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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!