10 ideas to get your students to use the simple past tense

Hi, there, teachers! 

If you are, like me, a TEFL teacher, you must have the same opinion. 

That English, albeit its glorious status as the lingua franca, the international language, the chosen one (you name it!) is NOT an easy language to learn. Moreover, to teach!

Let’s be honest, it’s hellish!

And if you’ve been on this lest untrodden (hence, noble) path of teaching English to the poor clueless souls of the Indonesian students, you’ll know this:

There is no concept of tenses in Bahasa Indonesia! 

Indonesian language is all present simple with (occasional) adverbials of time!

It takes huge linguistic awareness to be able to use different tenses correctly. 

Most of my students only vaguely understand the difference between (and the detrimental effects of mistakenly saying) “I love you” and “I loved you”. 

So, here’s our challenge, to guide these students towards their grammar enlightenment, one tense at a time. 

Sounds daunting? No doubt. But don’t worry, I will be your trusty guide! 

I am here today to share some classroom-proven methods of getting students to use Simple Past Tense easily! 

So the typical story of a language learning process goes like this:

After students know how to greet and introduce themselves properly, and to use “do” and “does” correctly, the next stage is to guide them through their first taste of diversity in sentence structures. 

Which leads us to Simple Past Tense, with its notorious regular and irregular verbs.

So, without further ado, here are 10 most powerful ways to get your students accustomed to using simple past tense.

1. Tell me what you did 

  • The classic “What did you do yesterday?” mantra never fails to unlock the door of understanding. This will encourage the students to tell stories from their own experiences, focusing on events that have already happened. 
  • Start by preparing some simple verbs to use: did, went, studied, ate, saw and give examples from your own experiences. 
  • Don’t be too ambitious. Aim for 1 full sentence per student for a start. Don’t worry if the whole class uses the same words again and again. Students need to feel comfortable with the sentence structure before they feel safe enough to improvise.
  • Moving on to the more advanced level, this can help them practice using the simple past tense to describe events in a narrative structure. 
  • Pay attention to the answers given. Always give 1-2 comments for each answer. This will make students feel rewarded and want to speak up more. 
  • Utilize the board. You can write the answers on one side of the board (or better, ask students to write down their answers on the board). You can easily correct any mistakes this way.

2. Take a tour 

  • Don’t confine your students in the classroom. Take them out. Walk around the building and out, if possible. Visit other classes in progress. Talk to people you meet along the way. 
  • Before the walk, drill some simple verbs they will use: saw, walked, met, talked to, found, heard, smelled, felt, etc. 
  • Ask students to bring writing tools so they can jot down notes on what they see and do during the walk. 
  • After returning to the class, ask students to report on things they see and do in their little tour. 
  • You can also assign the task in teams and make it a competition. Set a time limit, eg, the team that can come up with the most sentences in 5 minutes, wins.

3. Picture prompts 

  • This activity can be prepared before the lesson. Bring some pictures of your last holiday and make a small presentation telling about what you did using the pictures as prompts. 
  • Ask students to bring their last holiday pictures for the next lesson.
  • Use Wh-questions: What, Where, When. Who(m), How and Why to prompt answers. 
  • Urge students to ask questions to each other during the presentation. You can write the questions on the board for students to see and use. 
  • You can also use your own pictures. Show your holiday pictures to the students and let them ask questions about them. 
  • If students forget to bring or they don’t have pictures, google the pics of their holiday venues and present them on the class monitor so the students can use them to show and tell.

4. The dinosaurs did it 

  • A fun activity for Young Learners. Show them a short video on the life of dinosaurs (there are plenty of them on Youtube), preferably, the ones with English subtitles.  
  • Before the movie, drill the target language that they will encounter in the film. 
  • Ask them to take notes as they watch. Alternatively, you can also prepare a worksheet with some prompts. 
  • After the movie, students can retell from their memory and notes of what they have just watched. 
  • Alternatively, you can play a memory game, by asking yes/no questions or short-answer questions and give scores when students can answer correctly.
  • You can also improve this into a project. Students make a poster with pictures of dinosaurs that they draw and color and write things the dinosaurs did on each picture.

5. Make a diary 

  • Diaries are great reminders of bygone days. The beautiful thing is, you can start a diary project with your class. 
  • Prepare a small notebook for each student. They can write their names and decorate their notebook as they like to personalize it.
  • By the end of each lesson, distribute the diaries and ask students to write entry about that day’s lesson. Set a time for it, for example, 5 minutes before the lesson ends. 
  • Set a limit on the number of sentences the students have to write (for example: a minimum of 3 sentences each entry). 
  • Students write about what they learned, did, got, felt that day. Then if there’s still time, they can draw/decorate the page as they like while you walk around to check. 
  • Collect the diaries when the bell rings. You can return the diaries to the students at the end of each term. 
  • P.S. It’s a great thing to show to the parents! Parents just looooveeee to see the tangible production of their children.

6. Past tense story circle

  • Objective: To collaboratively construct a story using the past tense.
  • Students sit in a circle.
  • Start a story by saying a sentence in the past tense.
  • The next student adds to the story with another sentence in the past tense.
  • The story continues around the circle, with each student adding a sentence.
  • Encourage creativity and logical sequence in the storytelling.

7. Verb relay race

  • Objective: To practice converting verbs to their past tense forms quickly.
  • Divide students into teams and line them up.
  • At your signal, the first student in each line runs to the board and writes the past tense of a verb you shout out.
  • Once written, they run back, and the next student in line runs to the board to write the past tense of a new verb.
  • The process continues until all verbs have been converted to the past tense.
  • The first team to finish with all verbs correctly written in the past tense wins.

8. Detective game

  • Objective: To practice asking and answering questions in the past tense.
  • Select one student to be the “detective” and have them leave the room.
  • The remaining students create a story about a fictional crime.
  • The detective returns and asks the students questions in the past tense to determine the details of the crime.
  • The detective has a set number of questions to guess the story correctly.

9. Find someone who…

  • Create a list of actions in the past tense (e.g., “found a Rp 5000 on the ground,” “went to Jakarta”). Students have to find someone in the class who has done each thing and write down their names next to the action.
  • This gets students moving, talking to each other, and practicing questions and answers in the past tense.

10. Timeline project 

  • Students create a personal or historical timeline, marking significant events in their lives or in history. They then present their timelines to the class, using the past tense to describe each event.
  • This can be a more extended project that allows for deeper research and practice with the past tense in a meaningful context.

There you go. I hope you enjoy your reading and get something you can try in your next class! See you in our next article!

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Anthony McCormick 

IELC Managing Director