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How to Teach Verbs

Verbs come in many forms in English. Knowing the definition of this basic part of speech only gets us so far. We do need to know what we are talking about when we refer to verbs. Some common language of instruction only makes sense. Even the die-hard writing process folk, never fans of direct grammar instruction, have always agreed that teaching the definitions of the parts of speech is a must. Ask English-language arts teachers what they wish their students knew about grammar and they will universally answer “parts of speech.”

We know that students have learned these parts of speech ad nauseum, but why can’t they remember them?  Have their teachers been negligent or unskilled? Or is repeated instruction the only way to learn grammar? Is it the problem of learning grammar divorced from the context of writing?

Following is an instructional approach guaranteed to interrupt this forgetting cycle with definitions of key verb components and clear examples.


(Yes, a depressing mnemonic. Perhaps a secret wish to kill off the Accelerated Reader® program?)

DEFINE Help students memorize the definitions of the key verb components. Rote memory is fundamental to higher order thinking. Use memory tricks, repetition, and even songs. Check out the Parts of Speech Rap. Test and re-test to ensure mastery.

IDENTIFY Help students identify verb components in practice examples and real text. Using quality, un-canned and authentic mentor text, such as famous literary quotations and short passages/poetry kills two birds with one stone: identification practice and sentence modeling.

EDIT Help students practice error analysis for each verb component by editing text that contains correct and incorrect usage. Finding out what is wrong does help clarify what is right. But don’t limit your instruction, as in Daily Oral Language, to this step. Students need the mentor texts and writing practice to master their verb components. Grammar taught in the context of reading and writing translates into long-term memory and application.

APPLY Help students their knowledge of verbs correctly in targeted practice sentences. Sentence frames are one solid instructional method to practice application. For example, for infinitive verbs…

To ________________ how ________________ a two-wheeler bike, a child must first practice how ________________ themselves ________________ falling.

Possible response: To learn how to ride a two-wheeler bike, a child must first practice how to balance themselves to avoid falling.

REVISE Help students understand the importance and relevance of learning verbs by revising their own authentic writing. Stress using what they have learned about verb components to improve coherencesentence variety, author voice, word choice, clarity, and style. Make sure to share brilliant revisions that reflect these improvements as your own mentor texts. Post them on your walls and refer to them often to reinforce definition, identification, and writing style.

The best approach to integrating the DIE AR instructional method is Sentence Lifting. This 15-20 minute, twice per week instruction covers essential grammar, mechanics, and spelling in the context of authentic reading and writing. Also, learning grammar in the context of motivational text, such as Grammar Comics! makes sense.

2. Assessments

Diagnostic assessments of key grammatical features, such as verbs, serves two purposes: First, the results inform what to teach and how much time to allocate to direct instruction. It may be that one class tends to have mastery re: past tense verbs, linking verbs, and infinitives but weaknesses in helping verbs, future tense verbs, and subject-verb agreement. A different class may have a different set of strengths and weaknesses. Why so? It just seems to work that way. Second, diagnostic assessments provide an individual baseline upon which to build learning. Sharing this data with students is crucial. Students need to know what they know and what they don’t know to motivate their learning and see the personal relevance of the instructional task. Check out my favorite whole class diagnostic grammar assessment under Free ELA/Reading Assessments.

Formative assessments need to be designed to measure true mastery of the grammatical concept. So, a useful formative assessment of verb components must be comprehensive, including all steps of the DIE AR process. The purpose of formative assessment is to identify relative strengths and weaknesses of both instruction and learning. Simply giving a unit test as a summative assessment only satisfies the teacher (and colleagues) that the teacher has covered the subject, i.e. teaching verbs. Far better to use the data to affect instruction. Good teachers re-teach judiciously and differentiate instruction according to test data.

3. Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction should focus on relative weaknesses. A good recording matrix for formative assessments will clearly inform the teacher as to who lacks mastery over which verb components and how many students need remediation. Individual, paired, and small group instruction with targeted independent practice makes sense. A workshop design in which the teacher distributes worksheets, monitors practice, and uses mini-conferences to assess mastery ensures effective remediation. Differentiated instruction doesn’t have to be a planning or management nightmare.

Verbs Instructional Scope and Sequence

A verb shows a physical or mental action or it describes a state of being.


Physical action: She works long hours

Mental action: but knows that

State of being: there is more to life than work.

Linking verbs connect a subject with a noun, pronoun, or predicate adjective and show either physical or mental actions.


