Eavesdropping on the Present Perfect

Perhaps no frequently used tense in the English language is as bedeviling as the present perfect tense. Many advanced ESL students still struggle to use it correctly. And plenty of instructors—myself included—have struggled to teach it well.

This fall, after several semesters of doing valiant battle with this tense, I decided to adopt a new approach. Instead of dutifully marching my students through our textbook’s chapters on using the present perfect with “since” or “for” or “already, yet, and still,” I decided to lay the groundwork for our work on the present perfect by asking them to listen to how people at work, on the street, in the movies, and on the Internet actually used this tense.  Their assignment was to “eavesdrop” on the English language as it was being spoken around them outside of class, to listen for the use of the present perfect, to write down what they heard, and to bring the sentences they overhead to class.

The first job was to marshal the evidence of authentic use of the present perfect.  Students covered the white boards in my class with more than a dozen examples of what they had overhead, including:

  • “Have you brushed your teeth yet?” [overhead by a Brazilian student who works as an au pair].
  • “Where’ve you been? I haven’t seen you in ages.” [overhead by an Italian student who works as a bus boy].
  • “She’s gone to the store.” [overhead by a Mexican student at the restaurant where he is a cook].
  • “They’ve been together since 1985.” [overhead by a Haitian student who works the cash register at a local supermarket].
  • “Have you seen ‘Gravity’ yet?” [overhead by a student from Ecuador listening to her son speaking with his American friends].
  • “I’ve had a cold for two weeks.” [overheard by a student from Peru who works as a housekeeper and babysitter].

Once we had a board full of real-life examples of the present perfect, I asked my students to consider a menu of three different scenarios in which the present perfect is commonly used:

A = to describe an action that started in the past and continues to the present.

B = to describe an action that took place in the past but we don’t know when.

C = to describe repeated actions in the past.

These scenarios are laid out in a Learn American English Online video I had asked my students to watch at home before class to prepare for our in-class work.

I then put the students in groups and asked them to see if they could agree on what letter to assign to each of the real-life examples of the present perfect on the board.  Furious arguments erupted within the groups.  Is “She’s gone to the store” an example of “A” or “B”? Is “I haven’t seen you in ages” an example of “A,” “B,” or “C”?  Once they had reached a consensus within their group, I had the different groups shout out their choices so I could annotate the sentences on the board with their choice of scenario.  If the groups disagreed, students had to defend their choice in front of their classmates.

As they argued with each other about the present perfect, my students gained a deeper understanding of how that challenging tense is actually used—not to mention a whole lot of communicative practice as they tried to persuade each other why their choice was right.

In an upcoming post, I’ll share with you a role-play activity that gave my students plenty of practice using what they learned about the present perfect tense.  In the meantime, please share your own favorite present perfect activities in the comments section below!



About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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2 Responses to Eavesdropping on the Present Perfect

  1. Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

    Susan – Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. Personally, I still struggle with the idea of the present perfect as an action that happened before now that is still important or relevant for us now. Pesky counterexamples keep coming to mind. For instance, “Maria’s mother killed herself last year” uses the simple past (not the present perfect) but the grief Maria feels in the wake of her mother’s suicide is still quite present. I’d love to hear more the activities you use to address the present perfect in your classes.

  2. SusanMatson says:

    This is a terrific activity: short and long-term memory are enhanced, and students are much more motivated, when a new grammar structure is learned through discovery and inference. I wonder, though, if the larger meaning of present perfect – the reason we CHOOSE to use it – has been overlooked a bit, in favor of three specific contexts where it can be found. In my mind, present perfect refers to an action or event that began or happened “before now” that is still important or relevant to us now. It’s the tie of the past to the present that makes this tense substantially different from simple past. For example, “He’s gone” differs from “He went” – because his absence is felt, is noticeable, now.

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