English grammar – Past continuous


Affirmative: was/were + present participle (verb + ing)
Negative: wasn’t/weren’t + present participle (verb + ing)


  1. Past continuous is used to say that an action was in progress at a particular time in the past. The action had already started at this time but had not finished.
    • I was having dinner at 6pm last night.
    • What were you doing this time yesterday?
  2. Past continuous is used to say that an action was in progress at every moment during a period of time.
    • You were working all morning, weren’t you?
    • I was playing football all day yesterday.
  3. Past continuous is used with past simple. Past continuous refers to a longer or background action that was in progress; past simple refers to a shorter action that interrupted the longer action, or happened in the middle of it.
    • He was walking to work when he met John.
    • She was eating when the phone rang.
    • While I was working in the garden, I heard a woman scream.
  4. Past continuous is used to say that an action in the past was temporary.
    • You were working in the Sales Department last month, weren’t you?
    • They were living in Paris for a year.
  5. Past continuous is used with words such as always to talk about things that happened repeatedly.
    • Grandpa was always telling us funny stories about his life and cracking jokes.

Additional points

  1. Some verbs are not normally used with past continuous because they are not action verbs, for example: believe, belong, depend, hate, know, like, love, mean, need, prefer, realise, suppose, want, understand.
    • They knew each other very well – correct
    • They were knowing each other very well – incorrect


See the phonemic chart for IPA symbols used below.

  1. Was and were are usually reduced to their weak forms in affirmative sentences and questions.
    • I was planning to do it: /wəz/
    • What were they thinking? /wə/

Related grammar points

Past Simple
Present Continuous
Tense and aspect

7 teaching ideas

  1. Josie says:

    When I’m presenting past continuous for the first time, I usually do a lot of drilling to compare it to the present continuous. The obvious one to start with is:

    Teacher: “John, what are you doing now?”
    Student: “I’m studying English.”
    Teacher: “And what were you doing at 7 o’clock this morning?”
    Student: “I was sleeping.”

    With a lot of drilling and repeating, I find students generally understand the meaning (action in progress at a specific time in the past). Mix up the drills with open and closed questions, first, second, third person and so on. For this you can have students answer questions about other students, about yourself, or you could use flashcards. I usually follow this up with a fairly controlled practice activity like a gap fill exercise.

  2. Calvin says:

    Show your student a short clip with lots of action and less dialogue (e.g. Mr Bean) – it is better if there are two or more people doing things at the same time.

    1. Ask them to write down what they saw. (when viewing)
    2. Ask them to write sentences from the viewpoint of one of the characters, e.g. assume you are Mr Bean!

    I was reading a book when the man opposite started laughing.
    I was covering my ears with socks when the officer came to check my ticket.

    Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZpL02A1EHM

  3. Martin says:

    Try The Freeze Game

    1 Split the class into 2 teams.
    2 Teams think of Present Continuous actions.
    3 One team looks away – faces the window.
    4 They count to 5 and then shout Freeze.
    5 While they are counting the other team are doing the action and freeze when told to.
    6 The team facing the window now turn and have 5 guesses to figure out what they were doing. For example:

    They were jumping. They were skipping

    7 They are rewarded points on how quickly they get the answer, 5 points for correct on first guess, 4 points for second guess, etc.

    My kids love this game and they use a lot of the target language and have fun doing it. I personally let them choose their own actions but for weak classes it might be helpful if you provide the actions.

  4. Agnaldo says:

    I always ask my students questions related to real and outstanding past events. For example:

    “What were you doing when the Twin Towers were destroyed?”

    Everybody, without a doubt, will remember what they were doing and get the meaning of the past continuous use.

  5. Mari says:

    I make up some cards that have present continuous and past simple sentences on them. For example, one card may say:

    You are talking on the phone.

    Another card may say:

    You knocked on the door.

    For this activity, I have 12 cards that have past simple sentences and 36 with present continuous (48 cards in total). I divide the cards into two piles. One pile contains all 12 of the past simple sentences plus 12 present continuous sentences. The other pile contains the rest of the 24 present continuous cards.

    I then tell the students that they need to number their paper from 1-15. I call two students to come forward (student A and student B). Student A selects a card from one pile and student B from the other. The students act out their card and the rest of the class write down the sentence. For Example, let’s say student A draws the card:

    You are cooking.

    and student B draws the card

    You called. (telephone)

    Student A starts by acting out cooking dinner and at some point Student B interrupts the action student A is doing and the rest of the class would write on their paper:

    When … was cooking dinner, … called him.

    Obviously, student A and student B need to consult briefly beforehand so as to know who goes first, but they should do so without revealing anything to the rest of the class.

  6. Larry says:

    Drawing pictures on the board, in my opinion is a great way to show how this verb form works. Two pictures. For example: a man fishing, first action, then same picture with rain. You can label the first action which must have was/were + verb-ing. Second action past tense verbs. Try to start with regular verbs for the past tense action, or the second action. For example:

    The man was fishing when it started to rain.

  7. Effie says:

    I draw a building with eight floors. I have flash cards with actions. Each student has to pick a card and put it on a floor. They say what the people in the flash cards are doing. Then I tell them that an earthquake happens. They have to say what the people were doing when the earthquake happened… highlight on board “was/were” and the “ing” form.

Add your teaching idea

Your email address will not be published.