Timelines in EFL

This is my second post in a series of posts going ‘Back to Basics‘, re-examining techniques and ideas introduced on teacher training courses.

What is a timeline?
A timeline is a visual representation of the relationships that exist between tense and time. They are simple drawings which can illustrate the meaning of these sometimes, let’s face it, rather complex relationships.

Why use a timeline?timeline

  • Timelines can illustrate meaning in a much simpler way than using metalanguage to describe tenses (e.g. ‘we use this tense to talk about something that began in the past and continues up to the present’).
  • Used alongside concept checking questions, they can reinforce meaning.
  • They may appeal to more visual learners.

What can timelines be used for?
Timelines are mainly used in the EFL classroom to represent grammatical tenses.

An example

By the end of the year, Sophie will have been living in Paris for 4 years.

I’ve deliberately chosen a difficult tense to exemplify how a timeline can illustrate a complex idea much more simply. A teacher explanation might go something like ‘we use this tense to talk about something that began in the past and will continue up to a particular point of time in the future.’ – a lot of information to process there.

The nuts and bolts of timelines

  • A basic timeline is labelled with ‘past’, ‘now’, and ‘future’, as appropriate.


  • Specific points in time can be added using a X.

This example could visualise ‘The film started before I arrived’.

  • Arrows can be added to show connections between times.

20140622-223258-81178680.jpgThis timeline could contrast with the previous by illustrating the past perfect ‘I arrived after the film had started’.

  • Wavy lines can be added to represent actions in progress (useful for continuous tenses)20140622-233130-84690656.jpgThis could represent ‘This time tomorrow I’ll be flying to Italy’.

Tweaking your timelines

  • Adding simple pictures can make timelines even more visual.20140623-003758-2278404.jpgThis could represent ‘I used to play the saxophone’.

A simple idea, but effective.  Some other great examples can be found in ‘Basic English Usage’ by Michael Swan.


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22 Responses to Timelines in EFL

  1. Pingback: Timelines in EFL | TeachingEnglish | Scoop.it

  2. Elly Kurnia says:

    I agree. I also use timelines to explain tenses to my studs. It’s easy and still the most effective way.


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  5. Atira Jafarova says:

    . It makes the rule easier to understand.


  6. Robin E. says:

    What an excellent way to illustrate those complex verbs!


  7. Pingback: Timelines in EFL | Teaching (EFL & other te...

  8. annfore says:

    Hi Jonny,

    Just to let you know that we’ve shortlisted this blog post for this month’s TeachingEnglish blog award and I’ll be making a post about it on today’s TeachingEnglish Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/TeachingEnglish.BritishCouncil, if you’d like to check there for likes and comments.



  9. mamingental says:

    Reblogged this on M Amin Gental.


  10. Anastasia says:

    Hello, Jonny!
    Thanks for the post, it came in very relevant to me. Can I ask how you created the illustrations for this post: is it hand-drawn or created on the computer?


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  12. Tali Klein says:

    I use timelines, as well, to demonstrate verb tenses. Thank you for sharing this. Tali Klein.


  13. Chris says:

    A timelines are not a new thing, of course, but what I particularly like is your little drawings sittling on them; they give life to the whole concept; just wavy lines to represent this or dotted lines to represent that are still abstract and a bit unfriendly. It is a shame lots of teachers avoid board drawing.


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  15. cjt says:

    how would you draw a timeline for the first conditional, for example ‘If it’s sunny tomorrow, we’ll go to the beach’


    • jonnyingham says:

      Hi, thanks for the comment. I’m not sure conditionals really lend themselves to timelines, though I’m open to ideas if anyone reading this has used them for these structures. I would probably use a different way to convey meaning, presenting them in a suitable context and exploring this. Other visuals could help here to help establish this context.


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