Present perfect or past simple? How to teach the difference.
The English tense system can be tricky for students. All languages differentiate between the finished past events and ongoing present events with tenses, but a common confusion for students is how to tell the difference between past simple actions (I walked three miles) and present perfect actions (I have walked three miles). In both cases, actions happen in the past, so why do we have two tenses to talk about these past events?
Confusion between these two tenses is common in speakers of languages which have the sentence construction: Subject + have + verb (past participle), which means a specific thing in that language. Many Latin-root languages (French Spanish, Italian, for example) use exactly this structure to talk about finished events in the past. In English, however, we use the past simple -ed ending. It is not surprising, then, that learners from these language backgrounds have issues processing the same grammar to have different meaning.
In English, past simple and present perfect show two ways of seeing past actions: those which have no connection to the present moment, and those which are somehow connected to ‘now’. This connection to the moment of speaking is the key aspect of meaning which differentiates the two tenses, so what is this connection to ‘now’, and how can we help students to raise their awareness of it?
Finished actions and unfinished time
One way of doing this is to separate the notion of time and action: a past simple action is finished, and happened in a time which was finished, as in the example: I went for a walk yesterday. Here, the walk is finished, and yesterday is finished, so the past simple is appropriate. However, in the example: I’ve walked every day this week, the walks may have finished, but the time in which they happened (this week) is unfinished. This is the key to selecting the present perfect tense appropriately: a finished action happening in an unfinished time.
Often, using a time phrase like ‘this week/month.year, as opposed to last week/month/year is enough to show this difference, and can be a useful tool for students to remember the difference: In sentences with last… or …ago, the time period must be finished, so past simple is appropriate. In sentences using a time phrase with ‘this…’, present perfect is appropriate. Prompting for use of these time phrases can act as a memory aid for the use of the correct tense.
However, an issue arises with some time phrases such as ‘this morning / today / this afternoon’. If the sentence is spoken on that morning / day / afternoon, that time period is not finished, so present perfect tense is appropriate. This is a subtler way of showing the difference: getting students to think about the time at the moment of speaking, and thinking whether it is still that time or not.
An effective way of getting this idea across to learners is by using series of Concept Checking Questions (CCQs) about a sentence that you are focusing on, either from your presentation of the tense, or from an example in a practice task, as follows:
Sentence example: I went to the bank yesterday
CCQs: Is your visit to the bank finished? —> yes / is yesterday finished? —> yes / do we need to use a past tense or a present tense? —? past, so past simple
Sentence example: I’ve been to the bank three times today
CCQs: Are you still at the bank now? —> no / did you go to the bank in the past? —> yes / is today finished? —> no, so do we need a past or a present tense? —> present, so how do we talk about a past action in a present time? —> present perfect.
Once the learners have related the time of speaking to the time of the action being described, the ‘finished / unfinished’ distinction should be clear.
In the next article, we will look at a surefire way of presenting the difference between present perfect and past simple tenses using a situational presentation.
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.
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