Holistic grammar with Cuisenaire rods (or 9 tenses in one lesson!)

24 Apr

Last week, a learner asked to do a visual tense revision in his next lesson. He told me “I need to see it to learn it” and that he kind of knew various verb tenses in English, but needed to organize and reinforce that knowledge a bit.

Thankfully, I remembered reading an article by Rod Bolitho in the May 2011 issue of English Teaching Professional on holistic grammar. This brilliant article (which unfortunately is not freely available online, but can be accessed through the digital archives if you have a subscription to ETp) offers several ideas for teaching several tenses in one lesson, in a very visual and memorable way, and without a lot of metalanguage. Just what I needed!

The original article, however, sets activities to do with groups of students. My learner has 1-on-1 lessons. Not to fear, the Cuisenaire rods are here! They came in handy to adapt Bolitho’s ideas to my 1-on-1 context.


  • 1-on-1 lesson
  • B1.1-ish, not afraid to analyze language to understand how it works
  • In-company lessons, but prefers general English. We had spent several lessons talking about his project of renovating an old farmhouse, so had built up lots of vocab
  • Last lesson, he requested to do some visual grammar revision

The lesson:

Photo 24-04-13 09 21 161. We established three points of reference in time: past (orange), present (blue), future (brown). Each rod represented a different reference point.

2. I asked basic display questions to elicit the continuous forms and the fact that these refer to temporary actions:

  • What are we doing now? (We’re studying English)
  • What were we doing this time last week? (We were studying English) 
  • What will we be doing this time next week? (We will be studying English)

Pretty obvious, context-bare questions, but the idea was to show that all continuous forms take -ing (this would come up later with present perfect), that continuous forms exist in past, present, and future, and that it’s the auxiliary that changes while the -ing verb part of the construction stays the same.

We used the green and magenta rods to show the “be” auxiliary + verb+-ing and for the future, magenta + beige + green = will be studying.

3. Another display question: How long have we been speaking together this morning? (We’ve been speaking for an hour).

Photo 24-04-13 09 28 43We added yellow rods to show how the present perfect continuous extends from the present back into the past. We talked about how long the learner had been working on his house, how long he had been moving boxes, etc. to show variations in how far the yellow rods extended into the past.

4. I added 5 rods lined up together to represent the five days of the current working week plus beige cubes to represent events in my schedule (we had talked about my schedule this week during pre-lesson small talk). I had the learner guess what the cubes referred to (my lessons this week).Photo 24-04-13 09 45 05

We established that I had 3 lessons on Monday, I had no lessons on Tuesday (these past days represented by 2 orange past rods), and I have one lesson today (represented by 1 present blue rod). This got us through the past simple for finished events in finished time and the present simple for facts.

5. Then we added I’m teaching 3 lessons tomorrow and I’m teaching 2 lessons on Friday (represented by two brown future rods)–present continuous as a future tense with a time adverbial.

6. Separating the weekday rods, we got on to the present perfect simple. I asked “How many lessons have I done this week?” and it took a bit of fumbling around, but we got to “You’ve had four lessons this week” since today is Wednesday and I still have more lessons to teach on Thursday and Friday.

As we were going through all these tenses, the learner was drawing his own timeline, noting examples from his own farm renovation project, and making notes about the tenses and their use. It wasn’t just me talking the whole time!

Then we removed all the rods except those first three past – present – future rods. The learner told me about his renovation project, trying to use the appropriate tenses we had seen.

Here’s what he came up with: 

Last week we were moving and we said to ourselves “Zut! the armoire is too heavy!” and we called a friend to help. We haven’t finished yet but we hope we’ll finish next week. 

On Monday night, it was necessary to take a box from the old house. I took a box on Tuesday too. This morning, I lost the key to the workshop, and we were looking for it all morning until we found it in my wife’s car. 

Tonight, I’m planning to fix the mirror in the bathroom because I can’t shave! I don’t have a mirror! I haven’t fixed it yet because I had lost the key to the workshop.

So, in about an hour and a half, we managed to address:

  • past continuous
  • present continuous
  • future continuous
  • past simple
  • present simple for facts
  • future simple
  • present perfect simple for events in a time period that hasn’t yet finished
  • present perfect simple for an event that hasn’t happened yet but will
  • present perfect continuous
  • past perfect simple 
  • present continuous as a future with a time adverbial


  • A very PPP (present practice produce) lesson, which maybe could have been introduced differently. What if I had started by letting the learner tell me about his renovation project and then building on that output? Would this have been more efficient? After all, we didn’t actually need the future continuous in the rest of the lesson and it isn’t really used that much in everyday speech (excepting English lessons on the continuous form…)
  • Some of the uses in the final output text don’t sound 100% natural to me, but we didn’t have time to go into them. At the same time, this short little text does make use of lots of different tenses, as does natural speech in many cases. I did like the fact that in the “production” part of the lesson, the student wasn’t forced to try to use 1-2 specific tenses, as is often the case in traditional grammar-focused production exercises (Think “Now use the past simple to tell your partner what you did last weekend.”)

Rather, we looked at a panorama of tenses and the learner used the ones he needed to tell me about his project. Does this mean he’ll be able to use them all correctly spontaneously? Um, let’s not dream. But it did seem to help clear some things up and give us something to refer back to in future tense work.

  • I liked the active, visual aspect of this lesson. Actually, I really liked it. It drew on the basic timeline that we all use to explain tenses, but made it more involving. Plus the fact that you can pick up parts, move them around, etc. is practical. 
  • As we built on, you can see that I took photos. I sent these to the learner so he can match them to his notes. This is also a good way of keeping track of what you’ve done with the rods, in case you need to go back and re-create a specific set up but can’t remember it.
  • Finally, maybe we could have done some sort of a wrap-up but I don’t know what exactly. I don’t know if having the learner summarize the tense rules we worked on would be very helpful. Plus, we all know that often learners are very good at reciting the rules, less so at applying them. 

Maybe going back through the learner’s final text and saying why he used a specific verb tense in that part of the story would be more effective. At least it would give context that the learner could relate to.

What do you think? What’s a good, effective way to round off a lesson on tense revision?

And if you’re looking for more ideas with Cuisenaire rods, you may like this post. Still need convincing? Here are 7 reasons to use Cuisenaire rods.


4 responses to “Holistic grammar with Cuisenaire rods (or 9 tenses in one lesson!)

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