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Teaching Spanish: The Progressive Aspect - Estar + gerund

By Eric W. Vogt

From a Spanish perspective, English overuses the progressive. Nevertheless, teaching students how the progressive is formed in Spanish can be eye opening to them because of the parallels it has with English, allowing them to transfer some linguistic data confidently from their native language.

How to Teach the Progressive

This lesson is designed to increase students' awareness of what the progressive aspect is and how English and Spanish form the progressive. As well, it explains when speakers of English and Spanish use it -- or don't use it. It includes additional material for students who have had the imperfect and the preterite so that they can become more aware of the fact that the progressive is an aspect, not a tense -- a fact that helps a great deal when they try to unravel the difference between the preterite and the imperfect.

On the board, write the following: What are you ______ ? and ask them to finish the sentence. The first word out of someone's mouth will probably be doing. Ask for more answers and as they say them, write them in a column above or below the blank. After you have harvested at least ten verbs stop and ask what all their answers have in common. Of course they will see the -ing ending on each verb they used to complete the sentence.

Next ask them to change the subject from you to he and make any necessary corrections to the question. They will see the need to change it to is. Repeat this, changing he to I, then I to we, and we to they, each time asking them what to do with the "be" verb (don't label the verb to be as such at this point). After you can see that they are responsive to the change, ask them why the change was necessary. Lead them to say that the verb needed to agree with the subject.

Redirect their attention to the -ing and ask them how they knew that the word in the blank had to be a verb and had to end in -ing. They may be puzzled for a few moments -- let the puzzlement sink in for five or ten seconds and then reassure them that it is good to feel that the best answer really is "it just had to be" or "it couldn't be anything else."

Next, tell them that this structure is called the present progressive and that Spanish has the same structure and that it works according to the same logic, even if the endings involved and the vocabulary is different. Before continuing, ask them what the two words in the name present progressive suggest. Lead them to understand that present refers to the tense; progressive refers to the aspect. Explain that when the word aspect is used in reference to verbs, it means a way of looking at an action in the present, as opposed to, for example, the emphatic, e.g., he does eat).

Next, show them the Spanish translation of three of the solutions they used with the English verbs, picking those whose Spanish translations are regular -AR, -ER and -IR verbs. Write the entire sentence.

Ask them questions to elicit their awareness of the parallels, circling or otherwise marking parallel structures (some colored markers are great for this, e.g., blue for the "be" verb and red for the gerund).

Finally, write the conjugation of the verb estar in a six-holed paradigm or grid, and to the right, a plus sign followed by the word gerund -- to show them what I like to call the chemical formula approach to grammar structures. Then explain that AR > -ando and ER/IR > -iendo.

Finish the structural explanation with a list of irregular gerunds, e.g., diciendo, durmiendo, pidiendo, leyendo.

Last, write (or hand out) a list of sentences in the simple present and ask them to change them to the present progressive.

NOTE: If you are reviewing the progressive with more advanced students, point out the the imperfect is a progressive past and that the form estaba + gerund is redundant at worst and emphatic at best -- it is more economical to simply use the imperfect. The use of the preterite of estar + gerund, e.g., estuvo corriendo, is likewise either redundant or used to show that an action was ongoing at a specific moment in the past, e.g., A las tres, Juan estuvo corriendo enfrente de mi casa.