4 Activities to Practice Simple Past and Present Perfect

English has 12 tenses: the simple, progressive, perfect, and perfect progressive forms of past, present, and future. Fortunately, the students in my intermediate speaking classes can communicate their ideas clearly with only seven: three simple, three progressive, and present perfect.

Unfortunately, out of those seven tenses, there are two that those students often forget to use in conversation: simple past and present perfect.

Therefore, I focus on those two tenses in my intermediate classes. We review how they are used, and then practice using them with activities. Here are four activities I like to use: Mystery Movie, Fortunately/Unfortunately, Find Someone Who Has… and Never Have I Ever.

1. Mystery Movie

This exercise gives students the opportunity to practice the simple past. In groups of three to four, students take turns telling the stories of popular movies in past tense without using names of characters or actors. After 30 seconds, their partners can start to guess which movie it might be.

“Watching a blank screen” by Kenneth Lu CC-BY-2.0. Question mark added.

Once the name of the movie has been guessed, the next student in the circle tells the story of a different movie. Play continues until everyone has had a turn to tell a story.

If no one guesses after 90 seconds, the teller reveals the movie title and play passes to the next student. If students are familiar with the movie, but don’t know the title in English, they can give more details about it until it is clear they are talking about the same one.

Example

José: There was a girl and her rich boyfriend and her mother. They got on a big boat to go to the United States. The rich boy gave the girl a big diamond necklace. The girl didn’t want to marry the rich boy and thought about jumping off the boat. Then she met a poor artist who drew a picture of her. She fell in love with him.

Li Jing: Is it Titanic?

José: Yes!

2. Fortunately/Unfortunately

In this activity, which also uses past tense, all the students sit in a circle and tell a story together. The first speaker makes a statement that establishes the name of the story’s main character and their location. (This information can also be brainstormed by the class as a whole.) The student on their left adds a sentence about that character starting with “Unfortunately.” The next player continues the story starting their sentence with “Fortunately.” The story-building continues around the circle with sentences alternating between “Fortunately” and “Unfortunately” until the story reaches the second speaker again; that player can decide to start a new story or continue with the first one.

Example

Marthe: Jane walked her tiny dog, Rex, in the park.

Lissette: Unfortunately, a much bigger dog ran towards them.

Marc: Fortunately, the big dog was very friendly and just wanted to play.

Miguel: Unfortunately, it was so big that when it jumped on Jane, she fell down.

Jung-hoon: Fortunately, she fell onto a pile of leaves.

Adjusting for Online Classes: Rather than a circle, make a list showing the order of students in the chat window.

3. Find Someone Who Has…

This version of the popular “Find Someone Who” game helps students practice present perfect and past—it’s also a great ice breaker. Give students a handout that says, “Find someone who…” on the top. Below that, the sentence is completed with a list of nine to 12 descriptions of people. For instance,

Find someone who…

… has met a celebrity.

… has exercised in the last 3 days.

… has been on a plane for more than 9 hours.

… has received more texts today than you.

The goal is for students to find all people on the list by questioning other students. I usually limit them to one list item per student to encourage them to practice with everyone. Students should speak in complete sentences, and once both players have matched their partner to an activity, they should move on to other students. Once a player has found all the people on the list, the game is finished, and they are the winner. If you run out of time, the student who has found the most people is the winner.

Model the activity with a student before play begins.

Example

Teacher: Sonja, have you ever been on a plane for more than 9 hours?

Sonja: No, I haven’t. My longest plane ride was 4 hours.

Teacher: Have you received any texts today?

Sonja: Yes, I have. I’ve gotten 9 so far.

Teacher: Awesome! I’ve only gotten 5, so I will write your name by that description.

Sonja: Teacher, have you exercised in the last 3 days?

Teacher: Yes. I swam yesterday.

Sonja: Thanks.

Teacher: Now that we both have found a person on the list, let’s separate and see who else we can find.

Adjusting for Online Classes: If you have a recent version of Zoom, you can create breakout rooms and allow students to choose which one they want to join. That way, they can move between rooms and find partners they haven’t talked to yet.

4. Never Have I Ever

This fun, simple game uses present perfect in a formulaic way, which makes it great for practicing past participles. Students sit in a circle, holding up all 10 fingers. The first student tells the class something that they have never done—but something they think others may have done. Any student who has done that thing must put down one finger. Those who have not keep their fingers up.

Players who have done the action must put down a finger.

The play continues clockwise, with each student making a “Never have I ever” statement. Every time a player has done the action described, they must put down another finger. Gameplay continues until everyone in the circle has played or one student has put down all their fingers, whichever comes first. The winner is the person with the most fingers still up.

Examples

Nancie: Never have I ever swum in the ocean.

Vlad: Never have I ever cheated on a test.

Ming: Never have I ever eaten an insect.

Max: Never have I ever been stuck in an elevator.

Kim: Never have I ever seen a sloth in real life.

Adjusting for Online Classes: Rather than a circle, make a list showing the order of students in the chat window. Make sure that students’ hands are visible.


Those are just a few activities to practice past and present perfect tenses. Do you use others? Please share in the comments!

About A. C. Kemp

A. C. Kemp
A. C. Kemp has been a lecturer in English language studies at MIT since 2007. She has a master’s degree in applied linguistics from the University of Massachusetts/Boston. A. C. has also presented extensively on teaching strategies for vocabulary acquisition. Since 2002, she has been the director of Slang City, a website devoted to American slang and colloquial language. She also has a strong interest in ITA training, for which she created the User-Friendly Classroom Video Series in 2016.
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8 Responses to
4 Activities to Practice Simple Past and Present Perfect

  1. Miriam Anku says:

    These are very engaging ways of teaching the concepts. I will use them with my students who are resuming school in two week’s time. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Nayereh Nouri says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your great ideas. Now, I can use some of these activities in my online class. These wonderful tasks can really engage all language learners, no matter what age they are.

    • warm up and engage students using a simple question; ” what did you do when you were young? ; Did you …….when you were young? How did you ……when you were young? and so on. put ss in real situation and to tell about their own life ,, take the kids’ hand to point to the verbs , they said, that the teacher has already written on the board .the teacher says the verb and gets the kid repeat and ask the students to write the whole sentence ….the teacher pushes ss to ask each other the previous questions with the teacher’s help ……in this way the teacher integrates the four skills in one activity
      the teacher practice what the kids said on board using the names of the kids ; John said he……………, Roby said he………..
      Drills: S to S
      T to S
      T TO SS
      CHECH ss ‘ understanding

  3. Mohamed Wahban says:

    thanks millions

  4. Pamela Barr says:

    Thank you for this insightful and inventive way to teach the simple past in contrast to the present perfect. The correct usage of the latter may be particularly challenging for ELLs. Also, the learning game you suggested certainly seems to be constructive and quite enjoyable–and it’s an engaging way to expand the students’ vocabulary usage in context. I prefer to use interactive teaching techniques with my students– and these certainly fit the bill. I plan to try out these strategies in the classroom soon. Thanks again!

  5. Joseph William Hester says:

    Thank you for the great ideas. I play a variation of the Never Have I ever using Zoom.
    Students click on the video options so that only people with their cameras on are visible.
    Then, teacher starts by saying one example…”Never have I ever flown on a helicopter.”
    Students who agree with this turn their camera off (thus disappear) and the remaining ones are the ones who have.
    Then, students who are out can ask questions of the students who remain. Students have to be mindful of using present perfect or simple past in their answers. The game goes slower, but this way, we can learn more about each other at each question. Teacher corrects as needed. Then, once students get the hang of it, they can take turns generating the Never have I ever statements.

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