The 2×2 Matrix: A Powerful Universal Tool for Students to Acquire/Learn English Content & Grammar


By Howat A. Labrum

Which strategy do TESOL teachers choose to use?  Do they prefer “top down” or “bottom up” approaches?  Or do they use neither or both?  I suggest choosing both, which means exploiting the synergy of the two strategies.  Underlying my choice of both is the 2×2 matrix which shows the four choices visually.

What is the 2X2 Matrix and Why Use it?

The 2×2 matrix is also the key to my focus here and the basis of my active voice English tense-map (see the graphic at the bottom), allowing for a concise overview while giving some essential details.  The matrix also synergizes the two important areas which involve appealing content and a concise verb tense system. In addition, the 2×2 matrix is a math formula, a universal concept understood by speakers of many languages, thus being a bridge for students wishing to learn English, both grammar and content.

The 2×2 as the Basis for the Tensemap

My starting point is the active voice tensemap.  It is a combination of a 3×4 table shared by Betty Azar in her book called Fundamentals of English Grammar (Prentice-Hall, 1985) and a timeline. By some deep thinking and chance, I realized the 12 tense forms could be shown by a timeline using three 2×2 matrices, one for each of the three tenses: past, present, and future

Adding Colour

The tensemap uses colours to help students see the patterns within and across the tenses.  For example, in the graphic below, it is clear the combination of yellow (perfect) and light blue (progressive) gives dark green (perfect progressive).  Grey is my obvious choice for the simple tense form (aspect). Furthermore, the tensemap allows the use of a quick and easy 3-step algorithm which students can use to identify the tense forms correctly by putting them in the appropriate quadrant.

The Tensemap can be Reduced to Uncoloured Symbols

Once the concept is understood, the tensemap can be visualized as the symbol +++. The ‘plus’ signs represent the four quadrants for past, present, and future. Students can use the +++ to show they understand the tense form in a text by underlining the verb, putting the +++ above the verb, and a dot in the corresponding quadrant. 

To show the past perfect (I had eaten), I place a dot in the upper left quadrant in the + which is the one on the left of the three. 

Use in the Classroom and at Home

A large version of the +++ (windows) can be put on the whiteboard where students can point to the corresponding quadrant when they hear a verb tense form in a sentence. This board exercise can become a Total Physical Response game for the whole class to participate in, a fun and less intimidating way than the usual verb tense exercises.  At home students diagram the tense forms in passages of text that are interesting and appealing to them.

Bio: Howat Labrum holds an M.A. in TESOL from UBC. He worked as an EFL teacher in Thailand, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea from 1976 to 2014. Howat created his tensemap in 1990 and has subsequently added more features to it. He has shared his ideas on Twitter @Howie7951 since 2015. Go to letlearn2008 on YouTube for more.  


Azar, Betty Schrampfer, (1985). Fundamentals of English Grammar, (1st Ed,), Prentice-Hall

A question for you:

Do you think this dynamic, colourful tool could be used in your classroom?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s