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Artículo 03

Volumen 06

A proposal to teach the 3rd person singular of the

Simple Present tense to describe routines 



Lic. Luz Heréndira Hernández Rubio

Profra. Mariana Colmenares Vázquez

Plantel 9 “Pedro de Alba”

Colegio de Inglés


As teachers we sometimes notice that some grammar features are difficult for our students. With the communicative approach, grammar is often taught together with other aspects of the language (pronunciation, vocabulary, etc.). In this article we consider Bill VanPatten’s ideas concerning the importance of input as a first stage of grammar instruction and propose a way to teach the 3rd person singular of the Simple Present tense. 


After revising some studies concerning the present simple made by different authors, we can say that this structure may be used for conveying different meanings. For instance, with the present simple we may express:

·         Habitual actions (Thomson and Martinet, 1980:145; Quirk, 1974:85), for example:  They go to school from Monday to Friday [1] .

·         Performative narration of demonstration (Langacker, 2001:21): I fold the paper in four and I trim the edges.

·         Punctual actions (Langacker, 2001:26): I wake up at quarter to five.

·         Instantaneous present (Quirk, 1974:85): In a stage direction: The actress enters the stage.

·         Future events (Langacker, 2001:30): The train leaves at 11 pm.

·         Past events (historical present and photo captions) (Schiffrin,1995:82): Shakespeare is born in Stratford-upon-Avon.


As we can see, the use of the Simple Present tense for describing routines may seem easy to understand and teach. However, some problems come to light when we use this tense for real communication purposes. This may be, among other things, due to the fact that apart from having several uses, the Simple Present may refer to the three different temporal tenses: present, future and the past too.


We are certain nowadays the discussion about grammar in SLT classrooms is not to teach or not to teach it, but it is about how to teach it. This article is a proposal for answering this question. We present an idea on how the Simple Present tense third person singular to describe routines can be taught. The suggestions are mostly based on VanPatten’s Guidelines for developing structured input activities.

According to VanPatten, the instruction of grammar should be as follows (VanPatten, 1995:99):

Figure taken from Van Patten (1995: 99)


In other words, the instruction should be first at the level of input. At this stage, the activities should be designed in such a way that students attend to the target grammatical item while paying attention to the meaning. Here, they do not produce, but only process the item. In the diagram above, we understand by intake the raw data that learners use to construct their systems [...]; a reduced sometimes slightly altered set of input data (VanPatten, 1995:94), which is the result of “filtering” the message in various ways (idem, 1994:94). Thus, the focused practice should be one which favors the processing mechanisms, i.e. those which help students establish the connection between form and meaning from the linguistic data in the input for the purpose of constructing a linguistic system (idem, 1995:96). According to VanPatten, output should be the last stage of the process. However, this does not imply students cannot shift from input to output stages and vice versa in a single class.


Besides, he emphasizes the necessity of reversing one of the hypothesis he has about the learning process:

Learners prefer processing lexical items to processing grammatical items for semantic information (VanPatten, 1995:100).


We assume that is the reason why some of our students tend to forget to use the “s” when they are learning to conjugate and use the Simple Present in third person. When students are trying to learn to describe other person’s routines, for example, they systematically forget the “s” for s/he subjects. This is probably due to the kind of input we give students. We normally give them a lexical item, usually a time adverb (every day, week, etc), that competes with the morphological item (the final “s”) for the student’s attention.


To solve this problem, English teachers could base their teaching on VanPatten’s principles for the construction of structured input activities, which are:


Ø  Present one thing at a time.


Activity. Do you think Chicharito Hernández does these activities as part of his routine? Write “Y” for “yes” or “N” for “No”.


Chicharito (Little Pea) gets up at 5.         _________

He takes breakfast at 5:30.                       _________

He plays soccer 7 hours.                           _________

He takes a shower.                                     _________


As you can notice, in the previous exercise we did not include any lexical item that competes with the target grammatical item for the students’ attention. This way we cope with VanPatten’s first hypothesis: they are exposed only to the structure we want them to intake.


Ø  Keep meaning in focus.


Activity. Think of an important person for you and complete the paragraph with real information about her/him.

My _______________ (brother/father/girlfriend/ boyfriend/etc) gets up at ______.

S/he takes breakfast at _______.

S/he goes to _________ (school/work) at _________.

S/he returns home at _______.

She has lunch at ______.

She goes to bed at ________. 


In this exercise, meaning lies on two aspects of the activity. On one hand, students have to think of a person that is important for them, which isper se meaningful; they also have to give real information about that person, which is also very significant.


Ø  Move from sentences to connected discourse.

After a series of activities at the sentence level as the ones previously mentioned, the following activity can be presented to students:

Activity.  Listen to the following narration about “Chicharito” Hernández, the famous soccer player.


The tapescript of the listening would be as follows:

“He comes to early training every day and he is one of the last to leave. He gets strength in the gymnasium because he needs to work on that. After a victory, Hernandez keeps the English giants on course for a third successive League Cup.”


The next exercise students would do is:

Activity. Now, read and listen to the narration. Say if the following statements about Hernandez are true or false.

Hernandez arrives late to trainings.                               _____

He finishes trainings late.                                                _____

Hernandez works out in the gym.                                   _____

He gets strength in the field.                                           _____

Hernandez contributes to his team’s victories.            _____


Ø  Use both oral and written input.

As you can notice, in the activity above the students are first exposed to audible input, but in the activity that follows, they are subjected to both, visual and audible input. By doing so, teachers are attending the different styles of learning their students may have.


Ø  Have the learner to do something with the input.

In all the activities we have proposed in this article, students have to do something with it. However, what they do is something different thanproducing the target structure as this is part of a later stage. We know we sometimes encounter students who are eager to produce the language, but teachers should make emphasis on the necessity of giving them enough input in the appropriate way so that what they produce is grammatically correct and acceptable in terms of real communication.


Ø  Keep the processing strategies in mind.

When designing activities for the classroom use, teachers should be conscious of the strategies students use to process language. One of them is VanPatten’s hypothesis about the competition between the lexical and grammatical items for the students’ attention. As you can notice, in all the activities proposed here, this aspect was carefully avoided. We also tried to include short input sentences as we also believe in this way students increase their attention. Besides, long and complex explanations are not necessary if teachers simplify the input they present to students.



Teachers of a second language should be conscious of the different functions a single grammatical structure can express. In our article, the Simple Present tense can express different functions, for example, historical present, punctual actions, etc.

Thus, we can choose the correct input to design the activities to be used in the classroom. This way, we can be sure our students are focusing their attention on the target grammatical structures as well as on the function being taught at that time and the context in which it appears. If we do so, we can expect the accurate production of our students in the correct context.








·         Langacker, Roland. (2001), “Cognitive linguistics, language pedagogy, and the English   present tense” in Martin Pütz (Ed) Applied Cognitive Linguistics I: Theory and Language Acquisition, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyer.

·         Quirk, Randolph et al. (1972), A Grammar of Contemporary English. London: Longman.

·         Schiffrin, Deborah. (1995), Approaches to Discourse. United Kingdom: Blackwell.

·         Thomson A. J. and A. V. Martinet. (1980), A practical English Grammar (3rd ed.). Great Britain: Oxford University Press.

·         Talmy, Leonard. (2000) “The relation of Grammar to Cognition” in Toward a Cognitive Semantics. Volume I: Concept Structuring Systems, London: MIT Press.

·         VanPatten, Bill and James F. Lee. (1995). “Grammar instruction as Structured Input” and “Structured Output: A Focus on Form in Language Production” in Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen. Illinois: McGraw-Hill, Inc.


[1] The examples  in this article are ours.