By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville
In my last blog I discussed an alternative way of introducing the Past Perfect. I proposed that teachers kick off their set of lessons on this “unruly” bit of grammar by presenting contexts in which the use of the Past Perfect is essential to the intended meaning of a message, and only afterward moving on to sentences in which the Past Perfect can be substituted for the Simple Past. This, I suggested, would allow students to get a feel for the Past Perfect’s semantic impact, for its force.
I also promised there to share my favorite Past Perfect activity. The idea for this activity came when I happened on an exercise entitled “The Perfect Detective,” which is included in The Anti-Grammar Grammar Book by Nick Hall and John Shepheard. Though based on the concept of that exercise, my activity differs in several ways; I introduced some changes in order to allow students to be involved at all stages of the task.
The activity not only encourages learners to identify the real differences in the meanings of various messages, but it tends to engage students quite naturally.
What does it ask students to do?
Solve a crime.
The teacher presents the crime scene, but not by simply telling students what happened. Instead, the teacher makes this stage interactive and suggestive by offering no more than the list of key words and phrases below, from which students must attempt to deduce the series of events.
John Flitz 9 p.m. country house dinner six guests midnight shots heard Flitz’s body discover
Students are informed that the guests who attended that infamous dinner party are being interrogated by two inspectors. In pairs, students compose testimonies for the guests by completing a worksheet provided. Each student of each pair will complete one version (A or B) of the worksheet in order to create his or her set of testimonies.
Once the two versions of the worksheet are filled in, students are told that four of the six guests had plotted the murder, and that those guests gave testimonies which contradict one another. Students who completed version A of the worksheet then compare their testimonies with students who completed version B of the worksheet. By paying close attention to the meaning changes caused by the alternating uses of the Past Perfect and the Simple Past in their sets of testimonies, students will be able to determine which guests are telling the truth, and which guests are lying and may well have plotted the murder of Flitz.
After students have decided, in pairs, who the four suspects must be, one student from each pair reads out the suspects’ names. The teacher writes on the board the names read out for each pair. Students are then asked to justify their decisions, highlighting the meanings conveyed by the use of the Past Perfect in some testimonial statements and the use of the Simple Past in others.
It seems to me that the force of the Past Perfect is illustrated quite vividly in this activity.
OK, so students won’t be thinking that they’ll necessarily be incarcerated for using the wrong construction, but they may well come to realize that getting a handle on that unruly old Past Perfect is worth their time.
Hall, N., and J. Shepheard. The Anti-Grammar Grammar Book. Essex: Longman, 1991. 131-132. Print.