollar.”, which is still written on the board, and ask them to remember what their criterion was for saying it was a verb and to apply the same criterion in the case of “I have played“. If they accept that the verb is “have”, they no longer have any problem in deciding whether it is inside or outside the bubble.
For a few people it can help to make them aware of why they have been taught that the verb is “have played”. I ask,

“In Latin, how many words are needed to express, ‘I have played’?”
“So in Latin, one word expresses both the action, the verb and the subject. That’s why you’ve learned to look at several English words and call them all ‘the verb’.”

All this is usually unnecessary for groups with a scientific or technical bent because they are used to playing around with different models and are willing to suspend judgement on what I am presenting until they have seen how it works.

Questions about the eight constructions

Once they have found the eight constructions and placed them in a regular way inside and outside the “bubble” as indicated in the second diagram, I ask them to look at the colours and say:

“What happens when you move from 1S to 1C?”
“You add red and green.”
“And from 1P to 1PC?”
“You add red and green.”

This is enough for many people, but for some I have to continue with 2S to 2C and 2P to 2C before they can say, “Ah, it’s the same.” Which shows me that they have had the awareness that each construction at the top has a parallel construction at the bottom. Sometimes they make it explicit,

“There are 4 constructions with “be” and “-ing” and 4 constructions without.”
Then I ask:

“And if you go from 1S to 1P?”
“You add yellow and beige.”
“And from 1C to 1PC?”
“You add yellow and beige.”

And the same with 2S to 2P and 2C to 2PC until everyone has noticed a second pattern in the constructions.

Finally for this part, and for me the most significant awareness to force here, I ask,

“And if you go from 1S to 2S?”
“You add white.”
“And from 1C to 2C?”
“You add white.”

And the same with 1P to 2P and 1PC to 2PC. For those with a mathematical background I point out that the constructions outside the bubble are a translation of those inside the bubble. (I don’t really know what this means; a mathematical student told me this years ago and every time I trot it out the mathematical types go, “Ah!” so it seems to be worth saying.)

By this point some students will have tried to use the traditional grammatical labels. I ask them if words like “preterite”, “participle” or “pluperfect” really have meaning for them. 99% of my students have declared they do not, so I suggest we give each construction a new label using words we are sure we understand. (The 1% for whom the traditional terms do have meaning are welcome to continue using them, but not to say them aloud.)

Naming the eight constructions with “time words”

I point to the 1C construction and ask them to say it aloud and add the time word that comes spontaneously. Almost without exception, they say: “I am working now.” I hand a marker to a student and ask him to write now in the 1C box. I point to the 2S construction, and without exception, they say: “I worked yesterday.” A student writes yesterday in the 2S box.

Then I say:

“If this (2S) is yesterday what is this (2P)?”

This often gets the response before yesterday, in which case they write it in the box. But just as often the answer given is, “The day before yesterday”. If this is the case I tell them I am going to use a different model, and I draw a line:


I ask, “If this point is now (I point to it), where is yesterday?” A student will come and add it, usually like this:


Then I ask them to put in the day before yesterday and someone will draw this:


Then I say, “This is perfectly logical if we’re naming days, but it’s not the logic of English tenses. If we have another reference point, we would need another tense and English only has two.

So I remove the day before yesterday to return to the second diagram, and make a sweeping gesture with my hand from the point yesterday towards the leftwards end of the line, “What’s all this?” “Before yesterday.” “How far can I continue?” and I continue the gesture along the wall beyond the board. “As far as you like.”/”To infinity.” I go back to the paper and someone writes before yesterday in the 2P box.

Then I point to 1S and ask, “What about this one?” This one, too, can take a little while. Though I accept as correct suggestions such as every day or often, I say, “For the sake of simplicity and economy we are going to use as few different words as possible. Which of the words we have already used can be used here?” With lower level groups it may be necessary for them to find a few examples before they are sure that now is also possible for 1S. Then I say:

“We have the problem of distinguishing the two “nows”. What does now mean in 1C?”
“At the moment./At this moment.”
“And what does it mean in 1S?”

I push them until they find, “in general” or “generally” and agree it is more useful as a label than every day or often. Then I say (if necessary -students often find it spontaneously),

If this is yesterday and this before yesterday, what is this (1P) if this is now (1S)?
“Before now

and this becomes the label for 1P. Even if the more analytical students can make the jump for themselves, I make sure that everybody sees that 1PC is made up of the addition of 1P and 1C by temporally moving the red and green rods from 1C to 1PC and the yellow and beige ones from 1P to 1PC. Then they can label 1PC “before now and now” or “before now and at the moment,” or some similar paraphrase. In the same way, 2C is labelled at a/that moment yesterday, 2P before yesterday and 2PC before and at a/that moment yesterday.

