"I am sorry, I don't understand 'temporary repeated action', and why you have said 'Present consequence of a completed event in the past at an unspecified time or a state which commenced at a point of time in the past and continues until the present time and in all likelihood will continue into the future time?' I haven't understood. Please help me!"

Timelines - methodology article

The language used by teachers to explain time reference, particularly of verb forms, can be confusing for the students. Timelines are neat devices that can be used to clarify our teaching language. Timelines enable the communication of sophisticated concepts to the lowest level of learner, and can prompt sophisticated discussion amongst higher level learners.

This article is a basic introduction to timelines. Later articles will discuss when to use timelines in class, concept checking, activities and strategies that use timelines and their potential drawbacks. This introductory article covers the following areas.

  • What is a timeline?
  • Why use timelines?
  • What does a timeline look like?
    • The basics
    • Symbols
    • Examples
  • Conclusion


What is a timeline?
One of the keys to learning a language is learning how that language refers to, and describes, time and events, or states, that occur in the realm of time. In English, this reference to time is most commonly described by the verb, in its various tenses and aspects. Unfortunately, when learning a language, it is at times difficult to understand the concepts that are given as explanation.

  • Timelines are diagrams that illustrate the reference to time made by a given piece of language. They are used to show how a particular language item (often a verb in a particular tense and aspect) places particular events or situations in time and in relation to other events.


Why use timelines?
The concepts which underline time reference in a language are often difficult to explain using controlled language and are often linguistically difficult to understand. Timelines are used to explain language in the more universal form of pictures, diagrams and symbols. Most people will follow the direction indicated by an arrow.

Timelines are used to:

  • Simplify linguistic explanation
  • Reinforce the understanding of a concept
  • Illustrate the differences between verb forms and other language items
  • Help students with a visual learning style
  • Provide a reference point for students
  • Encourage awareness of how language refers to time in different ways


What does a timeline look like?
There are no set rules for the appearance of timelines, rather, there is a common sense convention which will be described below. Teachers will have there own idiosyncrasies and develop their own micro styles (representing time through diagrams is never going to be a standard affair), however, the similarities between the timelines used in Room 12 in London and Room 14 in Shanghai are greater than the differences.

The basics
A horizontal line represents the basic line of time. The left end of the line is the first point in time, the right end is the final point in time. Thus, time is deemed to move forward as the line moves from left to right.

This line is usually marked with a point that represents now. Thus, the timeline is divided into the past and the future.




To emphasise the direction of time, the line may be capped with an arrowhead. I also like to represent Now with a triangle, as below.

This simple template can then be added to in order to show everything from the difference between the words before and after and the meaning of the future perfect continuous!

The following is a summary of the common symbols used on timelines

A single event or action
A repeated action or habit
A permanent state or situation
A temporary state, situation or repeated/continuous action
Exact time of event is unknown
A point in time
A period in time


Here are some timeline examples demonstrating the use of these symbols.

  • Yesterday, I met Bob in the bank, quite by chance.


  • Last night, I was walking home when I slipped on the icy path


  • I have been learning Japanese for three years.


  • I have been to New Zealand, Iceland and Taiwan.



  • I get up at seven o'clock every day.


These examples should show how the symbols act to illustrate a sentence or phrase. In the second article you will see how to use these diagrams in class, in particular how to use them to check the understanding of key concepts.

Gareth Rees, teacher, trainer, London Metropolitan University, UK


Submitted by billaswad1975 on Sat, 03/02/2024 - 09:52

They are very helpful to understand language. I always use them to explain and compare tenses


Although there is no follow up article to this by Gareth himself, you might find the following articles, which look at timelines and concept checking, and the use of graphic organisers helpful:






TE Team



Submitted by Uma_Shah on Tue, 04/09/2019 - 07:35

How can we depict negative sentences using timelines? Are there any standard symbols that can be used? e.g. I never go to parties. / I don't like ice cream. / I have never been to Europe. Suggestions will be appreciated. Thanks!

Submitted by ariane36 on Thu, 12/27/2018 - 17:04

hello! this was taught to me when I was studying in primary years. Would love to read and review verb timeline again. Thank you!

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