English Teacher Article 36 fun classroom activities for Present Simple and Continuous

Summary: Interactive classroom activities for using both present tenses together, comparing and contrasting their uses. Including speaking activities with minimal resources, ideas for worksheets, and possible uses of technology.

By: |Audience: Teachers|Category: Teaching English

I have recently published 56 communicative activities to teach Present Simple and 35 for practising Present Continuous, often combined with things like frequency expressions and pronunciation to make lessons on these rather basic tenses more useful. However, the most useful thing you can do with Present Simple and Present Continuous is teach and practise them together, contrasting their meanings and uses. I therefore recommend moving fairly quickly on from any lessons on those tenses on their own to combining them in the ways explained below. As many of the activities below are variations on activities in my articles on teaching Present Simple or Present Continuous on their own, one easy way into teaching both tenses together is by adding one extra tense to an activity halfway through it. For example, you can play the Make Me Say Yes game below with just Present Simple questions like “Do you brush your teeth every morning?” and then add Present Continuous questions like “Are you sitting down?”

Before or after practice activities like those suggested here, students can discuss the meanings of the two tenses that they have just used or are about to use (temporary actions/ in progress now versus routines/ habits/ repeated actions) and maybe key words like “at the moment” and “often” that go with each of them. Unlike what many textbooks do, I strongly recommend making sure students understand and can produce that general difference in meaning before introducing any examples of state verbs (= stative verbs) that don’t take “-ing”. Action and state verbs will therefore be dealt with separately in my next article in this series.

As with the other articles in this series, the activities below are given in order by what kinds of resources you need, from none or few in the first section to using technology in the last section, with ideas for using photocopies in the middle. When more than one of those ways is possible, the activity is explained in the section where it is most recommended and then mentioned in the other(s). Each section is arranged with the ones which I’d use most often in my own classes nearest the top.

Present Simple and Continuous activities with no or minimal resources

Present Simple and Continuous Make Me Say Yes

Students take turns asking Present Simple and Present Continuous questions to which they think the answer will be “Yes, I am” or “Yes, I do” to each other, with one point for each “Yes” answer to questions like “Are you sitting down?” and “Do you like cheese?” You can also expand the game to allow “Yes, (s)he is” and “Yes, (s)he does” questions about their friends and family. To expand the amount of language they use and avoid constant “Do you like…?” questions, you could give them a pack of cards or a worksheet with verbs that they must use, discarding cards from their hand or ticking off verbs on the worksheet as they get “Yes” answers.

Present Simple and Continuous things in common game

Students work together to make true present sentences about the people in their group like “We both/ all…”, perhaps getting one point for each sentence that they come up with which no other group in the class has written. You can also give bonus points for two sentences with the same verb in both tenses, e.g. “Both of us are feeling tired. We almost always feel tired in English class.” Students may need a suggested list of verbs, time expressions and/ or topics to help them come up with ideas. If students get stuck, or are likely to, you might want to allow negative sentences like “Neither of us in wearing pink. We almost never wear pink”.

How well do you know your present classmates?

Students work in groups of two to four. One person closes their eyes and the other people in the group ask them questions about people in other groups with Present Continuous questions like “Who is John sitting next to?” and Present Simple questions like “What does William do?” Students might need a list of suggested question stems and/ or topics to help them come up with ideas.

Present Simple and Continuous time zones guessing game

If you give students a map with time zones on it, they can describe one place on it using both present tenses until their partners guess where they are talking about, e.g. “People there are mostly sleeping right now, but I think some people are probably partying. They love partying”. Students who might have difficulty calculating time zones or choosing actions to describe might benefit from a worksheet with both of those things on it, maybe even one which is tailor-made with the approximate times in some places at the time when that class is happening.

Present Simple and Continuous projects

Ask students to design posters showing people doing bad things and explaining what good people do instead, e.g. a picture of someone chucking rubbish in the street with “He is throwing garbage onto the pavement. Good citizens take it home or put it in a bin”. The pictures can be found online or drawn by the students. Suitable topics include ecology, helping people, studying and being a good family member.

Present Simple and Continuous describing photos extended speaking

These two tenses are perhaps the most natural for speaking about photos which you are showing to someone, with phrases like “This is my brother John. He’s holding hands with his girlfriend Jane. They are married and have three kids now. They live in Canada”. However, real photos rarely produce enough of this kind of language, so the best activity is for students to imagine that some blank pieces of paper are photos and to describe them using just those two tenses.

