How to teach past time expressions
Summary: Teaching tips and classroom activities for time expressions with narrative tenses and Used to.
Despite textbooks usually taking the exact opposite approach, it seems obvious to me that time expressions like “The day before yesterday” and “When I was in elementary school” are much more important for successful communication than tenses like Past Continuous and Past Perfect. Those kinds of past time expressions are also likely to make learning those tenses much easier, due to how often particular times go with particular tenses. This article gives presentation and practice ideas for past time expressions like “two days ago” and “two days earlier”, including many tips on how to help students avoid common misunderstandings and mistakes.
What students need to know about past time expressions
I would probably teach past expressions in this order, starting with the time expressions that they hopefully already know from talking about the present:
- “at…” with times (e.g. “at seven o’clock this morning”)
- “on…” with days and dates (“on Xmas Day”, etc)
- “in…” with longer past periods such as months, years, decades and centuries (“in the 1960s”, etc)
- no preposition with “yesterday”, “last…” (“last year”, etc), “the day before yesterday”, “the… before last” (“the week before last”, etc)
- “… ago” to show how long a time was before now (“two days ago”, etc)
- “first” and “last” (especially in “When did you first/ last…?”)
- “this…” with times that have started but (usually) not finished (“this week”, etc)
- “since…” with a point of time that an action started (e.g. “since I was born”)
- “when…” and “while…” with descriptions of a point in time (e.g. “When I was walking through the door, he hit me with a candlestick”)
- “already” and “yet”
- the three meanings of “when” (“before”, “when/ while” and “after”)
- “in the last… (s)” for unfinished times until now (e.g. “in the last twelve months” to mean “since this time last year”)
- “(at) this time…” (“this time last week”, etc)
- “by…” and “by the time…”
Many of those expressions tend to go with particular past forms, for example:
- Past Simple with “ago” and “last…”
- Past Continuous with “while”, “when”, “at” and “(at) this time…”
- Present Perfect with “this…”, “since” and “in the last… (s)”
- Past Perfect with “before/ earlier”, “by” and “by the time”
- “Used to” with expressions showing your age with “When I…” (such as “When I was younger”, “When I was in primary school” and “When I was a teenager”), times longer than one year (“In the late 1960s”, “In the 17th century”, etc) and expressions meaning “Many years ago” (“a long time ago”, etc).
“Yet”, “already” and “just” are usually used with Present Perfect in British English and Past Simple in American English, but are also used with Past Perfect to mean “before that time”.
Typical student problems with past time expressions
One typical student problem is choosing a tense because of a time expression but without thinking carefully about the meaning. This is perhaps most common with “for”, which many courses teach with Present Perfect (“I have been working here for seven years”, etc) but is actually just as common with Past Simple (“I lived in the US for ten years when I was younger”, etc) and also matches Past Perfect (“I had already been going out with him for ten years when I found out that…” etc). The same issue arises with students automatically using “this” with Present Perfect, even in situations when “this morning” and “this week” are finished (because it is now the afternoon, or it is now Saturday and by “this week” we mean “this working week”).
To a lesser extent the same is true of “ever”, which as well as Present Perfect (“Have you ever been to Bali?”, etc) is possible with Past Simple (“Did you ever meet Einstein?” meaning when you had the opportunity, e.g. when he was alive) and Past Perfect (“Had you ever seen him before?” meaning before that time, e.g. before he attacked you).
Most other common student confusions with past time expressions can be solved by combining tenses with the right words. For example, students often mix up “ago” (meaning before now) and “before/ earlier” (meaning before another time/ that time), but most problems with this can be solved by almost always using “ago” with Past Simple and saving “before” for Past Perfect (“I had already been there once before”, meaning before that past time, etc).
The same approach works with “since” (which usually goes with perfect tenses, as in “I have been waiting since seven o’clock”) and “from” (which usually goes with “to” and so explains periods which are finished, as in “I did housework from 5 o’clock this morning”).
The difference between “last week” and “in the last week” can be much more difficult for students to get their heads round. Again you can help students a lot with the tip that “in the last week” goes with Present Perfect (because it means in the seven days leading up to now, e.g. Tuesday to Monday if it is Monday now, and so it is an unfinished time). It helps even more to tell students that it is much more common to say “In the last seven days” (and similar things like “In the last twelve months”), making the distinction between those expressions and “last week/ month/ year” much clearer in students’ minds.
Perhaps the most difficult time expression of all is “when”, which can mean “before”, “at the time when/ while” or “after” depending on the context. Luckily, the meaning is almost always decided by which tense that you are using, with it usually meaning “before” in Past Perfect sentences like “When I came home, she had died”, “at the time when/ while” in Past Continuous sentences like “When I came home, she was dying”, and “after” in Past Simple sentences like “When I came home, she died”.
How to present past time expressions
Because of how linked they all are to different tenses, it isn’t really possible to do a big review of past time expressions until students have already studied at least a couple of past tenses, preferably with lots of practice of suitable time expressions with each tense. When they are ready for a big review, I like to get started with The Same or Different below, but I sometimes do a less fun but simpler version where they are given phrases with different meanings on one line and just have to work out the difference each time (without having to guess if they are the same or different first). The other possibility is to ask them to start by communicating with suggested time expressions with an activity such as the memory game or discussion questions explained below, correct them on any expressions that they had difficult using correctly, then do further presentation and practice tasks from below.
