How To Teach Present Perfect For Experiences (Have You Ever)

By Alex Case
The first use of Present Perfect to teach and how to do so.

This might seem a strange way to start a whole article on the topic of teaching “Have you ever…?”, but the first thing to say about this use of the Present Perfect is that it is easy both for the teacher and students. Its ease comes from the fact that you can put in the useful word “ever” in the question and that its meaning is very distinct from the Simple Past tense. For these reasons, it is rightly usually the first of the five meanings of “has/ have + PP” to be introduced.

Difficulties students have with Present Perfect for experiences include trying to put “ever” into positive statements (“I have ever been to Italy” x), continuing to use the Present Perfect when they give further details (“I have been to China. I have been there last year” x), trying to translate similar forms from their own language instead (“I have experience of eating snake”), confusing the “been” and “gone” past participles of “go” (“I have gone to Brazil”), and not understanding the link between this and other uses of the Present Perfect tense. It is also quite difficult to learn the past participle forms and their pronunciations.

Typical teaching mistakes include telling them that you can’t say “Did you ever…?” (it means “…while you had the chance” and so is fine) or even teaching that “ever” always goes with the Present Perfect (it can also be used in “Do you ever see your ex?” and “Will people ever live on Mars?”) There is also the constant danger of accidentally dropping in other uses of the Present Perfect such as “I can’t come. I’ve broken my leg” and “I’ve seen him three times this week”. Conversely, other teachers spend lots of time on the “Have you ever” meaning long after students have got the hang of it (often years before the beginning of class!) and without making sure they are always learning something new in each practice activity.

Presenting Present Perfect For Experiences

The difficulty with presenting this meaning of the Present Perfect is that there are few situations in which it is used many times in one text or conversation. For example, we usually follow up questions like “Have you ever parachuted?” with questions about the experience like “Weren’t you scared?” or recommendations like “You really must try it” rather than further Present Perfect questions like “Have you ever parachuted with just a table cloth?” Three fairly realistic situations are job interviews (“Have you worked abroad?”), expressing regrets (e.g. the pop song I’ve Never Been to Me and the New Cambridge English Course one I’ve Never Been to Paris) and boasting (“I’ve been to 93 countries and met so many famous people”).

A more unusual approach is to present “Do you ever?” “No, I never do” as part of a lesson on Present Simple and then move on to the similar form “Have you ever?”/ “No, I never have”. Higher level classes could also try and spot the similarities and differences with “Did you ever?” and “Will you ever?”

If students already know other meanings of the tense such as Present Perfect with unfinished time periods, the link between all five uses is that the Present Perfect tense always connects the past and present in some way.

When students have been exposed to the form, it is fairly easy to explain that “ever” is the question form of “never” (which is actually “not + ever”) and that with Present Perfect it means “in my/ your life”. As the context you set at the beginning of the lesson and subsequent practice activities hopefully make clear, further questions and statements tend to be in the Past Simple, e.g. “When did you go there?” and “How was it?” This can be explained by the general pattern that questions and answers (e.g. “It was in 1997” and “It was the best day of my life” for the two questions in the previous sentence) tend to be in the same tense.

Practising Present Perfect For Experiences

Once students understand the structure and meaning, they will need some intensive spoken practice of producing the form. The simplest thing is to ask them to find experiences in common (“Have you ever been to Spain?” “No, I haven’t” “Me neither”) or things they have done and their partner hasn’t (“Have you ever met my brother?”)

Either as part of this stage or as the next one, you’ll need to make sure that students know lots of past participle forms and their pronunciation. This is a priority as they will need the same forms for later lessons on passives and the Past Perfect, and it is also a great chance to present lots of useful new verbs to them for the first time. Practice activities include past participle tennis (“Be” “Been” “See” “Seen” “Desire” “Desiren?” “Wrong – fifteen love to me”) and matching past participles by their vowel sounds. Alternatively, you can just give the students lists of verbs or verbs on slips of paper that they must use during their speaking activities.

The best thing to do next is probably a stage where they ask or answer a Present Perfect sentence and then the follow up Past Simple ones. One possibility is to ask them to reply “Yes, I have” to all “Have you ever” questions then continue to tell the truth or lie in their next three answers to questions like “Why did you do that?”. Their partner then guesses whether the original “Yes, I have” was true or false.

Situations you can set up in which this language should occur naturally include those suggested for giving context to the original presentation of the language above, plus roleplaying a conversation with someone who has done everything, e.g. “I’m so bored with life.” “Have you wrestled with a snake?”

Extending The Language

The next stage after “Have you ever?” should probably be “How many times have you… (in your life)?” or maybe “What is the most (disgusting food) you have ever (eaten)?” if the class already know superlatives. The former can be linked into other uses of the Present Perfect by continuing with “How many times have you… today/ this week/ this year/ in the last five years?”

“Yet” also comes up naturally with in answers to some “Have you ever” questions (“Have you ever been to Nara?” “Not yet, but I’m planning to go soon”). Alternatively, they can look at examples of one or more other uses of Present Perfect and try to work out the similarities and differences.

It is quite difficult to think of other activities which tie Present Perfect for experiences in with other uses such as “just” and “already”, but possibilities include job interviews where several meanings of the Present Perfect come up (“Have you studied any other languages?” “No, but I’ve just paid for a course in Spanish”).

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet March 2012
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
© Teflnet


  • Ian Player says:

    For the question “Have you been to Brazil?”, the following are possible:
    Yes, I have been to Brazil.
    Yes, I have.

    “Yes I went to Brazil” is *possible* but very American. (Why answer one tense in a different tense? But Americans often use the Past Simple where Brits use the Present Perfect.)

    “Yes, I had been to Brazil” answers the question “Had you been to Brazil (before you went university)?

    Hope that helps.

  • Ts says:

    Thanks for sharing. I have a question-
    The reply – ‘
    Yes, I have been to Brazil’ instead of ‘Yes,I have’
    Yes I went to Brazil
    Yes , I had been to Brazil

    Are all of the above OK?

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