People you don’t actually know so well present tenses game

Students try to imagine things that their partners don’t know about their own friends and families and take turns asking questions to test their partner on those things, e.g. “What time does your granddad get up?” and “What colour shoes is your youngest sister wearing today?” Every time they get the answer “I’m afraid I don’t know” or “I have (absolutely) no idea”, they get one point. If their partner does know the answer, they don’t get a point and it’s someone else’s turn to ask the next question. If they ask a question which it isn’t possible for their partner to answer, for example because they don’t have such a person in their family or the question is ambiguous (e.g. “What is your sister…?” when they have more than one sister), they also lose their chance to get a point.

Particularly if you want to practise family vocabulary, it might be worth giving students a worksheet with suggested people and questions.

Present Simple and Continuous postcards competition

Although obviously the format is becoming rarer and rarer in modern life, postcards are probably still among the contexts in which a mix of Present Continuous and Present Simple can most naturally be written down together, with examples like “I get up every morning and go straight to the pool. At the moment, I’m the only person lying here”. To add a game element, after students finish writing their postcards they can vote on which holiday sounds best or most realistic, and/or guess which place is being written about.

Present Simple and Continuous postcards chain writing game

Another way of using the idea of postcards to practise Present Simple and Present Continuous in a game-like way is for students to write descriptions of their holidays line by line, passing each postcard to be continued by another student or group each time. This can be made more fun by students folding the paper each time so that what has been written so far can’t be seen by the next person writing, similar to the drawing game Consequences. When the game is finished, the postcards are passed one more time. The students unfold the completed postcards that they receive and tell the class if the holiday makes sense and sounds nice and why. In order to make sure that both tenses are used and to cut down the randomness of the game format a bit, you might want to give students a worksheet with sentence stems like “At this moment,…” and “Other people…”.

Present Simple and Continuous tour guides practice

Students imagine that they are giving a tour and describe both things going on as they are looking and more general information about that place with sentences like “You can see a ship is passing under the bridge, which is why it is open. It opens ten or twenty times a day.” and “The man standing there is a Beefeater. They change the guard once an hour”. Students will probably need a worksheet, a tourist map, some tourist brochures and/ or the internet to help them come up with ideas. They can also make a poster or brochure with such sentences written on it. If you want to add a game element, students can vote on the most interesting sounding place and/ or best description.

Famous places Present Simple and Continuous guessing game

Give students a list of famous places like Big Ben in London and Plaza Mayor in Madrid. One student chooses one of them without telling anyone else which one they are thinking of and describes what they can imagine happening at one moment in time (not necessarily matching the real time of day) and other things that happen there until their partner guesses which thing is being described. The places can be individual sites (“It’s striking twelve. Its tune is used all over the world” for Big Ben) or cities (“He’s pushing that big stick into the bottom of the canal to move. Tens of thousands of people use these boats every day” for Venice). After successfully guessing, students can discuss whether those things are probably true or not.

Bitching at work

Students imagine that they are chatting with a friend of theirs in another company while they are working, using some kind of online instant messaging service like the text messaging part of Skype. They should take turns explaining how bad their job is, both in general and today, trying to outdo each other. Exchanges should include what they are doing now and a description of how that is like or unlike their normal routines. This works best with students passing a piece of paper back and forth to communicate their complaints. To save sitting around, you could also have each student “chatting” with several people at the same time, maybe with the teacher playing the role of the internet and passing the pieces of paper back and forth. It’s also possible to do this activity with actual technology, as long as you can set up accounts especially for it or students are happy to share their regular contact details with each other.

Present Simple and Continuous workplace tour roleplays

Students roleplay taking people around their workplace, describing what they can see happening and how things happen there more generally. Students who aren’t working can describe their school, university library, etc. Their partner should listen and ask for further details. If you want to make it into more of a game, you can allow students to add details from their imaginations, with their partners guessing which things were made up after they ask for more details.

Present Simple and Continuous guessing from hints games

Students describe something using both present tenses until their partners guess what they are talking about. The thing described can be an action (e.g. “I’m doing it now. I do it hundreds of times every hour.” for “blink”), an object (e.g. “I’m wearing them. I keep them in a drawer. I have about 20 pairs.” for “socks”), or a person (e.g. “They are probably coming home from work now. They get up very early.” for “postal worker”). Students might need a list of suitable people, actions, objects etc to help them come up with ideas.

I’m (being) unique

Students take turns trying to make a pair of similar sentences, one in Present Simple and the other in Present Continuous, neither of which is also true for their partner, e.g. “I’m wearing a vest. I almost always wear a vest.” If their partner can say “I’m also wearing a vest” and/ or “I almost always wear a vest too”, then they don’t get a point. You might want to pre-teach the opposite reactions that they want to get, e.g. “Really/ That’s interesting. I’m not/ I don’t.”