He looks like the man (noun). She sounds like her (pronoun). The guilty one is he (predicate adjective).

Linking verbs include the following: appear, become, feel, grow, keep, look, remain, seem, smell, sound, seem, stay, and taste. Other linking verbs that describe a state of being include the “to be” verbs: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been.

Helping verbs help a verb and are placed in front of the verb.

Examples: I had heard the bell.

Helping verbs include the “to be” verbs, the “to do” verbs: do, does, did, the “to have” verbs: has, have, had, as well as can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would.

Past Verb Tense

The past tense simply adds on a __d or __ed ending to the base form. The past tense is used for an action that took place at a specific time or times.

Examples: I found the missing key. She started her homework.

Another form of the past verb tense is the past progressive. The past progressive describes an action that took place over a period of time in the past.

Example: Amanda was entertaining her guests when her grandmother arrived.

The past perfect verb tense refers to a physical or mental action or a state of being that was completed before a specific time in the past. The past perfect is formed with had + the past participle (a verb ending in d, ed, or en for regular verbs).

Example: Cecil and Rae had finished their study by the time that the teacher passed out the test study guide.

Another form of the present perfect verb tense is the past perfect progressive. The past perfect progressive describes a past action that was interrupted by another past event. It is formed with had been and the _ing form of the verb.

Example: My dad had been driving for two hours in the snowstorm when the Highway Patrol put up the “Chains Required” sign.

Present Verb Tense

The present verb tense uses the base form of the verb and adjusts to a singular third-person subject by usually adding on an ending s. Plural subjects require verbs in the base form.

Examples: He finds the missing key. They find the missing key.

The present verb tense has the following uses:

  • To generalize about a physical or mental action or a state of being

Example: We look for the best candidates for this office.

  • To describe a physical or mental action that happens over and over again

Example: He plays the game like it is a matter of life or death.

  • To refer to a future time in dependent clauses (clauses beginning with after, as soon as, before, if, until, when), when will is used in the independent clause

Example: After she leaves for school, we will turn her bedroom into a guestroom.

  • To discuss literature, art, movies, theater, and music—even if the content is set in the past or the creator is no longer alive

Example: Thomas Jefferson states that “all men are created equal.”

Another form of the present verb tense is the present progressive. The present progressive describes an ongoing action happening or existing now.

Example: She is walking faster than her friend.

The present perfect verb tense refers to a physical or mental action or a state of being happening or existing before the present. The present perfect is formed with has or have + the past participle (a verb ending in d, ed, or en for regular verbs).

Example: He has already started his science project.

The present perfect verb tense has the following uses: To describe an action that took place at some unidentified time in the past that relates to the present.

Example: The students have studied hard for today’s test.

To describe an action that began in the past but continues to the present.

Example: The teachers have taught these standards for five years.

Another form of the present perfect verb tense is the present perfect progressive. The present perfect progressive describes the length of time an action has been in progress up to the present time. It is formed with have been and the _ing form of the verb.

Example: The students have been writing for over an hour.

Future Tense

The future verb tense places the action of the sentence in the future. English does not have endings for the future verb tense. Instead, use the helping verbs such as the modals: can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would + the base verb form.

Examples: I will find the missing key. I should visit my sick friend later this week.

Another form of the future verb tense is the future progressive. The future progressive describes an ongoing action that will take place over a period of time in the future.

Example: Amanda will be taking reservations over the holidays.

The future perfect verb tense refers to a physical or mental action or a state of being that will be completed before a specific time in the future. The future perfect is formed with a helping verb such as the modals: can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would + has or have + the present participle (a verb ending in d, ed, or en for regular verbs).

Example: We will have walked six miles by three-o’clock this afternoon.

Another form of the future perfect verb tense is the future perfect progressive. The future perfect progressive describes the length of time an action will be in progress up to a specific time in the future. It is formed with will have been and the _ing form of the verb.

Example: The students will have been playing the same video game for two hours by the time their friends arrive.

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Teaching the Language Strand Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics lessons. (Check out a seventh grade teacher teaching the direct instruction and practice components of these lessons on YouTube.) The complete lessons also include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.tls-thumb

Teaching the Language Strand also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out PREVIEW THE TEACHER’S GUIDE AND STUDENT WORKBOOK  to see samples of these comprehensive instructional components. Check out the entire instructional scope and sequence, aligned to the Grades 4-8 Common Core Standards.

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Teaching the Language Strand “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

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