As with the presentation of most tenses, context is everything. Without the knowledge of when things are happening, and when a sentence is spoken, it is impossible for learners to frame that sentence in time. We cannot say whether one tense is more appropriate than another if we don’t know the full situation in which it is being spoken. For this reason, it is essential to set up a situation where it can be confirmed that one form is more correct than another to describe an action.
For the present perfect / past simple, finished vs. unfinished time distinction, an effective context will bring the actions and times from the past, into now and beyond. One such situation is making plans and checklists. Think of a situation where people might make a checklist of things to do, and then look at the list to see which items are completed or still need to be done. This could be planning a party, a wedding or holiday, or planning out a project at work (for business English students). In this kind of situation, we will see how the past simple and present perfect actions both play roles according to the times in which they happen, and the times in which the speakers talk about them. This can be achieved with a 5-step situational presentation to get to the difference between these tenses:
Step 1) Making the plan
Choose the situation which you are going to use to teach the tenses - I usually use a wedding plan, as there is some nice vocabulary in there to teach along the way.
Step 2) Writing the checklist
Set up a wedding between two people (say, Charlie and Susan), who are going to get married in June. Tell the students that it is now January, and show an image of two people looking at a list. What are they doing? —> planning the wedding. Display an empty ‘to do’ list with lines and boxes for the actions and ticks for what has been done. Elicit / brainstorm things you need to do to plan a wedding - buy the rings, book the venue, choose a dress, etc. Make sure you focus on verb phrases here, as you will need to use the verbs to present the tenses in sentences. Display the verb phrases as items on the checklist of what to do.
Step 3) Ticking off the items
Tell the students that it’s April, and that Charlie and Susan have done sone of the things they need for the wedding. Tick off half of the items on your checklist, and leave the others blank.
Step 4) Reviewing the plan
Ask students to talk about the list, giving sentences to describe the ticks and blanks on the list. How do we say this in English?
At this point, learners need to understand that the actions on the list are important NOW, as they either have been done, or still need to be done before the wedding in a month or two, so these things need to be thought about NOW, or they might not get done!
As the ideas come out from the students, display sentences showing the present perfect in positive and negative forms for the different actions and ask CCQs to confirm understanding: did these actions happen in the past? Are they thinking about the actions now? Are these actions important now? etc.
Step 5) Looking back on the wedding
Display an image of an old couple looking at a photo album - Charlie and Susan 30 years later. They are remembering the wedding and the work it took to get everything organised. How do they talk about the actions on the plan now? Is there a connection to the present moment? No. This will elicit past simple forms (You booked the venue / I bought the rings…) as they look back.
As a final check, ask the same CCQs about this new situation: did these actions happen in the past? Is there a strong connection to now? Is the time of the wedding finished or unfinished? This will highlight the difference between the present perfect ‘in the moment’ meaning, and the past, finished meaning of the past simple.
Tom Garside is Director of Teacher Training for Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the new RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with a specific focus on online language education.