With the buzz around ‘scary good’ ChatGPT and its benefits for teachers and students, I thought I’d give it a quick test and see what it came up with for a pretty simple teaching question:
What’s the best way to teach the present perfect simple tense?
To add detail, I asked it to also focus on the following aspects, as follows: Context, Concept, Language Practice.
I wanted to know whether it could harvest and produce enough sound theory on language education to give me a passable answer. It gave me three answers, and I’ll analyse them in turn below:
Teaching the present perfect simple tense in an educational context is a great way to help students understand and use English. To help them understand the concept, it is important to explain the meaning of the past and present in the context of the present perfect. After explanation, language practice activities such as gap-fills and matching sentences will help students to become familiar with the language. Finally, independent production activities such as writing a diary entry or summarizing a story can help students to become confident in using the present perfect in their own written work.
On first reading, this is not too bad. It uses some very generic structure, and includes the keywords I added in a very obvious way, showing that it was searching around those terms for commonly linked ideas, rather than prioritising for quality or accuracy of ideas. There are a couple of issues here:
“Teaching the present perfect simple tense in an educational context is a great way to help students understand and use English”
The more I think about this sentence, the less it actually means. It sounds like a decent topic sentence, until you realise that any language feature could be substituted into this sentence, and it would mean essentially as little as it does here.
“…it is important to explain the meaning of the past and present in the context of the present perfect”
This is exactly the kind of bad idea which prevents understanding in the language classroom - explaining target concepts in terms of themselves never works, and leads to more confusion than it resolves. I’m not sure where this was harvested from, but I assume that because this was a summary of an educational topic, explanation was assumed as a positive thing. Again, no regard for quality or prioritisation of demonstrably effective ideas, just regurgitation of an assumption that probably has many views on any pre-2021 internet content that was used to ‘train’ ChatGPT but doesn’t represent good practice in a considered way.
“language practice activities such as gap-fills and matching sentences will help students to become familiar with the language…”
This is another generic harvested comment which could apply to any piece of grammar or vocabulary.
“independent production activities such as writing a diary entry or summarizing a story can help students to become confident in using the present perfect…”
This is simply not true - a diary entry is actually quite unlikely to contain present perfect tenses. A typical diary entry talks about what the person did, felt, saw… in the day using the past simple. Trying to fit the present perfect into a diary entry would most likely result in an inauthentic mishmash of ideas, improperly communicated in terms of time. Summarising a story is an equally inappropriate function for producing the present perfect tense. I’m not sure how that would be possible.
Summary: A teacher receiving this response would have to be very careful in trying to apply the suggestions here. Having taught the present perfect many times, both effectively and ineffectively, I would say that this response would cause more harm than good if applied in the language classroom.
When teaching the present perfect simple tense, it is important to provide students with a context in which they can understand the concept. This could include discussing recent events or experiences that students have had as a group or individually. Once the concept is understood, it is necessary to provide language practice to help them apply the concept. This could include filling in the blanks of sentences using the present perfect simple tense or creating sentences using the tense. Finally, it is important to promote independent production by having students create and share stories with the present perfect simple tense.
In this response, we have some more specific task types and a way of staging the lesson. How effective is this second suggestion? Some examples from the response:
“When teaching the present perfect simple tense, it is important to provide students with a context in which they can understand the concept”
Absolutely true (as true for the present perfect as for any other piece of grammar, though, so without specific examples of contexts which do represent the tense, this is again very generalised).
This could include discussing recent events or experiences that students have had as a group or individually.
OK, here we have two example contexts. ‘Recent events’ is problematic, as we use past simple to describe actions and events in the past, however recent, unless specifically related to the moment of speaking, or with relevance to now. ‘Experiences that students have had’ is closer, though this would still take some significant development before being framed as an introduction to the present perfect simple tense, and to avoid past simple forms (these are still past experiences, so would be communicated in the past, most likely). The best way to teach the present perfect simple tense is in fact to find ways to differentiate the present and past times in concepts that students want to talk about. As a higher-level analytical process, this seems to be beyond ChatGPT for the time being.
What follows is another generic comment about gap fill and sentence completion, applicable to practice tasks with any language structure, and then:
“Finally, it is important to promote independent production by having students create and share stories with the present perfect simple tense.”
Again, I cannot imagine a story which contains enough present perfect simple tenses to justify using it in a production task. This is a dangerous point: Providing an inappropriate genre of production task (either in speech or writing) can make students feel like they are being forced to use the target language, rather than making the choice to use it based on any criteria (such as communication of different elements of time or aspect. Another potentially quite damaging suggestion.
On to response 3…
Teaching the present perfect simple tense can be a challenging task, but with the right approach it can be achieved! To help students understand this concept, it is important to provide a context for the language. Examples of everyday situations can be used, allowing students to see the relevance of this tense. After this, the key concept of the present perfect simple should be explained, such as the use of 'have/has' with the past participle. To aid understanding, language practice should be included in the lesson, such as using gap-fills or a card sort. Finally, it is important to give students the opportunity to produce the language independently. This could be through a role-play activity or a written task. With these steps, students will be able to use the present perfect simple with confidence!
Another very general, quite meaningless topic sentence: “Teaching the present perfect simple tense can be a challenging task, but with the right approach it can be achieved!” - the topic (provided by me) could equally be swapped out for ‘learning to drive’ or ‘baking macaroons’, which ‘can be a challenging task…’, so adds little to the actual response here.
It continues: “To help students understand this concept, it is important to provide a context for the language. Examples of everyday situations can be used, allowing students to see the relevance of this tense.” - again, this is true for any tense… no mention is made of any contextual factors which would help us actually teach the present perfect simple specifically.
And then another sentence which seems to have been cobbled together from other existing content:
"After this, the key concept of the present perfect simple should be explained, such as the use of 'have/has' with the past participle”.
The difference between the concept (meaning) and structure (form - have/has + Verb(pp)) of the present perfect simple is confused in this sentence, so again, this constitutes quite dangerous advice for a teacher asking this question. This may seem like nit-picking, but the difference between meaning and form is really essential to understand in order to teach a highly conceptual tense such as the present perfect effectively. I would argue that again, the way this is presented causes more problems than solutions.
The rest of the piece could again be written about any nonspecific piece of language, and applies equally to any grammar focus in a lesson.
In summary, ChatGPT can match words and phrases that could be used to describe grammar teaching generally, and has some range in the types of practice task that it suggests, probably because these are the most concrete aspects of any grammar lesson, and are spoken about at length and in specific terms in existing texts which it is using to generate the text.
When it comes to the more nuanced language presentation and appropriate production tasks, or ways of approaching specific language structures, it has little to no clear ability to assess what it means to make effective teaching choices in the language classroom, and presents some terrible teaching ideas in a very broad-brushed way.
The final word: I would recommend that if you have a teaching question, ChatGPT is not the place to go for answers.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL and level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.