How to teach the Past Simple tense
Summary: Issues, teaching ideas and games for "wanted, "passed", "did", "went", "saw" etc.
The Past Simple tense is more useful than the Present Simple and Present Continuous tenses, and it is often argued that it should actually be presented earlier than those two. It can also be seen as a great opportunity to teach loads of useful verbs and time expressions like “two years ago”, “once upon a time, a long long time ago” and “the day before yesterday”.
What students will need to know about the Past Simple tense includes:
- Irregular forms
- Pronunciation of regular and irregular forms
- Spelling of regular forms
- When it should be used, mainly meaning time clauses that it can be used with
- Use of the auxiliary “did” in question formation, negatives and short answers
Student problems with the Past Simple tense tend to include:
- Using the Present Simple instead
- Using the Past Perfect tense instead, especially when the action happened a long time ago
- Using the Present Perfect instead of the Past Simple, especially for speakers of languages such as French who have a tense with a similar structure that is used in more or less the same way as the Past Simple in English
- Pronouncing all –ed endings as /ed/, also meaning adding syllables to many verbs that should remain the same length as the Present Simple/ infinitive
- Confusing “before” with “ago” in sentences like “I came here 20 years before” (which would mean twenty years before the previous event I talked about rather than 20 years before now)
- Confusion between particular pairs of past forms, e.g. “felt”/ “fell” and “found”/ “founded”
- Confusion caused by irregular forms with similar spelling and different pronunciation
- Not knowing the meanings of the verbs they are expected to learn the past forms of
- Wasting time, effort and mental capacity on things which are not important such as rarely used verbs which are irregular or differences between British and American English
- Mixing up prepositions in Past Simple time expressions with sentences like “I did it on yesterday” and “I got up in ten o’clock”
Teaching Past Simple pronunciation and spelling rules
The general rule with regular forms is that –ed has a /t/ sound when it follows an unvoiced sound, as after /p/ in “stopped” and after /s/ in “passed”. By contrast, voiced sounds like /b/ in “robbed” and /z/ in “phased out” are followed by a /d/ sound. This is quite easy to explain, as the difference between the final /t/ and the final /d/ sound is also that the former is unvoiced and the latter is voiced. This means that unvoiced sounds are followed by the unvoiced /t/ sound and voiced sounds are followed by the voiced /d/ sound, obviously saving you “switching” your vocal cords on and off. Students can almost always work this out for themselves with some help.
Once students have understood the straightforward rule above, I generally wouldn’t spend any more time on the distinction between /d/ and /t/ pronunciations of –ed. For one thing, students will often reproduce this effect naturally as their fluency improves anyway, as it is easier to speak that way. In addition, this distinction very rarely causes comprehension problems. More important than the distinction between /t/ and/d/ is the fact that neither form increases the number of syllables in the word. This is because in English the number of syllables is the same as the number of vowel sounds and there is no extra vowel sound in /d/ and /t/, leading to one syllable in both “wash” and “washed” and two syllables in both “increase” and “increased”.
In contrast to those two pronunciations, after infinitives ending with /t/ (as in “pasted”) and /d/ (as in “needed”) –ed in pronounced /id/, and this does increase the number of syllables. This is also fairly easy to understand or help students work out for themselves, as it is impossible to pronounce /tt/ in English without an intervening vowel sound.
All this means a fairly large distinction between /id/ with its added syllable and /d/ and /t/ without. This is often worth a bit of classroom time, especially with students who add another syllable to all regular past forms. The teaching ideas further down this article can be used with whatever distinction you decide to focus on, or even all three at the same time if for some reason you decide on that.
Many textbooks deal with the presentation stage by asking students to listen for the pronunciations of the –ed endings in order to classify and then (often) think about why that might be. I believe the first stage of that is either useless or impossible for students most of the time, because if they can hear the difference they can probably produce it sooner or later without the need to study it! It is therefore usually better to give them the pronunciations of some verbs with –ed endings to think about the reasons for, then they can put other verbs into the same categories by a combination of analysing the last sounds and listening to the pronunciation. Starting with a stage where they listen for the pronunciation can work with /id/ pronunciations, however, especially if you ask them to count syllables rather than think about sounds.
The other issue with regular forms is spelling. For example, in the verbs above “stopped” has a doubled consonant before the –ed ending, but “needed” is not “needded”. The simple rule is that short stressed vowel sounds followed by a single consonant need the consonant doubled. This is part of the Magic E spelling rule.
