Interesting ESL Lesson Plans: Present Perfect v Past Simple

Before Class

I find it is always helpful to have students review a grammar point before class, so provide your students with a short explanation of both present perfect and simple past tense and the distinction between the two. If you have a good one in their native language, at this level, it’s OK to use it. If you prefer to use an English explanation, you can find a short, simple one here. For an in depth explanation of perfect tenses, see here.

The key distinction between present perfect and simple past is that present perfect is used to talk about past events that are relevant to the present. This could be for several reasons.

  • The time period, either concrete or implied, that is being discussed is not finished.

I have seen that guy three times today. (Today has not finished, so it is possible you may see him again before the day is through.)

They have checked the mailbox five times already. (Implies they will keep checking until the mail arrives)

  • The fact that something happened in the past is being related to convey a present level of experience or completion.

She has been to the Pyramids. (Relevant to the present because it conveys that she holds a certain experience.)

He has finished the report. (Relevant to the present because it conveys that a task is currently complete.)

  • Something has changed between a point in the past and the present moment.

You’ve grown about a foot since I last saw you!

Structured Practice

Begin by having students practice the two different structures. Use some photos or illustrations to ellicit some common vocabulary for experience, such as "go to Paris," "play golf" or "try kimchi." Ask students to make a sentence about their experience using the phrases. (ex: I’ve been to Paris.) You can drill the students to practice pronunciation and fluency. If necessary, you can also have them practice negative and question forms (ex: I haven’t been to Paris. Have you been to Paris?)

Then tell students that they did all of the activities last year. Ask them to make a sentence adding that information. (ex: I went to Paris last year.)

Put the images on the board and add a few more that they haven’t used yet. Choose a student to demonstrate with you. Ask the student a question using vocabulary from the images. (ex: Have you ever tried kimchi?) Allow the student to answer in either present perfect or simple past, then explain that both are possible. (ex: Yes, I have. I ate some last night./No, I haven’t./Yes, I tried some in Korea.) Switch roles and demonstrate again. Add some natural words to the response to show students they can improvise (ex: Yeah, I have. I love spicy food. How about you?)

Put students in pairs and have them practice, switching partners a few times. Then, ask the students to report to the class about what their partners did.

Free Practice

As a class, ask students for some unusual experiences they have had. Write the ideas on the board. Demonstrate a conversation about experiences with a student using the vocabulary on the board. Add some more natural elements to the conversation, such as exclamations and follow-up questions.

Put students in pairs and have them practice, again switching partners and reporting back to the class in order to practice the third person.

If there is time left, get students to practice the completion usage by brainstorming common work tasks. Have one student be the boss and one student be the employee. The boss can then ask the employee about the status of tasks. Encourage students to use a mix of both present perfect and simple past.