English grammar - past continuous

- - Past continuous


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


  1. We use past continuous 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. We use past continuous 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. We use past continuous together with past simple. The past continuous refers to a longer or background action that was in progress; the 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. We use past continuous 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. We use past continuous 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

We do not normally use some verbs with past continuous because these verbs are not normally action verbs. These verbs include:
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)

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/

Ideas for teaching past continuous

How do you teach past continuous? Add your idea »


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.


Well, you know that teaching a grammar point can turn into a frustrating situation when your students are at a low level; so I would advise you to use funny games in which rules are taught inductively and you lower affective filter so they might feel more connected to the class and not to the rules.


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 burst out laughing.
I was covering my ears with socks when the officer came to check my ticket.

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


Teaching past continuous can be done by using visual or a video teaching system. Students see some actions through the media and it is emphasized that the actions happened in the past. Particular time is important in order to specify the current subject. It can be also done by using pictures with time displayed so students can recognize the actions.


It may be difficult for students to understand what we mean by past continuous by showing them videos with actions after we tell them that the action happened in the past. I usually give them a case in which there is more than one character in addition to the inspector. The inspector asks the characters questions like:
I: What were you doing at 1:00 am last night?
C: I was watching my favourite soap opera


We just do lots of funny actions and then sit together in a circle and discuss what we were doing. It's a lot of fun for beginner kids... they love it!


I usually give some sentences for students to act out. I ask a few students to participate. For example... I was in the movie when I had a terrible stomach ache. Students have to act or mimic without saying a word.


I usually start off with a listening activity and ask students to tell me what is happening in that situation. I try to elicit the continuous sentences in the past by asking them things in that very tense of course. Then I give the following grammar explanation and analyze the sentences they gave to see which use they fall into:

Past Progressive Rules
- Action going on at a certain time in the past
- Actions taking place at the same time (completely unrealted to each other)
- Action in the past that is interrupted by another action (when or while) e.g. 3 and 4
- Background to a story
- Repeated actions e.g. 6 and 7
- Temporary situations in the past

Examples for each use as listed:
1. Carol was flying to San Diego last weekend
2. Paul was reading the newspaper while Sarah was serving breakfast.
3. While we were painting the living room, the dog stepped in the bucket of paint and made a mess.
4. We were waiting for the bus, when two cars crashed in front of the bus stop.
5. Lucy and Kenneth were walking in Central Park. They were holding hands and were making plans for their wedding. They were speaking very enthusiastically about it all.
6. Joyce was always talking about herself. She was a very self-centered person as a teenager.
7. My mother was always telling me to behave.
8. I was working on a project last month.

As my first drill I generally use the text book; only because the school requires me to finish the book (soooooo boring). But after that I like to do a grammar bid with fake money to do sentence corrections on really badly written sentences. They must use the past continuous structure of course and students love to play with money. They lose their bid if the corrected sentence is not grammatically correct.


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. e.g. They were jumping. You were skipping, etc.
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.


I always ask my students questions related to real and outstanding past events. For instance: "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 this grammar point.


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 sentences (48 cars 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 foward (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 on the telephone. Student A starts by acting out cooking dinner at some point Student B interrupts the action student A is doing and the rest of the class would write on their paper: When student A was cooking dinner, student B 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.


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. ie, The man was fishing when it started to rain


I usually take my students out of the classroom. Everybody has a notebook. When we're out, I let them tell me all the activities other people are doing at that moment and they write sentences in their notebooks. When we come back to the classroom, I ask them questions using WAS-WERE: "What were people doing?" then, I write the structure on the board pointing out WAS and WERE... Students start to answer: "A man was dinking coffee, the secretary was writing, some students were smoking, etc.


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.


If teaching high-level students, we can play "Alibi" games. What we need is a setting (eg. An ofiice), a crime (eg.a theft), one detective (eg. Hunter) and several suspects. The detective needs to interogate these suspects one by one with the question like "What were you doing at 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon?". He also needs to take notes. In the end the detective needs to check the alibis and then the criminal will come out.


Students bring to class old photographs and describe them in a poster using past continuous. They say for example "In this picture I was swimming in the sea while my brother was building sand castles.

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