The Magic E rule tells us that a short vowel sound followed by a single consonant and the letter E “says its name”. This can be seen in the pairs fat/ fate, gen/ gene, bit/ bite, dot/ dote and cut/ cute, in which the vowel sounds in the second in each pair is the same as the letters of the alphabet A, E, I, O and U. The same thing would not happen with words with long vowel sounds (including diphthongs) and words with more than one final consonant. For example, in the imaginary pairs batt/ batte, bitt/ bitte etc all the words would be pronounced the same way, and the same would be true of deign/ deigne etc. Magic E is probably the most well-known spelling rule amongst native speakers and the most useful for language learners to study. Less well known is that exactly the same rule is true with words ending in –ing and –ed, leading to the spelling rule for –ed endings explained above.
How to teach irregular Past Simple forms
As with regular forms, the greatest problems with irregular forms like “went” and “bought” tend to be pronunciation and then spelling. As the vast majority of students will take regular –ed endings to be the default mode, students will also need to remember which verbs are irregular, and many students also seem to have a mental subcategory for “verbs which don’t change” such as “put” and “cut”.
The good news about irregular Past Simple forms is that almost all of them are close enough to their infinitive forms that even students who have never seen them before can usually match them up, and this is even easier if the verbs are in context. With classes who have confidence (in themselves and the teacher), it is even possible to start with a game in which they do so, such as the Pelmanism game mentioned in the practice section below.
It is probably even easier for students to guess which of a pair of words in the past and which is the present, again especially if the words are given in at least a sentence of context (something that could be used to present time expressions as well). This means that this could also be done as a game stage before the presentation, in this case with games such as Stations.
How to teach time expressions with Past Simple
It isn’t usually worth actually presenting time clauses with Past Simple until you have Present Perfect to contrast it with, so instead I usually just give them suggested phrases like “two years ago” and “the week before last” in whatever speaking games we are using (see below). Another approach is to do a lesson on prepositions of time like “at 7 o’clock” and “on Monday” but no preposition with “yesterday” and “last year”. Students could be asked to spot the similarities between time expressions with the same preposition (e.g. “on Xmas day”, “on 25 December” and “on Monday” are the same because they are actually the same day) and then classify others in the same way, or this could be combined with past verbs forms in an error correction activity with sentences like “I go there yesterday” and “I went there in last year”.
How to teach Past Simple question formation and negatives
Past Simple questions are easier both than Past Simple positive statements (because the verbs are in the infinitive) and than the Present Simple questions that have probably been presented earlier (because there is no third person S). There is therefore probably no need for specific presentation of this point. The same is true of negatives and short answers. However, this might be a good point to show how “What do you do?” and “What did you do?” are part of the general pattern of “(Wh) + auxiliary verb + S + main verb” that will also be useful later on.
Classroom activities for regular Past Simple pronunciation and spelling
The most active way of practising this point is getting students to physically react depending on which form they think they hear (preferably being able to analyse them using the rules which have been presented to double check). This only really works with a double distinction (rather than trying to do all three pronunciations of –ed at the same time). Young learner classes can be asked to run and touch opposite walls of the room with “/id/” and “/d/ or /t/” written on them (in a game called Stations) or race to slap one of two cards on their desk. The same thing could also be done with “one syllable” and “two syllables” to emphasize that part of the pronunciation. Adults can do something similar by lifting cards with the –ed pronunciation or number of syllables written on them. There is also a great worksheet called Pronunciation Journey in the book Pronunciation Games which can be adapted for this point in which students take the right or left branch on a kind of tree diagram depending on which sound they think is there and after six or so stages shout out where they have ended up.
It is also possible to play the card games Snap and Pelmanism with this pronunciation point, with students competing to be the first to shout out “Snap” whenever two cards which have the same –ed pronunciation come up or students trying to find two words that have the same –ed pron. These games can also be used to make distinctions between all three pronunciations, if you want to go into that much detail. As a preliminary or ending stage, students can also be asked to classify the whole pack of cards by putting them into columns, and the same cards could also be used for storytelling by asking them to place the cards in order as they use as many of them as they can to tell a story starting with a sentence like “Yesterday, John woke up in a field.” This game can also be used for irregular forms or a mix of both.
A quieter but possibly more intellectually stimulating activity is an –ed pronunciation maze. Make a ten by ten table with one pronunciation of –ed tracing a route from the top left corner to the bottom right one. Fill all the other squares with other pronunciations of –ed. Students must draw the route on the map by working out which pronunciation the first square has and finding a string of ones which are the same.
Classroom activities for irregular Past Simple pronunciation and spelling
My favourite activity for this point is to get students to put past forms together by their vowel sound, e.g. putting “brought” and “fought” into one column, preferably with cut up pieces of paper. With more confident classes this can be done straight from the infinitive forms. If you have enough examples of most vowel sounds (only usually possible by eliminating some of them or including some slightly obscure verbs), it is also possible to play Snap or Pelmanism with the match being by vowel sound.