Making examples for the eight constructions

The next step is for the students to make examples for each of the eight constructions. I insist that the examples not only be true ones, but that their truth can be verified by everyone in the classroom. This is so that the students really feel the meaning of the constructions, and are not just mechanically making sentences. Here are some of the questions I ask them during this work to help them develop criteria for using each construction and how each one corresponds to a different perception or feeling to be expressed:

Inside the bubble questions:

1.Which construction is the longest?
2. Which construction is the shortest?
3. Which one is most/least frequently used?
4. Which one gives the most/least information?
5. In 1S how many pieces of information are given?
6. In 1S is there anything which explicitly indicates time?
7. What is the meaning of the green “-ing”?
8. What is the meaning of the red “be”?
9. What is the meaning of the yellow “have”?

The “-ing” form

For the last three questions they often need some help to find the base meanings. They often think “-ing” form in itself indicates time. I write some examples on the board where this is clearly not the case:

1. Running keeps you fit.
2. I like running.
3. I wore my running shoes yesterday.

If it seems necessary for the group, it might be the moment to distinguish between an action (performed by a subject) and an activity (a general performance where the actors are not specified) by writing on the board:

1. Glenys likes to box.
2. Glenys likes boxing.

And then asking:

  • which sentence creates the ridiculous picture in their minds of elderly me in the ring, dressed in shorts and boxing gloves;
  • which sentence is compatible with me sitting comfortably in front of my television watching a match.

“Have” and “be”

These frequently dismissed as mere auxiliaries with no particular meaning – which is why some students seem to use one or the other more or less at random. It can be useful for them to understand that, though it is not as easy to create a mental picture of their meaning as it is for “dance” or “ski”, they do have separate and identifiable meanings.


For “be” I have yet to find an elegant way of doing this. I have tried putting a marker on a table and saying or writing, “The marker is on the table” and getting them to see that the only reason for saying a sentence like this is to situate the marker in relation to the table – for someone who was looking for the marker. The only way to situate an object in space is to situate it in relation to another object. The verb we use for situating in space is “be”. It is also used for situating in time. The only way of situating anything in time is in relation to an event, action or activity. The only way I can know myself in the present is by situating myself in some activity, “I am writing this article.” (No, I have never actually said this last sentence in class, it’s just for you, Reader.)


For “have” I think I do a little better. I write the following sequence of sentences on the board. For each sentence I ask them what the relationship is between “I” and the words I have underlined:

1. I have a watch. (What I have/possess is an object)
2. I have a mother. (What I have/possess is a relationship, not the person herself)
3. I have lunch at 12 o’clock. (What I have/possess is a habit, not the lunch itself)
4. I have visited Paris. (What I have/possess is the experience of visiting Paris)

Other points I try to make clear to the students

For reasons of space, I will not write out step by step how I do these:

  1. The 1S form is the base form. They do not have to have any particular reason for using it. It is the choice by default. It is all the other constructions they need a reason for using.
  2. When the reason for using the 1C construction is to situate the subject in an activity at the present moment, in spite of its traditional label (Present Continuous) it cannot express duration. That is, phrases which express duration (“for two days”) cannot be used with it. Of course, activities take place in time and therefore have duration, but a sentence such as “I am sitting” does not express the duration of the sitting any more than the sentence, “The marker is on the table” expresses the dimensions of the table.
  3. If they wish to express duration the construction to use is 1PC.
  4. 1P and 1PC are not only used to describe recent events, “The universe has been expanding since the Big Bang.”
  5. The only reason for going outside the bubble, is because they want to attach an event or an action to a moment other than now – often referred to as dating.
  6. My decision to say, “I have had breakfast” or “I had breakfast” is not directly related to how long ago I had the meal, to objective time, but to whether I perceive the meal as inside my bubble or outside my bubble.
  7. Outside the bubble, 2S is the base form and the most frequently used one.
  8. Not only do they have to have good reasons for using 2C, 2CP and 2P (the same, mutatis mutandis, as for 1C, 2CP and 1P), but they have to be related to some other action or event often expressed by 2S, but which may also be a significant date or time.
  9. In spite of its traditional label, 2C is not used just because an action lasts a long time.


As the students make examples, it is often useful for them to write down next to each form the time expressions particularly associated with that form. We (my colleagues at the CLA and I) call them “triggers”. For example, “How long…?” and “For…” are written, in a second colour, in 1PC.

Interrogative forms – do

Another useful exercise is to get them to turn each of the forms into questions. I get them to start with 1C. They invert the paper clip and the red rod and say, “Am I working?” or “Are you working?” – the second often comes more naturally to them. They continue with 1PC, 2C, 2PC and 2P in that order. Then I cover 2S with my hand in order to force them to move to 1P.