How to practise past time expressions
Past time expressions the same or different
Students listen to pairs of time phrases like “the day before yesterday”/ “two days ago” and “since Monday”/ “from Monday (to Wednesday)” and have to raise the “The same” card or the “Different” card that they have been given depending on what they think about the meanings. After labelling the same lines with “S” or “D” for the same or different on a worksheet, they can test each other with the same racing to raise cards game, then try to remember or think of synonyms for past time expressions.
Past time expressions brainstorming races
Students race to brainstorm as many past time expressions as they can to match the word or category that the teacher says within the given time limit, for example trying to come up with as many expressions as they can with “in the last…” in two minutes or as many past times within “yesterday” as they can within five minutes. The game works with everyone brainstorming the same category, in which case I usually give extra points for anything that no one else thought of. It also works with different teams choosing different categories. After the time limit, the brainstormed lists are passed to another group to be checked, perhaps with points off for mistakes and/ or for wrongly correcting another group.
Past prepositions of time pelmanism and snap
Make a pack of cards with about 40 time expressions that need “at”, “on”, “in”, “ago” or no preposition such as “four forty”, “Monday morning”, “the twentieth century”, “two weeks” and “last month”. The same pack can be used for pelmanism and/ or snap, but I often prefer to start just by asking students to race to put the cards into columns by which preposition they need.
For pelmanism/ pairs/ the memory game, students spread the cards face down across the table and take turns trying to find pairs of cards which could take the same preposition (including no preposition). The person with most cards at the end of the game is the winner.
Snap is a quicker game in which students take turns turning over the top card of their pack (which they can’t look at beforehand) and racing to shout “Snap” if the last two cards to be turned over (their last card and their partner’s last card) should take the same preposition and therefore match.
Past time expressions tennis
Students test each other with past time expressions that their partner should say a synonym of to “return” their “serve”, e.g. saying “The day before yesterday” or “On Sunday” if their partner says “Two days ago”. The game can be played with the rules of badminton, tennis, ping pong, volleyball, etc, or you can make up simpler rules. It can also be played with an actual ball going back and forth, or perhaps with something being rolled or flicked across the table if that will be too disruptive.
Communicative practice for past time expressions
Good and bad past time questions
There are a reasonable number of common small talk questions that have past time expressions in the questions or answers such as “How was your weekend?”, “Is this your first time in…?” and “Long time no see. How long has it been (since we last met)?” Other prepositions of time like “before” might need less common questions like “Have you ever been to the UK?” followed by “Had you been to Europe before (that)?” Including these less common questions can be exploited by asking students to start by asking each other the questions that they think are best for (real) small talk from the list. After answering questions about any which they are not sure are the suitability of, can’t understand or don’t know how to answer, you can then get students to put suitable time expressions in the questions and sample answers.
Past times memory game
Students test each other with a range of questions about past times such as “How long have you had that T-shirt?” and “What time did you wake up on the 16th of August this year?” and get one point if their partner says “I don’t know”, “I don’t remember”, etc, but no points if their partner can answer that question.
Past times warmer cooler guessing game
Students ask each other questions that their partner won’t know the answer to like “When was I born?” and “How long is it since I smoked?” and give their partner hints like “No, it’s (slightly/ somewhat/ quite a lot/ much/ much much) earlier/ later/ shorter/ longer” until they get exactly the right time. With a little internet research, the same can be done with past times from the news, history, etc.
Past times competitions
Students try to find things that they did earlier than their partner, getting a point for finding that they got up earlier on Saturday, that they went to America when they were younger, that they last went to a swimming pool a longer time ago, etc. Points can also be given for having a bigger number, e.g. a longer time living in this city or a later bedtime last night.
Past times personalised statements game
Students pick cards that have parts of past time expressions such as “last”, “19” and “half past” and try to make true sentences about their partner using those words.
Past times hints game
Students pick a card with a time expression like “In the 1970s” or “Since I moved to this city” but don’t show it to their partner(s). They say sentences that match that time like “People wore platform shoes” and “I have lived in the same house as now” until their partner guesses the time, with only one guess allowed per hint. If their partner has completely the wrong idea or they run out of example sentences, they could also use a hangman-style hint with gaps for each letter such as “_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _” for “Since I was born”.
Past times things in common
Students try to find things in common with as many different time expressions as they can, e.g. that they have both gone to the gym this week and that they were both sleeping at three o’clock this morning. The game works best if you give them a list of key words that they can or should use. It can also be played with gapped sentences for them to complete such as “Neither of us has _______________ since ___________________”.
Past time expressions bluffing game
Make a worksheet with about 20 sentences with past time expressions, most of which are probably true about at least one person in the class. A student chooses a sentence with a past time expression on the worksheet such as “I lived with my grandmother when I was a teenager” or “I had a dodgy stomach yesterday” and reads it out to their partner. Their partner asks for more details with questions like “Why did you…?” and then tries to guess if the sentence is really true for that person or if they have been lying. After about five minutes of this game, students can then put the right prepositions of time in gapped versions of the same sentences and/ or write similar sentences to play another round of the game with.