A much simpler game, especially for young learners, is Past Simple Tennis/ Volleyball/ Badminton/ Squash. Students “serve” an infinitive to their partner and their partner must reply with the Past Simple. This can be played with the real rules of the game you chose, especially when it comes to who serves, or can be simplified.
Classroom activities for Simple Past time expressions
The classroom game which is most clearly focussed on this point is Guess the Time. Students choose or are given a time like “5000 years ago” or “last Sunday” and have to describe things that happened then until someone guesses the correct time.
They could also be asked to find something that they both did at a certain past time like “This morning” and “Before dinner last night” (although this is easier with Past Continuous). A game where they have to find things that they first did before their partner or did more recently than their partner also brings up this kind of form a lot in exchanges like “I last had coffee an hour ago” “I had one just outside the classroom door about five minutes ago, so I win”.
There is also a suitable bluffing game for this in one of the Communication Games books called When Did You Last See Your Father. Students must answer a “When did you last…?” question with one of the given time clauses, and after answering other questions about that event their partners can accuse them of lying in their original answer (because actually the most recent time of that thing was different or because they have never done that thing).
Classroom activities for Past Simple questions, negatives and short answers
The simplest and nicest game for this is Make Me Say Yes I Did, in which students get one point if they get that response from their partner but no points if they say “No, I didn’t”. That can then be reversed with them getting one point for negative responses to questions like “Did you ride on an elephant yesterday?” and “Did you fall asleep in this class last week?”
A similar but more complex game is them having to say “Yes, I did” to all questions even if that isn’t true. After three Wh questions, their partner guesses whether the original “Yes, I did” was true or not. This is also similar to When Did You Last See Your Father above.
A bit more imagination is also needed for the variation Make Me Say I Don’t Remember, with questions like “What did you eat for breakfast three days ago?” and “What colour was your last toothbrush?” getting one point if “I don’t remember” is the (true) response. This can also be turned into a bluffing game by getting them to give the real answer whenever they do remember and an imaginary answer whenever they don’t remember the real one. After three Wh questions, their partner guesses which the answer was.
The games above are very likely to throw up questions like “Did you clean your teeth this morning?” that are unlikely to be much use in real life. This can be exploited by giving them some good and bad examples of Past Simple conversational questions to rank from five points for completely taboo to one point for nice easy conversation starters. They then ask each other questions and get points depending on how difficult the question was and how well they answered, perhaps including the possibility of choosing more difficult questions so that they can get more points.
It is possible to play the Alibi Game (or variations such as Spies) with just Past Simple, but I prefer to leave it until they know at least Past Continuous as well.
Classroom activities for a mix of regular and irregular Simple Past
Games mentioned above which can be used with both regular and irregular forms include Snap, Pelmanism, Tennis, and Stations (and its sit down versions), e.g. by shouting “Snap” if two words are both regular or running and touching walls with “Regular” and “Irregular” written on them. The games below can also be used with just one kind of verb but work better with a mix.
Storytelling also works really well with a mix of both regular and irregular verbs, perhaps after doing it with just one of the categories of verb first. The best way of doing this is to give students cut up cards with one infinitive on each, and ask them to work together to continue a story starter such as “Steven found when he woke up that he had two heads”. This can be made competitive by giving a point for each verb used.
Students can also work with individual verbs, this time trying to make true statements about their partner with them to get a point and be able to cross them off the list or discard a card from their hand.
For even nicer classroom dynamics, you could also ask them to find things in common with the verbs you give them, e.g. “We both had a bath twice yesterday”.
It is also possible to use videos to practise this point, for example by giving students a list of infinitives of verbs and asking them to shout out or write down sentences using as many of those verbs as they can as they watch the film, e.g. “The cat grew really big”.
Classroom activities for a mix of pronunciations
An activity that can be used for any of the pronunciations above (e.g. /t/ endings and different vowels in irregular verbs) is asking them brainstorm as many examples of one category as they can, perhaps as a race. This works best when you have at least five categories you can ask them to brainstorm.
Another nice thing that you need a fair amount of language to make possible is looking at homophones and minimal pairs in past forms, e.g. “past”/ “passed” and “saw”/ “sew”.
Freer speaking that should bring up the Past Simple tense
The most obvious kind of speaking that brings up loads of Past Simple sentences is anecdotes such as “A memorable day at school” or “My favourite teacher at primary school”. As well as giving them a list of suitable topics, you can give the person who is listening a list of things to listen out for or ask questions about when their partner finishes such as “location” and “season”.
You could also give them phrases to react with when their partner is telling their anecdote, e.g. “Poor you” and “That was lucky”. This can be turned into a game by giving them phrases that they should try to get from their partner with (true or made up) past statements like “I lost my keys yesterday”.
You can also set up roleplay conversations, e.g. asking them to “boast” in pairs about what a terrible year they had last year. This also works well with roleplay interviews, which naturally tend to be at least half about the past.