What Is The Past Continuous Tense?

Written by Dan

Last updated

As a teacher, you know the importance of teaching tenses to your students. The past continuous tense can be tricky for students to grasp, often leading to frustration.

But don’t worry — understanding this important grammar concept doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming!

In this article, we’ll explore the past continuous tense, how it’s used in everyday language and some helpful strategies for reinforcing its use with your students.

By the end of the article, you’ll feel confident explaining and teaching this aspect of English grammar in no time. So let’s get started!

Related: For more, check out our article on The 12 Tenses here.

the twelve tenses

An Introduction to the Past Continuous Tense

The past continuous tense is a way of discussing activities, actions or situations that were in progress at a certain point. It is used mainly with action verbs and adverbs/adjectives of time (e.g., continuously, usually, often).

This tense usually follows a “was/were + verb-ing” formula in English. For example, “I was eating dinner when the phone rang” or “She was always studying for her exams.”

This tense is different from the past simple tense because the latter is used to talk about events that happened once in the past without any continuation (e.g., “He played soccer yesterday”). On the other hand, this continuous tense implies an ongoing activity. To illustrate this further, let’s take a look at these two sentences:

  • “He was playing soccer yesterday.”
  • “He played soccer yesterday.”

The first sentence implies that he was involved in an activity (playing soccer) which started sometime yesterday and continued till some time after -hence why it uses the continuous form, whereas the second sentence implies he did something quickly and finished it right away – thus why it uses the simple past. Another example could be:

  • “She was watching TV when I called.”
  • “She watched TV when I called.”

In these cases, you can also see how using either tenses affects how we perceive an event. The former suggests she had been watching television for some time prior and was still doing so when I called, whereas, with the latter, I’m implying that she quickly turned on her TV just before I called.

The Difference Between The Past Simple Tense and Past Continuous Tense

The past simple tense refers to events that happened in the past once or multiple times. It is used mainly with regular verbs that end with -ed. On the other hand, the past continuous tense is used to talk about activities, actions or situations that were in progress at a certain point.

It follows a formula of “was/were + verb-ing”. While the past implies a single action, the past continuous suggests an ongoing activity. For example, “She was always studying” suggests she had been studying for some time prior and was still doing so, whereas “She studied” suggests she quickly turned to her studies just before.

Teaching Children About the Past Continuous Tense

Teaching children about the past continuous tense can be a fun and engaging activity. Firstly, explaining the basics of this tense to the children is essential – what it is, how it differs from the past simple tense and when to use it. This can be done in a few different ways, such as using visual aid (e.g., images or videos), storytelling or playing activities/games.

Once the basics have been explained, it’s time for some practice! A great way to do this is by having students complete sentence-filling exercises in which they have to use either the past continuous or past simple forms. Another fun way of practising is telling stories in groups where each student has a turn at narrating one part of the story while using either tense appropriately based on the situation they are describing.

In addition, more advanced learners could be asked to compose dialogues between two characters, each line including at least one verb in this tense. Finally, encourage them to look through books and news articles for examples of its usage – reading is an effective tool for language learning!

Teaching the Past Continuous Tense to Children

Learning Objectives:

By the end of this lesson, the students will be able to understand the basic concepts of the past continuous tense, explain its differences from other tenses, and identify them in reading passages.


Begin by introducing the concept of verb tenses. Explain that verbs express actions and states in different forms depending on time. Introduce the past continuous tense as a way of talking about something that was happening at a particular point in time in the past or activities that were happening over some time.

Main Teaching Points:

Discuss how to conjugate regular and irregular verbs for this tense. Introduce examples of sentences using this tense, emphasizing situations where it is appropriate to use it (emphasizing ongoing actions). Provide some visual aids, such as videos or images, to help with understanding.

Then practice with some simple sentence fill-in exercises where students have to choose between different verb forms from different tenses according to their meaning in context. For more advanced learners, playgroup activities like storytelling or writing short dialogues featuring characters speaking in this tense.

Finally, discuss how important it is for language learning to read books and news articles for examples of the past continuous tense being appropriately used. Please encourage them to note these examples when they come across them when reading!


Ask questions such as “When do we use this tense?”, “What is an example of a situation where we could use it?” and “How can we use reading materials as part of our language learning?”.

Key Questions:

  • What is the past continuous tense?
  • How do you conjugate regular and irregular verbs into this tense?
  • When do we use it?
  • Can you provide an example involving two characters speaking in this tense?

Frequently Asked Questions About the Past Continuous Tense

What is the past continuous tense?

This tense is used to express activities, events or states that were in progress during a specific time in the past. It consists of two parts: a helping verb (e.g., “was” or “were”) and a main verb in its -ing form (e.g., “running”, “eating”).

How do you conjugate regular verbs for this tense?

To conjugate regular verbs for this tense, add “-ing” to the end of the verb’s infinitive form. For example, “walk” becomes “walking”.

How do you conjugate irregular verbs for this tense?

To conjugate irregular verbs for this tense, add “-ing” to the root form of the verb. For example, “eat” becomes “eating”, but note that some irregular shapes may require special attention, such as with modal auxiliaries.

When do we use this tense?

We use this tense to describe actions and states which were happening at a certain point in time in the past or over some time. Examples include talking about what someone was doing when something happened (e.g., I was studying when he called) or describing an ongoing activity from which someone got interrupted (e.g., He was running when he tripped).

Are there any other tenses which are similar to this one?

Yes! The future continuous tense is used to express activities that will happen at a certain point or over time. Similarly, the present continuous can be used instead of the past continuous if you want to talk about something still happening now!

About The Author

I'm Dan Higgins, one of the faces behind The Teaching Couple. With 15 years in the education sector and a decade as a teacher, I've witnessed the highs and lows of school life. Over the years, my passion for supporting fellow teachers and making school more bearable has grown. The Teaching Couple is my platform to share strategies, tips, and insights from my journey. Together, we can shape a better school experience for all.






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