Then I ask them to make explicit what they have been doing to create the question form. “The pink rod, the action, has never been moved.” I let them take a black rod from the box to represent “do” and place it in IP so as to represent “Do you work?“. Then I remove my hand from 2S and say to them: “This is a trap. I’m going to catch some of you. How many rods do you need to take from the box to make this form?” They all know they want to represent “Did you work?” Up to now at least one person has always answered, “Two.” I never allow the faster people to show how it is only necessary to take one, in fact I drag it out as long as possible so that the tension of the moment will provide a high moment of energy when the realisation comes that they have to move the white cube from the pink rod to the black one to make “did“. For me, this is a good example of how to work on retention – as opposed to memorisation. I ask the students to invert the rods and paper clips back to their original positions. Some students will try and remove the black “do” from the system at this point. I suggest they switch it in the same way as the other forms, i.e. “I do work” and “I did work”. Lower level students may not even be aware these forms exist, but for me, what is now presented by the rods is the basic system in English .

(And you, Dear Reader, are you feeling some resistance to this? It is true that having invested so much of my time and energy on considering how tenses work, I find reading what others have to say about the subject a great opportunity for observing whether I can still keep myself open to different ideas or whether I meet them with my prejudices.)

I point to 1C,
“How do you say this one?”
“I am working.”
“And if you speak quickly?”
“I’m working.”
“And this one?”
and I make an emphatic gesture towards the yellow rod.
“I have been working.”
“And if you speak quickly?”
“I’ve been working”
“And this one?”
“I have worked.”
“And if you speak quickly?”
“I’ve worked.”
“And this one?”
“I do work.”
“And if you speak quickly?”
and I remove the black rod.
“I work.”

It can be important for some students to realise that “do” does not just come from nowhere in an arbitrary fashion just to form questions and negatives but is an essential part of the system. The most basic thing we can do with an action is to simply do it. It is so basic that it is almost a tautology – which is why we don’t usually feel the need to make it explicit.

I realise I am making it seem as if the whole lesson is a neat question and answer routine. In practice, of course, it is not really like that, it’s much messier! The students spend a lot of time discussing things among themselves (in French, if their English is not sufficient to express themselves accurately on such a topic) while I listen and wait for the appropriate moment to provide another challenge. I should, perhaps, say here for non Silent Way readers, why I ask questions rather than just explaining the system. Some people feel it is illicit and manipulative for a teacher to ask questions to which she already knows (or thinks she knows) the answers. For me, it serves two purposes. It puts the student in an “actively seeking” state of mind; when he finds the answer it is hisanswer – it is irrelevant to his learning whether or not someone else has found that answer before. It also serves to give the teacher feedback about where the student is in his process of learning so that she can decide what exercise to propose next.

The future

If they have not already done so, at about this point students will start to ask, “What about the future?” I throw the question back to them as, “Which of the forms we already have here can be used in a sentence about tomorrow?” I am always amazed at how many French people are surprised at the fact that such sentences as, “I start work at eight tomorrow” or “I’m going to New York in November” are possible. Even though the Present Tense in French is also frequently used to refer to the future, they feel that, because a Future Tense (there are suffixes which are traditionally thought to indicate future time) exists, it is not “correct” to use the Present in this way. And as for using Past forms with future reference…. I often have to give examples myself, in English and in French. So certain are many people that they cannot exist, they will not even start to look for them. If students have school English behind them (this is generally the case for the people I teach) they will already have proposed “will” several times, and each time I put them off with, “Later, later!” Even at this point I feel it is useful for them to become aware of other ways of referring to future time before considering “will” which has been drilled into them as “the Future in English”. I slide the pink rod in the 1 P form to the right, then I take another pink rod from the box and lay it next to the paper clip leaving a space between it and the first pink rod. In the space I put an arrow drawn on paper.

want to

From the work done at other times on prepositions they usually recognise the arrow as a trigger for “to”. I point to the pink rod next to the paper clip and ask the students, “Which verb could this represent?” Sometimes they have enough English to suggest “want” or “hope”, otherwise I give them the word “want” and ask them to read the new form:

“I want to work.”
I point to the two pink rods, “Are the forms of these verbs the same or different?
“The same.”
“And the real time this one refers to?” and I indicate the one representing “want”.
“The present.”
“And the real time this one refers to?”
and I indicate the one representing “work”.
“The future.”

Then I take another arrow and another pink rod and lay them to the right of the others.

“What could the sentence be now?”

They might suggest, “I want to work to earn money.” I represent “money” by any small object handy, but not a rod.

