Perfectly Confused: Teaching the Present Perfect Tense to ESL Students

Often I don’t really understand something until I try to write about it (to paraphrase E. M. Forster). This was certainly true of phrasal verbs. So this week I’ll tackle the present perfect tense, a notorious ESL troublemaker, hoping that this will force me to clarify it in my own mind before I have to stand up in front of a class and teach it again.

In case you were wondering, the “perfectly confused” in the title of the post refers not to ESL students, but to us, their unfortunate teachers, when we try to explain to our students when to use the present perfect, and why, and how it’s different from the simple past.

The Ventures textbook series introduces the present perfect in Level 3. Students practice using the tense with how long, for, since, ever, recently, lately, already, and yet. This helps them learn the practical uses, but it leaves open the question of why you use the present perfect in some situations and the simple past in others.

Forming the Present Perfect

The structure of the present perfect isn’t difficult. Most students readily grasp that it’s formed with have or has plus the past participle.

Pedro has lived in the United States since 2005.
Have you ever ridden a camel? Yes, I have.
I’ve told you three times to clean up your room. Please do it now!

The only problem is learning the past participles. Many are regular, formed with -ed or -d (worked, lived). But some are completely irregular, and those forms have to be memorized (been, gone, ridden, bought, told, said). The Ventures 4 textbook contains a list of irregular past participles in the back.

When to Use the Present Perfect

Usually, when you look up a point of English grammar on the Web, you find many websites that all say pretty much the same thing. Not so with the present prefect. It seems that everybody who tries to cite a rule for this tense comes up with something slightly different.

The clearest explanation I’ve found is on the blog of California ESL teacher Debra Garcia. She outlines three functions of the present perfect:

  1. Unspecified time in the past
  2. Repetition
  3. Started in the past and continues until the present

Function 1: Unspecified time in the past

We use the present perfect to describe something in the past if we don’t know when it happened or if when it happened is not important.

I have lived in two states, Ohio and Massachusetts.

I’m not saying when I lived there, just that I did at some time in my life. We use the simple past if a specific time is mentioned:

I lived in Ohio in 1990.

This use of the present perfect sometimes includes ever or never.

Have you ever seen a unicorn? No, never.

Function 2: Repetition

We also use the present perfect to describe something that has happened more than once in the past, without saying exactly when.

I’ve eaten at Maria’s Café three times.

But we use simple past to name specific times:

I ate at Maria’s Café twice last month and again last night.

Function 3: Started in the past and continues until the present

While functions 1 and 2 refer to completed action, with function 3 the action continues right up to the present moment. It may or may not continue into the future. This function of the present perfect is often expressed with for or since.

Annika has lived in Sweden for ten years.
Annika has lived in Sweden since 2002.

In both cases, it is clear that she still lives there. But we use the simple past if the action is completed and not continuing in the present:

Annika lived in Sweden for ten years. Now she lives in Norway.

Classroom Activities Using the Present Perfect

Here are two activities that correspond to function 1 above (unspecified time in the past). They work well with a low-intermediate class, but could be adapted for higher levels. The first activity provides the past participles, while the second asks students to supply them.

Activity 1: Find someone who has . . .

Prepare a sheet with six or more experiences and blank lines for names. Try to include experiences that you think students in your class will have had. I used the following with a class that included a Mexican, a Ukrainian, two Ethiopians, a Rwandan, and a restaurant worker from Guatemala.

Have you ever. . .

Lived in Mexico   ___________________________________________________
Visited Russia       ___________________________________________________
Eaten Ethiopian food   ________________________________________________
Worked in a restaurant    ______________________________________________
Ridden a motorcycle   ________________________________________________
Traveled in Africa    _________________________________________________
Studied English ____________________________________________________

Give each student a copy of the sheet. First have the students practice forming a Have you ever. . . question with each phrase: Have you ever lived in Mexico? Have you ever ridden a motorcycle? Write a sample question on the board.

Next, tell the students to find someone who has done each of these things. Students should circulate around the room with their lists, asking their classmates and the teachers if they’ve had each experience, and recording the names of those who say they have.

Finally, with the class again seated, ask Who in the class has visited Russia? Who has traveled in Africa? and so on. Have students report their findings about their classmates and share their own experiences in more detail.

Activity 2: Have you ever . . . ?

Write on the board:

Have you ever . . . ?
Yes, I have.
No, I haven’t.
No, never.

Have students choose partners. Give each pair of students two different sets of six or seven phrases like the ones below. You can make up your own phrases, of course.

break a bone                                      win the lottery
buy a car                                             visit New York
catch a fish                                          swim in the Pacific Ocean
eat goat meat                                     see a kangaroo
find money on the ground                run in a marathon
fly in an airplane                                ride a horse
meet the president                             forget your telephone number           

First, review all the phrases with the whole class. Ask the class to form a question with each phrase, beginning Have you ever . . . and using the correct past participle. (Have you ever broken a bone?) Write the past participles on the board.

Next, the partners work together. Each student asks his/her partner the Have you ever. . . questions, using the phrases. The partner should answer each question by saying Yes, I have, or No, I haven’t, or No, never.

When the pairs have finished, return to whole-class work. Ask a student about her partner. Pointing to the partner, ask: Has he ever won the lottery? Prompt the student to say Yes, he has, or No, he hasn’t. Write these sentences on the board. Repeat with a different pair of students and a different question. Students can then take turns asking each other questions about their partners’ experiences, using Has he ever. . . ? and Has she ever. . . ? With luck, someone in the class will have seen a kangaroo, visited New York, met the president, or had other exciting experiences to share!

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2 Responses to Perfectly Confused: Teaching the Present Perfect Tense to ESL Students

  1. Pingback: Resources for Teaching the Present Perfect Tense - Reach to Teach

  2. Heya i’m for the first time here. I found this board and I find It
    truly useful & it helped me out much. I hope to give something back and help others like you helped me.

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