This can also be played as a mingling game, with students going around trying to find pairs of sentences that no other person in the class can say is true about them too. For a quick game, ask students to sit down as they find a single pair of sentences showing ways in which they are unique and stop a couple of minutes after the first person sits down or when most people have. For a longer game, ask them to continue finding examples until you stop the game.

Describing cultural practices Present Simple and Continuous bluff

Show students photos of people involved in cultural activities such as taking part in festivals or rites of passage, either on the board, as cut-up pictures, or on worksheets. Ask them to describe what is happening in the picture and what the habits related to those times are such as how often those things happen and who takes part, using their imagination whenever they don’t know those things. When they have finished, their partner will guess which bits they made up.

With mixed culture classes, you could also get them to describe similar things about their own cultures, adding false information which other people should try to spot.

They’re doing what they do

One student chooses someone who they know such as a member of their family and describes something that they are (probably) doing right at that moment, such as “My father is working”. Their partner then attempts to make a true sentence about the same person and topic but with the Present Simple tense, guessing that person’s routines with sentences like “Your father works very hard every day”. The game can be played with just one Present Simple guess for each Present Continuous description, or continuing with Present Simple guesses until they say something that isn’t true.

Present Simple and Continuous stations

Students run and touch one of two walls depending on what tense they hear or think should be used. For example, they run and touch the Present Continuous wall if they hear “I’m having a great time” or the Present Simple one if they hear “I blank my bed every morning”. Other hints could include time expressions (“at the moment”, “right now”, “once a week”, etc), pictures showing routines or people frozen in mid-action, or blanked sentences held up. To add speaking, you can get students to also shout out the full sentence as they touch the wall.

To add points, you can give a point to the first team who have all their members at the right wall. Alternatively, you could only have one person from each team running each time and award points to the first to touch the right place, or eliminate people each time and give points to the people who are still in the game at the end.

Instead of running and touching, students can throw things at two targets, pretend to shoot the two walls or targets, or put cards with “(s/ es)” and “-ing” written on them between them on the table and rush to slap them. A calmer version, also suitable for adults and quieter classes, is giving each student copies of both of those “(s/es)” and “-ing” cards, and students racing to hold up the right one of the two cards depending on what they see and hear.

The teacher will need to prepare some suitable sentences or key words before the activity, and maybe the two cards to hold up (although students can easily make their own with a pen and scrap paper).

Not getting through, but you usually do

This telephoning roleplay activity is a common and realistic activity for practising Present Continuous, with the person answering the phone giving excuses about why someone isn’t available with sentences like “He’s visiting a client”. This can be made into more of a game by the same person phoning again and again and getting a different excuse each time. You can add Present Simple by the person who is phoning complaining that the things explained in the excuses aren’t typical and are therefore unbelievable, with sentences like “But he always visits clients just before the weekend and today in Tuesday”. Other examples include “He’s smoking” “But he doesn’t smoke” and “He’s flying to New York” “But he’s scared of flying”. If you want to score, students get one point for each excuse which their partner doesn’t successfully object to or eventually accepts.

Present tenses job application letters

Although real job application letters (= cover letters) will include a lot of Present Perfect and Simple Past, it is possible to produce a reasonable one with Present Simple and Continuous sentences like “I’m designing a new way of storing photos” and “I work with people from 60 different countries”. Students can then discuss which are the best versions and/ or guess which job each person is applying for.

You can make this into a game by one student writing one sentence and then passing it to the next student to continue. Each version is passed one further time after being finished, then the class discuss which the best and worst versions are. This can be made more fun by students folding the paper each time to hide what has been written so far, in which case you will maybe need to give them some help with what should come next such as sentence stems for each stage, e.g. “I’m working on improving…” and “I very often…”.

That’s strange, they usually…

Many textbooks have very unrealistic texts to contrast Present Simple and Present Continuous that go “Javier usually eats toast for breakfast in his dirty studio flat. Today he is eating caviar on a yacht”. This same idea can be used for somewhat better speaking practice, but only if students have quite a lot of imagination and fluency.

One way to use that idea is to imagine that the students in their group are sports commentators, with one describing what is happening and the other saying how usual or unusual those things are, e.g. “He’s heading the ball towards the net” and “That’s strange. He never tries to score himself” or “He always does that, but he rarely scores that way”.

The other TV-based situation which matches this grammar is police and spies tracking someone, with the person looking through the binoculars reporting back “He’s sitting outside a café and reading a newspaper” and the expert on that person at the other end of the line reporting “He always does that” or “That’s strange. He usually sits inside. Maybe someone is going to meet him there”.

