Fun Practice For The Simple Past

By Alex Case
Drilling games and communicative activities for intensive practice of the Past Simple

The Simple Past is in many ways easier than the Present Simple, with no third person S to worry about. Students can still need intensive practice, especially to stop themselves from slipping into present tenses halfway through a story and to be able to produce irregular forms quickly and with good pronunciation. Some students might also need some help with understanding and/or producing the pronunciations of “ed” endings. Here are some ideas of how to do so:

We often use present tenses and other past tenses such as Past Continuous to give our anecdotes a bit of colour, but it is perfectly possible to construct a simple linear story with just the Simple Past. Perhaps the easiest way to prompt storytelling is to give groups of students a set of cards to make a story from, with each card being a word, phrase or picture. To practise the regular and/or irregular verb forms, those cards could be verbs in the infinitive.

The most common thing to tell stories about is yourself. As people like talking about themselves, anything on anecdotes tends to work well. The challenge is to give the person listening a reason to do so. Things they could do while listening include working out which anecdotes aren’t true, asking as many questions as they can when the anecdote is finished, and interrupting the anecdote as much as they can to ask questions. You can add intensive practice of particular verbs by giving them ones they have to include in their stories, especially if they are allowed to make some of the stories up.

Video tasks for Simple Past
The obvious way of using a video for past tenses might seem to simply describe what happened, but in fact this is difficult to do without using Past Perfect and Past Continuous. One more controlled way of using a video is to give them a list of verbs and ask them to put up their hands when they think they can use one to describe what just happened. Another one is to give them pairs of actions and ask them to predict the order, e.g. “Mr Bean bought some balloons and then snatched a bow and arrow”, then watch and check. Alternatively, you could ask them to make any true sentences about what just happened in the video that they can, but only using irregular verbs, verbs with a particular vowel sound, or verbs with a particular pronunciation of the -ed ending.

What did the teacher do then?
You can do something similar to the video tasks above by doing a string of actions and asking the students to say or write all the things you did. This has most impact if you don’t tell them what you are going to do but simply start the lesson in an unusual way such as turning round twice and kicking the bin. Do about ten more strange actions and then walk out the door. When you come back in, ask them to say or write all the things you did. They could then work in groups to write down sequences of strange actions to do and test other groups with in the same way that you just did. As the ultimate challenge, they could all do their lists of actions at the same time and the people watching could also try to remember who did what action.

Who did what?
This is similar to the last idea above. Students are given some cards with verbs or whole actions on (e.g. “Jump” or “Jump next to the teacher’s desk twice”). Several students stand up and do their actions at the same time, and the people sitting down have to say or write down who did what, plus in what order if each student had more than one card.

Guess my life
Students can also do something similar with actions that they did outside the classroom. In one version, students say an action they did yesterday or this morning and the other students try to make true sentences including the time, e.g. “You brushed your teeth at 7:30”. The person whose action it is gives hints like “No, much later” until their partners get it exactly right. You can also do it the other way round by one student giving the time and the others trying to guess what they did at that time. You can also do similar things with months and years, e.g. “You lived in England in 2000”.

Another possibility is to tell the story of someone’s day or life in order. In groups of three or four, one person has his or her story told and corrects the other people if they say something which isn’t true. One person says “You got up” and the next person continues with anything that happened soon (but not necessarily just) after that, e.g. “You made a cup of coffee”. They can continue that way through the whole day or stop whenever someone makes a mistake and switch roles.

Fun drilling
As well as the communicative ideas above, it is well worth spending some time on drilling the forms and pronunciation of the Simple Past. The easiest way is to give them tables of irregular verbs and ask them to test each other in pairs. A more fast-paced drilling game is Past Forms Tennis, where the person serving does so with an infinitive and the person returning must do so with the correct past form. With young learners you can even do this with a real beach ball, making it more like Past Forms Volleyball.

An even more intensive game is Grammar Reversi. Prepare cards with the infinitive on one side and the past on the other. Students have to guess the form on the other side to be able to turn the card over and continue their turn, either to play a whole game of Othello (as in the original game in the book Grammar Games) or just to work their way along the entire length of a set of these cards that have been put on the table in a row.

A more physically active game for the same language is Stations. Students must react in one of two ways depending on what they hear, e.g. raise their right hands if they hear a word whose past tense ends with /t/ or run and touch the right hand wall if they hear or see a word whose past form has the same vowel sound as “more”.

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet March 2011
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
© Teflnet


  • atatra says:

    very creative ideas. I’m going to use one or two of them tomorrow in class. Thank you!!!!

  • Ashleigh says:

    I liked the activity involving the table tennis/ball toss for present vs. past tense, etc. verbs. A lot of my students are athletes so anything related to sports automatically enlivens them. Furthermore, making a language hands-on helps a lot of non-verbal learners.

Leave a comment