Monday, August 3, 2015

Practicing the Present Perfect

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

I find students need lots and lots of  practice before they can use the present perfect with a degree of fluency and accuracy. Here are some of the activities I turn to when I want to spend a little more time in class on the present perfect.

Past Participle Circle

Students often struggle to memorize the past participles of irregular verbs, and they tend to need multiple opportunities to review them. A quick way to warm up once students have been introduced to the list is the Past Participle Circle. Have the students stand in a big circle. Start the game off by saying the base form of a verb. Then, the person (let’s call him/her person 2) to your left has three seconds to say the past participle of that verb. If person 2 is correct, then the person to his/her left (person 3) says the base form of a verb. But, if person 2 is incorrect, he/she sits down and is “out”. In that case, person 3 must say the past participle form of the verb and person 4 says the base form of a new verb.

In the traditional form of this game, if someone makes a mistake they are “out.” However, in a recent in-service I attended, a colleague suggested a great twist on this game that ensures that the people who are “out” continue to remain involved and engaged. If a person makes a mistake or can’t answer in time, a person who is “out” has a chance to answer and, if correct, take the place of the person who didn’t know the answer. I have found this tweak to the original game to be a lot of fun and it means the entire class keeps playing for the whole game and not just the stronger students who already know all the forms anyway.

Language Spotting

Sometimes, students have no trouble with the present perfect when they can see it, but hearing it in a stream of spoken English can be challenging. In order to help students segment more easily, it can be fun to do some Language Spotting. Before your lesson, choose a level-appropriate text that contains the present perfect. For less skilled listeners, this might be a shorter text that contains vocabulary the students will know. In class, read the text aloud at a regular speed with natural delivery. As you are reading, have students indicate when they have heard a present perfect by raising their hands or, if you like a rowdy classroom, stomping their feet. As students become comfortable with this activity, you can kick it up a notch by having them write down the examples of the present perfect they hear before you show them the text and check the answers as a class. By doing this kind of bottom-up listening skill building on a regular basis, not just with the present perfect, you can help your students notice examples of the grammar they are learning more easily when they listen.

Picture Sentences

In my experience, while students tend to understand the “link with the past” that the present perfect makes (e.g.,  “I have lived in Baltimore for eight months.”) fairly easily, they often struggle with understanding how the present perfect can be used to describe an event or action that is finished but still impacts the present (e.g., “The students are happy because the teacher hasn’t given any homework.”).

I don’t know about you, but I never just read and enjoy a magazine like a normal person. I am always on the lookout for pictures that I might be able to use in a lesson. Over the years, I have amassed a substantial collection of interesting pictures. You may have a similar collection, but if not, you can probably find several intriguing pictures as you flip through the magazines at your doctor’s office (tear them out quietly!) or just bring some old magazines to class and have students each choose a picture of a person that they find interesting.

Once you have several pictures (at least one picture for every two students), tape a big piece of paper under each picture and put them up around the room. Then, put the students into pairs and have them go to a picture. Give them +/- one minute to write a sentence that begins “He/She has just _____”  about what the person in the picture might have been doing that resulted in the situation in the picture. For instance, below a picture of a boy covered in bees (creepy, right?), the students might write something like, “He has eaten some honey.”

After the allotted time, have the students move to a different picture. Again, give them +/- one minute to write another sentence. Their sentence must be different from the one that is already on the paper. As the students are writing, it’s a good idea to circulate and make any necessary corrections. After students have had the chance to visit several papers and write their sentences, it can be fun to read the sentences as a class and choose the most likely scenarios.

One Minute Conversations

I think we’ve all been in this situation: your students can do the book exercises blindfolded, but they still have trouble actually using the present perfect in conversation. One way to encourage students to increase their accuracy is by doing One Minute Conversations. It’s also a nice way to wind down the class and have some fun.
Before the class, prepare a list of “have you ever” questions or during the class, you can have students brainstorm a list. Ages ago, I came across a book (targeted toward native English speakers) called Have you Ever … by Bret Nicholaus and Paul Lowrie, which I use for this activity. Not all of the 450 questions are great, but many of them can prompt a pretty decent minute-long conversation.

Set a timer for one minute and put the students into small groups (three or four maximum). Have a student choose a question. (If I am using my book, I have a student choose a number between one and 450 and I flip through the book to find the corresponding question. Then, read the question aloud and start the timer. Students should discuss the question, being careful to use the present perfect and past simple tenses as appropriate. You should circulate and note examples of errors as well as exemplary uses of the present perfect. When the timer goes off, have a student select a new question and continue. After the lesson, you can turn the “good” and “bad” sentences into a handout and have students find and correct the errors as a warm up in the next class.


Comment from nina dellona
August 4, 2015 at 11:09 pm

Thank you for sharing these fun and useful activities. I especially like the 1 minute conversations and using them as a way to end the class. I found a website that has different conversation questions based on grammar topics, so this activity can be applied not only to the present perfect but to other topics as well. This is the link:

Comment from Tamara Jones
August 5, 2015 at 5:31 am

Thank you very much for sharing the Conversation Questions link. They are GREAT questions! Teachers could number them and have students choose the ones they think are the most interesting to talk about. I LOVE it!

Comment from Tamara Jones
August 12, 2015 at 2:10 pm

I wanted to share a GREAT classroom idea I learned about when a reader emailed me. Thanks so much to José A. Alcalde in Spain for sharing!

The “Have you ever…?” is a classic in my 12-13 year groups with a twist: “Hot Chair”. Every lesson, a different student sits in a chair in front of the class and I ask him/her questions of a more “personal” nature. (Have you ever cheated on my tests?, Have you ever spied on your neighbors?, Have you ever blamed your sibling for something you had done?…) Students love it and can’t wait to know the “secrets” of the next contestant.

I, too, can’t wait to try this game with my students! Thanks, Jose!

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