Worksheets for practice of Present Simple and Continuous

Present Simple and Continuous miming and discussion

Miming is much more well-known as an activity to practise just Present Continuous with sentences like “I’m jumping” and “You’re running”, but it is possible and useful to add Present Simple to that. The easiest way is to start with those Present Continuous mimes and then have an additional stage where students discuss how often, when, where, why etc they actually do those things. For example, students could mime actions that the teacher imagines is typical in their job and then discuss which of those things are actually normal (nowadays), or students could mime things people do at the dinner table and then discuss which table manners are most important in their own and other countries. They can then think about which tenses they used for each activity and why.

Note that for all of the miming activities described here you will need insist on the person miming continuing until their partner guesses, because otherwise the use of Present Continuous is not realistic to describe the action.

Present Simple and Continuous discussion then miming

Another way to bring Present Simple into miming activities is to reverse the stages mentioned above, getting students to do a speaking activity with the Present Simple tense first. After that, students check any unknown vocabulary with the teacher, then do a miming stage using the Present Continuous tense when they guess what their partner is acting out (as it is the natural tense for describing an ongoing action).

Present Simple and Continuous miming and guessing game

There is also a way of bringing together Present Continuous miming and Present Simple where both stages are games, the second of which has more intensive speaking than the first. After guessing what their partners are doing with Present Continuous sentences, students check that they understand all of those Present Continuous action sentences. They then choose one of the phrases and talk about how often, when, why etc people do that thing until their partner guesses which one it is. They can then discuss if they think that description is true in each case.

Present Simple and Continuous miming and questions

Another way of bringing Present Simple into miming games actually combines the use of the two tenses. The person who is miming chooses one job without saying what it is and mimes just one thing that is typical in that job, asking “What am I doing?” For example, for “nurse” they could mime “You are washing your hands” Whenever their partner guesses the action, they ask “What do I do?” Perhaps after asking more questions about that one action like “How often does that person…?”, the other person can guess just once which job it is, e.g. “I think it’s a beautician”. If the guess is wrong, another action that is typical of the same job is mimed, for the person to guess the action and job again. Students continue in the same way until they guess the job correctly.

Present Simple and Continuous taboo topics games

Students rank some Present Simple and Present Continuous questions that you have given them with between 1 and 5 points, from 1 point for ones which are good for starting and continuing conversations, including with strangers (“Is anyone sitting here?” etc). The other numbers they can put go from 2 for ones which are okay to 5 for ones which are completely taboo and likely to stop all conversation (“What colour underwear are you wearing?” etc).

After ranking the questions, students ask each other questions of those different levels. To do this for points, students choose how many points they want to go for and get some percentage of that many points depending on how well they answer the question, with zero points for the (understandable) reaction of politely refusing to answer a very personal question, one point for answering an easy question in full, up to five points for fully answering a taboo question.

Students can then try to remember what tenses those questions were in and/ or make other good and taboo questions with the same two tenses, perhaps for another group to play the same game with.

Present Simple and Continuous discussion questions

It’s surprisingly easy to create interesting questions that include just Present Continuous and/ or Present Simple, or questions that produce those tenses in student answers. Examples include “What healthy things that you do would you recommend to your partner?” and “What is changing in your city? Is it making life better or worse?” After giving their answers, students can try to remember what tense the questions were in and/ or put the correct tenses into sample answers.

Discuss the Present Simple and Continuous statements

Another way of combining giving opinions and both present tenses is to give Present Simple and Present Continuous descriptions of society, the business world, etc for students to agree or disagree with. Present Simple examples could include “People work too long hours for no good reason” and “Parents don’t discipline their children enough”. Present Continuous ones would be mainly about changes in the world like “Life is improving for most ordinary people” and “The government is making the right changes to improve the country’s economy”.

Present Simple and Continuous discuss and agree

Give students words which are useful for describing contemporary life like “civil servants” and “alter” and ask students to use them to agree on and write down Present Simple and Present Continuous statements like “Politicians only look after their friends” and “Education is improving”. They later compare their ideas with another group and get one point for each one that the other group agrees is true and hadn’t written down themselves.

Present Simple and Continuous Ask and Tell

Give students a pack of cards or worksheet with some key words for making Present Simple and Present Continuous personal questions such as “bored” for “Are you feeling bored?” and “argue” for “How often do you argue with your family?” One student should choose a word and make a suitable question, then flip a coin to see if they can ask the question to someone else in their group (heads for “ask”) or will have to answer their question themselves (tails for “tell”). They will therefore have to be careful about asking questions which are too personal in case they have to tell those things about themselves. People can ask for more details if they like, although they don’t have to answer these questions if they don’t want to. Play then passes to the next person.

