Tips and ideas from Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clandfield on teaching the present perfect aspect.
When teaching the present perfect, or explaining the present perfect, it is often easiest to focus on the use of the present perfect rather than the meaning. This is especially true for the first time students encounter it (usually associated with the use of talking about experiences).
However, sooner or later you will be looking at different uses of the present perfect, and more often than not its relation with the past tense. This is where things often get tricky, partly because of the potentially misleading word present in present perfect. It could be worthwhile to focus the students’ attention first on the perfect and then the present. Doing this, rather than the other way around will make explanations of the uses of the present perfect easier.
An easy way of explaining perfect is to use the word before. But since the past simple is also technically before the present, this does not cover all the uses of the perfect aspect. Another technical term is in retrospect, for which looking back is easier. So the present perfect is before the present, or looking back from the present.
A frustrated teacher once asked, “How many activities can you make for the present perfect?!” Since the present perfect is used to talk about experiences, the possibility for activities is as endless as that of experiences that human beings can have.
'Have you ever …' questionnaires are good for restricted personalised practice. Group the questions around a particular theme. Here are some examples:
- Cinema experiences
Have you ever met a movie star? Have you cried at the cinema? Have you left the cinema before the movie ended?, etc.
- Digital experiences
Have you ever taken part in a video conference? Have you ever had a computer virus? Have you ever bought anything on the internet?, etc.
- Health experiences
Have you ever spent a night in hospital? Have you ever broken a bone? Have you ever had an operation?, etc.
- School experiences
Have you ever cheated on an exam? Have you ever played truant? Have you ever copied homework from someone else?, etc.
These can be done by students in pairs, or organised into a larger survey, with students having different questions and reporting back their findings. In either case, students can be encouraged to ask follow-up questions (what, when, where, why) which will prompt the switch from present perfect to past simple.
Activity: Why not?
That tricky use of the present perfect to talk about an action that happened in the past but that has relevance now can be practised with a variety of drills. Here is example. Write the following on the board.
- Because I’ve seen it a hundred times!
- Because I’ve read it!
- Because I’ve finished my work!
- Because I’ve never met him!
Tell the students they must respond to one of your prompts with an expression from the board. Call on individual students and ask questions which will elicit one of the answers.
- Why don’t you want to see Mission Impossible 2?
- Why don’t you have your book today?
- Why are you sitting there doing nothing?
- Why don’t you ask him out?
You can make your own questions and answers like this, or you can just make the questions and challenge the students to come up with their own (perhaps more creative) answers beginning with the sentence stem:
- Because I’ve …
- Because I haven’t ...
The choice of the words for and since are often confused by students when using the present perfect. A game can be made out of these choices. Ask the students to make two signs that they can hold up (these can be a simple piece of paper folded over). Tell them to write for on one sign, and since on the other. When you call out a time expression, they must hold up the right sign. Write on the board I have been in English class … and proceed to call out the following times:
2002, last week, two weeks, a minute, hours, ages, when I was a child, etc.
Students hold up the right sign.
A traditional exercise often used in coursebooks is that of a person’s lifeline. It will look something like this:
- 1971 – Harry is born in London.
- 1976 – Harry and his family move to Kuwait.
- 1988 – Harry finishes school and starts working for Cleanoil, an American oil company.
- 1996 – Harry is promoted to manager at Cleanoil.
- 1997 – Harry meets Amina.
- 2000 – Harry and Amina get married.
- 2001 – Harry Jr. is born.
Make sentences about Harry’s life up to now. Use the words.
Teachers can make their own examples, with their own lives. Then encourage the students to do a similar activity with their own lives as examples.
One activity that is frequently used to practise the words already, yet and still with the present perfect is a travel itinerary. The following is a very simplified example:
The Martin family are on holiday in North America. Here are their travel plans:
- Monday – Morning: Niagara Falls, Canada. Afternoon: fly to New York City.
- Tuesday – New York City
- Wednesday – Morning: arrive in Washington.
- Thursday - Washington
- Friday– Morning: fly to Boston.
It’s Wednesday morning. Are the sentences true or false?
- The Martin family have already been to Washington.
- The Martin family have not yet been to Boston.
- The Martin family have visited New York City.
You can use places that are more familiar to your students (towns and sites around their country, being visited by a bus tour of British pensioners for example).
The following is an activity based on something I once saw at a drama improv workshop. It can be used to illustrate the recent ongoing aspect of the present perfect continuous.
Ask a student to leave the room. Write one of the following sentences on the board. Explain that the student outside promised not to do this activity, but that the class has discovered that he/she has been doing it again. The class must confront the student with this fact, but without saying exactly what it is. That is, they must not say the key words of the sentence. The student must guess what it is he is being accused of.
- We saw the empty bottle.
- Your friends from the bar told us.
- We can smell it on your breath.
- You aren’t walking straight.
- Your eyes are red.
- You’ve been eating chocolate again!
- You’ve been talking on the phone again!
- You’ve been playing computer games again!
- You’ve been watching television again!
- You’ve been talking to your ex-girlfriend/boyfriend again!
A very creative activity suggested by Penny Ur* to practise the present perfect can be equally used to practise the present perfect continuous. Go through old newspapers and find pictures of people doing things, or visibly showing emotions. Show the students the picture and ask them to speculate as to what the person has been doing. If your class is new to the structure, write up the following stem on the board to help them:
As students call out suggestions, ask why. Who can guess the news story?
*Penny Ur, Grammar Practice Activities: Cambridge University
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Present perfect aspect – tips and activities