How To Teach The Future Perfect

By Alex Case

The Future Perfect tense (will + have + past participle, e.g. “I will have completed it by the end of the month”) is a rare tense, but it says something that is difficult to say any other way. It is therefore worth at least learning to understand by Upper-Intermediate level. It also has so much in common with the other perfect tenses (Present Perfect and Past Perfect) that it is fairly easy to teach the connection between the three.

All three Perfect tenses connect two different times, as in the connection between the past and present with has/have + past participle (“I have been here since three o’clock”) and the connection between two past times with had + past participle (“I had already finished eating by the time my date arrived”). The complication with the Future Perfect is that it can connect the present and future, past and future, or two future times. For example, the starting period of “I will have finished the next hundred pages by Xmas” is only obvious from context or an added time expression and otherwise the starting point of the writing could be before or after speaking.

As well as the obvious connection between the two tenses, another reason for presenting Future Perfect just after Past Perfect is that there are similarities in the key words that often go together with them, specifically “by” in sentences like “I will have paid off my mortgage by the time I retire” and “I had finished all my work by 11 a.m. so I played Angry Birds for the rest of the day”. If you do choose to cover tenses in this order, the Future Perfect can then be briefly revised and further practised next time future tenses come up.

Conversely, there are many arguments against introducing Future Perfect for the first time as part of a unit on future tenses. The main one is that even advanced students have enough problems getting their heads around the fundamental distinction between Will, Going to, and Present Continuous (for predictions, plans and arrangements) without introducing further complications like Future Perfect at the same time. The other is that (like Future Continuous) the Future Perfect also doesn’t really fit into that predictions/plans/ arrangements scheme. “I will have lost most of my hair by the time I’m fifty (like my dad did)” is obviously a prediction similar to “I will lose my job some time this year” and so shares that fundamental meaning of Will. The same could be said of “We will be finished by five”, which could be a promise similar to “We will check with the driver and get back to you as soon as possible”. However, “…we will be finished by five” could be a continuation of the sentence “I’m meeting my boss at three and…” and so is talking about an arrangement in a way that “Will” alone isn’t used. This is unsurprising, since there is no “Present Continuous Perfect” tense or “Going to Perfect” tense, and so the plain Future Perfect tense must serve those purposes too. Should you or your textbook not agree with those warnings, or if you are at the stage of revision and further practice with other future tenses, see these relevant practice activities.

There are also plenty of activities specific to Future Perfect. My favourite is to tie it in with learner training, asking students to make New Year resolutions about what they will have done and achieved by the end of the week, month or year, such as “I will have bought __________ to help me learn English” and “I will have learnt __________ words”. They can then compare with a partner and discuss which aims are too ambitious or not ambitious enough, how their priorities are different, what their list says about their philosophies of good language learning, etc. This activity can also show the similarities to Present Perfect by including an estimate of this year’s results (“I have learnt __________ words this year”) before talking about aims for next year.

A more fun activity once they have filled in their answers is for them to read out just the part they have written in one gap, e.g. “three” from “I will have completed ___________ self-study books by the end of next year”. Their partners then try to guess which gap that was written in. This game (which I call the Sentence Completion Guessing Game) can also be practised with more common and general Future Continuous sentences like “I will probably have retired __________” The gapped sentences can also be designed to practise other typical time expressions with Future Perfect like “by the time I am…” and “by the beginning/middle/end of…”, as well as other levels of certainty like “might” and “will probably”.

Students can also try to guess facts you have found out such as how much carbon dioxide they are likely to have helped produce by the end of the year and how many times their heart is likely to have beaten by the end of their lives.

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

One Comment

  • elias says:

    surely you are a great teacher, well done

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