Present Simple and Continuous Answer Me short answers card game

Students deal out a pack of cards saying “Yes, I am”, “No, he doesn’t”, “Yes, they are” etc in groups of two to four people. They can look at their cards but shouldn’t show them to their partners. If they can get one of the responses that they hold in their hand when they ask questions like “Are you wearing a jumper?” and “Do your parents like cheese?”, they can discard that card. The person with fewest cards left in their hand at the end of the game is the winner.

Present Simple and Continuous presentations

Even fairly low level students can gain from extended speaking tasks similar to the presentation tasks in the IELTS exam and those in the Inside Out series of textbooks. They can easily do so with a combination of these two tenses with topics like “my work”, “my company”, “clothes” and “my classmates”. In order to contrast the two tenses, you can also throw in a few topics that probably only need one of the two tenses like “My mornings” and “Present projects”.

This can be turned into more of a game by getting students to time how long their partners can talk about each topic, taking off the time spent pausing, repeating themselves, going off topic, etc. They can choose the topics themselves, choose from a pack of cards, or work their way around a board game. With the board game version, students work their way round it by moving on one square for each thirty-second period they can talk about the topic written in the square they are on, e.g. moving three squares because they talked for two minutes minus fifteen seconds pausing about “My studies” or “Using English”.

Present Simple and Continuous sentence completion guessing game

Students choose a gapped sentence or sentence stem from the worksheet that they are given and say just the words that they would add to it to make a true statement about themselves, e.g. “perfume” for “I rarely wear _____________” or “I’m wearing ____________ now”. They shouldn’t say the part that is written on their worksheet, because that is what the other students should try and guess. For example, one student says “bored” and their partners eventually guess that the sentence is “I feel bored on the train” rather than their first guesses of “I’m feeling bored now” and “I feel bored with English”. Students can start the game when they have filled in about 50% of the sentences on their worksheets, or better classes can just do the whole game orally without a writing stage to prepare.

You can then have a stage where students try to remember the correct tenses to complete filled in versions of those worksheets.

Present Simple and Continuous roleplays

You can practise some of the natural uses of Present Simple and Present Continuous by giving a set of roleplay cards describing those situations to students for them to work their way through. Possibilities include interviewing musicians on their routines and album that they are presently recording, explaining why someone is not available to speak now and their normal routines, and being interrupted by things in the background while talking about routines on the phone.

You can also include some where only one of the two tenses are likely, e.g. “Find a regular time to have a study group session together” and “Go to reception and ask to be put in touch with someone who can speak to you now”. After they finish the speaking activity, students can then discuss which of the tenses is most likely in each situation and/ or fill gaps in example sentences from the roleplays with the right tenses.

Other activities

These activities from the first section can also be done with worksheets to accompany them:

Present Simple and Continuous Make Me Say Yes

Present Simple and Continuous things in common game

Present Simple and Continuous time zones guessing game

Present Simple and Continuous describing photos extended speaking

People you don’t actually know so well present tenses game

Present Simple and Continuous postcards competition

Present Simple and Continuous postcards chain writing game

Present Simple and Continuous tour guides practice

Famous places Present Simple and Continuous guessing game

Present Simple and Continuous guessing from hints games

Describing cultural practices Present Simple and Continuous bluff

Present Simple and Continuous stations

Technology-based activities for Present Simple and Continuous

Present Simple and Continuous personalised video viewing game

Students ask the teacher to pause the video every time they think they can make a sentence using both present tenses that compares the action on the screen with their own habits, e.g. “He is playing the guitar and I sometimes play the guitar”. To make it more interesting and challenging, you could ask them to make sentences about their classmates and what is happening on the screen instead, e.g. “He is chatting to his colleagues and Jose almost always does that at work” and “He is washing his clothes and most people here wash their clothes every day”. Their classmates then confirm or deny the truth of that statement.

Present Simple and Continuous guess both lives from the video still

Choose a movie in which someone has a regular life which is suddenly upset by something, e.g. the boy in the Pixar animation Up, either of the main characters in the Eddie Murphy comedy Changing Places, or the teacher in the John Cleese film Clockwise. Find a still or scene which illustrates their strange day and get students to make true sentences about that time and their probable usual lives from looking at it. If possible, then use stills or a scene to show their real everyday lives and so check the students’ guesses.

Other activities

Bitching at Work above can also be done with the help of technology, and the internet can be used for research for the activity Present Simple and Continuous Tour Guides Practice and for Describing Cultural Practices Present Simple and Continuous Bluff.

Copyright © 2015

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com