The Dance of the English Verbs

May 17th, 2017 | By | Category: In the Classroom
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author image of Steven L. West

Stephen L. West


—The single most challenging aspect of grammar for English learners (ELs) is the coordination of the verbs within a dialog, a paragraph, or an essay. For years many ELs have memorized the tenses and can even use them effectively in reading, but a consistent, appropriate flow of verbs in speaking or writing often eludes them.

I have developed an effective teaching tool called the Dance of the English Verbs, an exercise that stimulates understanding of verbs, not just memorizing the forms of verbs. It helps ELs to conceptualize meaning and usage, not only form. Far too many ESL texts fail to do this. This exercise follows the brilliant pie chart for learning English grammar as created by Diane Larsen-Freeman and Marianne Celce-Murcia in The Grammar Book (2016).

The exercise is appropriate to use with high-intermediate and advanced ELs. I have found that using this “dance” (see partial illustration below right) helps students to create a process of internal grammatical self-coaching that they can apply continually in their daily communication:

  • Internal: This is what students typically can say to themselves while formulating a response to a native speaker of English. It’s useful for them to make conscious their internal grammatical choices.
  • Grammatical: The dance is the “suprasential syntax” (Larsen-Freeman & Celce-Murcia, 2016, p. 27) that is the basis of fluency in English.
  • Self-coaching: While this concept may be new to students, I have found that if I stay with them by using this dance periodically throughout a course, they “get it” and can begin to incorporate this into their world of speaking and writing throughout their learning of all aspects of English grammar.

The exercise presupposes that students have actively learned all of the tense/aspects of the 12 verb forms in the indicative mood.

image for verb danceThe instructor shows them this Dance of the English Verbs (click here for example page) and explains how, in a conversation, a paragraph, and essay, or even in an entire novel, there is a sense of interconnectedness among all of the verbs. One verb may “set the stage” for others to follow (for example, a past perfect verb will often be followed by a series of simple past verbs, or the present perfect can set the stage for other actions in the near future). We native speakers of English often are not consciously aware of how we do this; for us “it simply rolls off the tongue.” Not so for ELs. That is the interconnectedness that highly motivated ELs want and need to know.

Instructions for the Teacher

  1. Have the students study the example dance (click here for page), especially focusing on the explanations in brackets [ ].
  2. Have them pair off, with one student assuming the role of A and another B.
  3. Using the page Create Your Own Dance (click here for page), have them create their own dance. This is best done as homework for the next class.
  4. Process their homework and have those same pairs reveal their dialogue, especially providing the explanations they have created for each tense chosen.
  5. Encourage other students in the class to ask this pair why they chose one tense over another, especially if there could be more than one choice of tense.
  6. Repeat this process with another pair.

Before long students will begin to become airborne in this process so that they can create the dance on their own throughout their learning of English. By doing this exercise students can begin to create the “leverage” they need for mastery.

Dr. Steven West teaches Linguistics and Advanced Grammar in the TESL Certificate Program at the Extension of the University of California, Berkeley. He has also taught Second Language Acquisition and Cross Cultural Communication. He holds a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from UCLA. He was a Fulbright Scholar to Turkey and a professor of the Turkish language, Ottoman and the cultural history of the Turks at UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania. He received the International Distinguished Service award from Macalester College for his work in Cyprus. He is the author of two textbooks, Linguistics for Educators: A Practical Guide ( and The Vibrant English Verb: Mastering Meaning and Usage. He can be contacted at


Larsen-Freeman, D., & Celce-Murcia, M. (2016). The grammar book: Form, meaning, and usage for English language learners (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: National Geographic Learning.

Additional Resources

Celce-Murcia, M. (2016). The importance of the discourse level in understanding and teaching English grammar. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Teaching English grammar to speakers of other languages (pp. 3-18). New York, NY: Routledge.

Swan, M., & Smith, B. (Eds.) (2001). Learner English: A teacher’s guide to interference and other problems (2nd ed.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.


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