“What about the time of “earn”?
“It’s further in the future?”
“And the form?”
“It’s the same.”

I continue to add arrows and pink rods until the length becomes inelegant but not incorrect, “I want to work to earn money to buy a car to go to Paris to see a friend.” As a student recently put it, “The action on the right is the target of the action on the left.” This target is not necessarily in the future of course, it depends on the meaning of the verb. In for example, “I like to swim” though “swim” can be seen as the target of “like”, it is not in the future in relation to “like”.

After this, I take an arrow and a pink rod and lay them to the right of the 1C form.

“If I change this to another verb (I indicate the first pink rod), what could this be?”

Unless it is a very small, low level group, someone manages to find:

“I’m going to work.”
“How many actions are there in this sentence? What are they?”
“Two, go and work.”
“Are they used as metaphors or do they have a physical meaning?”
“Go is a metaphor and work is physical.”

This may be clear for some of the students but I can often see from the dubious looks on faces of others that more needs to be done. So I go and stand with my back to a wall of the room,

“Can I say I’m going physically at the moment?”

I use mime and facial grimaces to indicate a sudden interest in something on the other side of the room, say a pen, and start to walk towards it slowly,

“Can I say I’m going physically, now?”

I freeze in mid-stride and ask,

“What happened inside me when I was at the wall, just before I started to move? It’s normally something you can’t see.”
“You made a decision.”
“And what’s the pen for me?”
“Your target.”

I go and pick up the pen. Then, so that we can refer to it when they give examples, I make a simple representation on the board with lines and a stick figure something like this:

going to

Even if I could draw better, I would not make the drawing more realistic. More details are just a distraction. Then I get the students to find examples – true ones – and to make it explicit how the subject is metaphorically moving between his decision and his target. For example, Catherine says, “I’m going to walk in the mountains with some friends on Sunday.” Someone points to the blue line which represents the time when she and her friends made their plans, then points to the stick figure which represents Catherine, who though physically immobile in the classroom, is moving in time towards her objective, the red line, the time when she will be walking in the mountains with her friends. Later, the stick figure can be Bob, Mary or whoever. It can sometimes take a little while before they can let go of what they have often been taught: that the “going to” form is only used for actions in the “near future”.

Only after exploring these other ways of talking about the future, do I take an orange rod out of the box and say, “This represents will.” Then I take seven other orange rods from the box and distribute them, one each to eight students, “Now, put will into the system.” They often look quite flabbergasted at the idea that there can be eight places for will in the system. Somebody will start by putting an orange rod between the paper clip and the pink rod in 1S. I ask them to say it aloud, “I will work.” Many students feel this is the end of the story and I may need to gesture to 1C or 1P and say, “Do the same here” before they will place the orange rod after the paper clip in the other forms inside the bubble. Each time I get them to say the sentence aloud. Then I gesture to the forms outside the bubble. There are often objections: “You can’t have will in the past!” I pick up a black rod and ask: “What happened when you put do here?” and I point to 2S. “Ah!” and somebody will quickly lay down the orange rod after the paper clip in 2S and move the white cube from the end of the pink rod to the orange one. “I would work.”

The other three forms usually pose no problem for the form, though “I would have been working” often provokes exclamations, “It’s too long”, “I don’t understand”, “I’ll never use it”, etc. With lower level groups, I do not ask them to find examples, for if the forms are outside their experience of the language, such examples can only be mechanically formed with no feeling for the meaning.

If it seems useful for the group, I ask questions to make sure they understand how modals function differently to other verbs. I point to 1S and ask:

“Do you need do to ask a question, now?”

I pick up an arrow, “Do you need to place this between the orange and pink rods?”
“What other words function like will/would?”

Depending on their level, they will take from a few minutes to over an hour to find and discuss can/could, (shall)/should, may/might and must (no student has ever suggested need or dare so far). As they find them, I write the modals on the board and we look for a base meaning for each of them in the same way as we did for be, have and did. As this article is already long enough, and the work does not directly involve the Cuisenaire rods, I shall not describe it here. Nor shall I describe how to demonstrate the Passive in the system. I scarcely ever do so with students as it usually takes two three-hour sessions to get this far and, by this time, they are in need of a different type of activity.

© Glenys Hanson 1996-2015

An earlier version was published in: Caleb Gattegno’s Science of Education: Ten Years After – Conference Proceedings and Related Offerings, Association for the Science of Education, New York 1999.

A shorter version of this article was published in the proceedings of the 1996 Colloquium of TESOL France: An Update on Grammar: How it is learnt – How it is taught.

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“English Verb Tenses: a dynamic presentation using the Cuisenaire Rods” by Glenys Hanson”is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.