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How do your students react when you tell them it’s time to practice grammar?
Groans, right? I hear you! Today you’ll learn how to fix exactly that: how to teach the past tense in a fun, effective way your students will love.
Many ESL students are especially sick and tired of grammar worksheets, complicated textbook explanations and boring activities. In fact, my university ESL class tells me that they have hardly any speaking practice with grammatical tenses throughout high school here in Spain.
So, I use games! If you know me, you know I love using games in the classroom as well as in private tutoring sessions. Gamification research is all the rage recently, too!
In fact, I’ll be presenting at the upcoming Language Learning Summit in February and the 2018 Online Teacher’s Summit in April. Be sure to check out my posts on Grammar Games and ESL Games for Kids if you missed them and need some ideas before then.
Both are incredible celebrations of language learning and teaching run by Paulino Brenner. Of course, I chose a topic on How to Use Games in ESL Lessons, so be sure to stay tuned so you don’t miss out on my video at the summit.
(If you’re signed up to my free printables library, you’ll get all the details – don’t worry!)

The Past Tense in English

Now, if you teach another language, this may be a bit different. However, since almost 90% of you told me in this 2-minute survey that you teach ESL, I thought I’d dedicate today’s post to you.
There are two things to remember:
  • First, be sure that students understand the FORM of the past tense.  Sometimes, the official grammatical terms can be confusing for students (e.g. “present perfect”)


  • Second, be sure they understand the USE. Sounds simple, right? Well, I find students can often struggle with getting their head around both, especially when it’s usually different to other languages. So let’s go through each one:

Present Perfect

The English present perfect is formed using  HAVE + PAST PARTICIPLE.   It’s used to refer to actions that started in the past and continue today, or generally true events.   I’ve lived in Barcelona for three years.  I’ve seen that movie.  Some students may confuse this tense with the simple past, especially in languages like European Spanish.  Remember, they often use the present perfect tense to refer to something that happened today or this week.


Simple Past

The English simple past is formed using the  PAST PARTICIPLE.    Now, this is either the ROOT + “ED”, or an IRREGULAR PARTICIPLE.   For example,  I saw that movie yesterday, or  I did my laundry this morning.  Quite “simply”, it’s used for past events. Remember, you may have to remind students that the “past” in English includes earlier on in the same day.


Past Perfect

The English past perfect is formed using  HAD + PAST PARTICIPLE.   This one can be tricky for students to wrap their head around, as it is a past event that occurs BEFORE the past you’re talking about.  So, it may refer to something you had already done when another event occurred.  For example, I’d already seen that movie when he suggested it. 



 The English continuous forms are formed using  TO BE + GERUND (“ING” FORM).  Of course, each of the forms of past can be used to express an activity that continues, or continued in the past.  I had been waiting for hours before my friend showed up.   I have been waiting for this moment for three years. I had been living there for two years before she moved in.
 Students may be flustered with the names of the past tenses, especially if they’re not familiar with the terms in their own language, or their language has a very different grammatical structure. Be patient with students, and remind them to be patient with themselves, as well!  Past tense grammar can be a source of frustration for a lot of students.

How To Use A Timeline (Infographic)

Now, I’m sure most of you teachers have seen the timeline method before (so bear with me!), but I do really love making sure my students draw out the timeline.  It’s especially helpful if it’s the first time you’re teaching them the grammatical terms.
So, as simple as it is – have them draw it out!  Here is an example:
English Past Tense Timeline
I find when students actually draw it out themselves, they are able to visualize how all the forms of the past work together. An easy to use, free worksheet with a timeline and examples is coming in my January Printables later this week!
Free Printables Library

4 Fun Ways To Practice The Past Tense

 Understanding grammatical form and use is fine, you say, but how can I get my students to actually practice?  Well, i’d like to share 4 fun ways that you can get your students practising both the spoken and written past tense in English.

1. Past Tense Board Gameultimate-phrasal-verbs-game-image3

Now, if you’ve peeked into my free printables library you’ve probably seen my Speaking Board Game. A few months ago, I added a new board game specifically to practice the past tense. Students simply roll the dice, land on a square and talk about that particular event, in the past tense form given.  This ends up being a lot of fun – as students remind each other about the form and use on each square!


2. Other Board Games

Actually, you can use just about any board game to practice speaking in English, but speaking in the past tense may be a bit more challenging.  So, I recommend using a story based game, story cubes, or a game like  Linguapolis.

You can even use a phrasal verbs game like the one I have in my free printables library for advanced students. They love making stories this way, and with phrasal verbs, you can practice two-in-one 😉


3. Class Presentations

 Whether you use Prezi, PowerPoint, or paper posters, I’m all for class presentations!  Of course, having time to present in class depends on your course curriculum, but if you can fit it in, you should. Be aware that some students are very shy when they present in a second language, so it may be best to start with small group presentations, or even let students present “from their desks”. I’ve had great success with this in my university English class.

4. Memory Poster

 This one can work well in conjunction with #3.  Have students choose a favourite memory (perhaps a childhood memory) and present it to the class. Using a visual such as a poster (especially if you don’t have time to do presentations) can be really effective.  Give students some time and materials to create a collage of photos, magazine cut-out images, or drawings to add some creativity to the past. Be sure to specify which past tense form you want students to practice. It’s best if you ask them to practice them all! Putting it in a personal story really helps students solidify the concept.

The Best Past Tense Homework

Okay, so we’ve established that copying grammar exercises is kind of boring, right? What kind of homework can you give your students then?
Here are a couple ideas:
  • First, try gap-fill exercises
A couple of great resources for these are English Page and Perfect English Grammar. They have free printable and online fill-in exercise that are great for homework, but too time-consuming for class. In personal tutoring situations, I try one with the student in-class to be sure they understand, and then assign a few for homework.
  • Then,  have students create their own story using the grammar concept you’re teaching (in this case, past tense)
Trust me – although students may be frustrated with this at first, once you provide them with examples, they actually have a ton of fun coming up with their own stories.
For example:
I once had an advanced class where I had small groups play the Phrasal Verbs game. I made it a challenge to use as many of the 60 Phrasal Verbs in the game in their story.
The winning group used 40 verbs correctly – and the stories (by first-year university students) were hilarious!
Oh, and this works for other grammar practice too, of course – like practising the conditional. You can check out my post on that here.
By the way, I’m working on building a Teachers Pay Teachers Store (coming soon!) with ESL and novel study/film study related lesson plans! They’ll be affordably priced and easy to use like you’ve asked.
Want to help decide what types of resources I focus on (for my free printables, too)? Click here to participate – it takes 2 mins and is totally anonymous, I promise!
Thanks to the few hundred of you who have participated already!
What are your best ideas for teaching the past tense to ESL learners? I’d love to hear them so feel free to comment below. I read and respond to every comment 🙂
Happy Teaching!
P.S. Photography fans, the photo for today’s post is one I took in the old town of Dubrovnik last fall

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