How To Practise Used To

By Alex Case

The past form “used to” usually gets little class time. Although it is a minor point, there are quite a few issues students have with it:

  • Trying to make a present version that doesn’t exist, e.g. “I use to…” x
  • Missing the d when writing it and keeping the d in the question and negative forms (mainly due to the pronunciation)
  • Using it for things that only happened once or twice
  • Assuming it always means the distant past

Even though I do believe this point is worth more practice than it sometimes gets, it is a relatively small point and can get tedious quickly. I generally solve this by using it as a way of introducing another point, e.g. lost sounds in rapid speech or phrases for generalising and talking about habits. Other times I use an activity that is “vocabulary-rich”, that has at least as much emphasis on a vocabulary point as it does on the grammar. These two methods are illustrated in the activities below.

Classroom Activities For Used To

The activities below include ones where students talk about themselves, the past of their own or other countries, and the history of English.


Although most books get students to talk about their own past lives, talking about history more generally is much more interesting and vocabulary-rich. For example, students could play a guessing game with old objects like “mangle” and “horse and cart”. However, as those two examples illustrate, the vocabulary is unlikely to be of use to anyone who isn’t a historian. You could, however, get them to play a similar game where they guess the modern object from descriptions of what people used to do before that existed, e.g. “People used to do it in their heads or on paper” for “Calculator”.

Another common TEFL game that is suited to this point is Bluff. One student explains a real or made up habit from history and the other students guess if it is imaginary or genuine, perhaps after asking questions.

Bluff can also be played with alternative explanations for why something was common in the past, e.g. reasons for dyeing teeth black in Japan or using leeches in Europe.

A more discussion-based activity that works well in my class is to give students a list of habits that are said to be dying out in their country and ask them to try to agree on how much they are true in the present or just in the past. They could then read an article about the topic by a foreign journalist or blogger, e.g. one on “Changing manners in…” and see if they agree. This can also be extended to other countries by trying to guess whether there is still smog in London, hara-kiri in Japan, etc. This could also be done as a Bluff game, or they could guess the country from a description of past and present habits there.

The history of language

You can also introduce a bit of history of English for practice of Used To, e.g. while talking about politically correct language with sentences like “People used to say ‘Negro’ but now it usual to say ‘Black’”. Students can do this by guessing the PC alternatives to a list of non-PC words like “half-caste”, by matching up pairs of PC and non-PC expressions, or by guessing which of each pair is old-fashioned. For all those alternatives, the words you will give them will obviously need to be ones where the old version is now rare, but you can expand the range of words and make the practice freer by giving them more contentious pairs like Native American/American Indian. You can also add comic ones or ones that never took off like “vertically challenged” to get sentences like “I think people still usually say ‘short’”.

You can do similar things with the origins of English words and expressions. One that students find particularly interesting is looking at technology terms that had earlier meanings such as “web” and “browse”, as English computer terms are often used in other languages but without the original meanings. After trying to guess some original meanings, they can match up the things on the list you have given them to written or spoken explanations like “This used to just mean the thing that a spider catches flies in but now also means the Internet.”

More advanced classes could also try to guess the meanings of slightly outdated expressions they might still come across or try to guess which expressions they learnt at school aren’t said anymore and what their modern equivalents are. These could be done with a classic text.


Guessing games and Bluff can also be used with students talking about themselves. The easiest guessing game is for students to say past or present habits with the grammar stripped off (e.g. “go to the gym six times a week”) and their partners to guess if it is a past or present habit. You could ask them to guess extra details such as how often and/or when, e.g. “you used to…when you were at university.”

Students could also explain the past and present of a certain action without saying what it is (e.g. “I used to do it almost every evening but now it’s once a month if I’m lucky”) until their partner guesses what the action is.

They can also play a sentence completion guessing game. Students fill in at least half of the sentence stems you give them such as “I used to like…” and “I didn’t use to…when I was younger” to make sentences that are true about themselves. They read out just the part they have written in one of those sentences and their partners guess which sentence that went into.

Bluff can be played with students completely making up past habits, or switching past habits and present ones.

You can also help classroom dynamics by asking students to find things in common, e.g. things they both did in the past but don’t do now, or things that one person did in the past but the other person does now.

Written by Alex Case for January 2012
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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