Teaching Past Tense to English Learners – Getting It Right

Want your students to do well on English proficiency tests?

You’ll need to help them build fluency with the past simple tense, especially past tense irregular verbs. Since the simple past tense is incredibly common, if students are unfamiliar with it, there can be a lot of confusion in reading and listening as well as blaring mistakes in writing.

In this article:

  • Different Aspects of Teaching the Past Simple Tense
  • Lesson Plan for Teaching the Past Tense
  • Activities for Teaching the Past Tense
  • Resources for Teaching the Past Tense

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What does teaching the past simple tense involve?

There are a few different aspects students will need to be familiar with when they are learning the past simple tense. 

Each part can be made into a lesson. Each lesson should review previous aspects of the past tense the students have learned.

  1. Adding -ed Questions & Answers
  2. -ed pronunciation
  3. Negatives in the past simple tense
  4. Irregular past tense verbs
  5. When to use the past simple tense

The goal is fluency, not just understanding, or being able to fill in some blanks. 

Whenever students are learning a new grammar pattern, you’ll see a range of understanding which extends from zero to fluent. 

Students will progress along this path to fluency at different speeds. You’ll want to be aware of the differences between how quickly your students are picking it up because it can be easy to assume mistakenly that because some of your students are excelling that everyone in the class is OK. 

Be careful!

This is why when we look at lesson plans for teaching the past tense, we’re going to make sure we set measurable, observable goals for our students to work towards, goals that let us clearly see that a student has mastered the content we are working on.

Lesson Plans for Teaching the Past Tense

First, it can be helpful to admit something to ourselves…

Irregular verbs are a pain!

So is the pronunciation of -ed if we’re going to vent a little.

What will engaging, effective lesson plans for teaching the past simple tense look like?


Teaching the past simple tense will require multiple lessons:

Lesson 1: -ed

Goal: Asking past simple tense questions and adding -ed to verbs to the answers and how to pronounce -ed.

Explain It Succinctly: “We usually add -ed to verbs when something happened before now. See the chart for pronunciation rules. Can you find what I’m talking about in these examples? Great. Let’s practice.”

Lesson 2: Negatives

Goal: Negative past simple tense verbs. 

Explain It Succinctly: “didn’t + verb – The verb does not change after ‘didn’t.’ Can you find what I’m talking about in these examples? Great. Let’s practice.”

Lesson 3: Irregular Verbs

Goal: Irregular Past Tense Verbs – 

Explain It Succinctly: “Some verbs don’t like to follow the rules. Can you find what I’m talking about in these examples? Great. Here’s a list of unruly verbs. Our goal is to practice them until you tell me they’re easy.”

Lesson 4: Bringing It Together

Goal: Let’s bring it all together. Consider comparing to other tenses. 

Explain It Succinctly: “There is a variety of times when you might choose to use the past tense. Can you find what I’m talking about in these examples? Great. Let’s practice.”

How should I structure these lessons when teaching the past tense?

I am a big fan of the Gradual Release of Responsibility model, so for each lesson, I’m going to recommend an overall structure that helps students slowly gain independence and mastery of the content throughout the class.

Here is a basic outline:

  • Choose your objective – i.e. I can ask and answer 5 past tense questions. I can write 5 sentences in the past tense on my own without help.
  • Start together as a group. 
  • Explain quickly and succinctly what is needed. See the notes above for ideas on how to explain the grammar succinctly. I always teach questions and answers together. 
  • Get students to chorally answer questions about your explanation using TPR (Total Physical Response)
  • Put students in pairs or small groups with an activity to practice what you explained, making sentences or asking and answering questions with each other. (See activity ideas below.)
  • Have a final challenge (or challenges) students need to pass individually for the day to show mastery of the content. I almost always have a speaking challenge first before asking them to complete a writing challenge. i.e. Say 5 sentences to the teacher in the past tense. Then write those sentences.
  • Students can practice however they want and when they are ready, they attempt the challenge.
  • Add a reading passage. Provide students with a reading passage in the past tense. Any time they are waiting (i.e. they finish before others), they find and underline all of the past tense verbs in the passage and then show comprehension by answering questions or filling out a graphic organizer.

What Are Some Engaging & Effective Activities for Pairs or Small Groups to Practice the Past Tense?

Alright, here 4 engaging activities for practicing the past tense in general, and the irregular verbs in particular, to your English learners!

  • Hot Potato: Put students in small circles of 3-4 students (This is better than one big circle because each student gets more practice). When the music starts, students pass around a “potato” (bean bag, stuffed animal, real potato etc). When a student has the “potato”, that student says a verb and its past tense form (download the list of verbs below). Then that student passes the “potato” to the next student. Tip: When students know the words well, you can change it to making a sentence in the past tense when a student has the potato. Then you can up the challenge to answering a question and then asking a question before passing the potato.

  • Lightning Round: In pairs, Student A says a verb and Student B says the past tense and a sentence. Then Student B says a verb, and Student A says the past tense and a sentence. They go until one of them gets one wrong or takes more than 3 seconds to answer. You can make this into a tournament for the class.

  • Story Time: In small groups of 3, students make up a story by each taking a turn to come up with the next sentence. Students can start all stories with “Once upon a time…”. Stories can be funny or scary. This can easily be turned into a writing practice by having students each write their own story afterward.

  • Partner Quiz: Have students do the blank fill-in (download below) to see how many they can remember. Then students each check their answers against the answer key, circling any they got wrong. Afterward, students can get with a partner, trade papers and play papers and play paper, scissors, stone. The winner chooses a circled word from the other student’s paper to quiz them on.

What Are Some Engaging & Effective Resources for Teaching the Past Tense?

Here are a few resources from the Kid-Inspired ESL Curriculum that you may find useful when teaching the past tense to your English Learners.

If you need more for teaching the past tense, or any other tense for that matter, check out theESL Curriculum Membership which includes everything you need to engage your ELLs, save time, and close the gap!

Inside the membership, you’ll find a whole section of the curriculum devoted to the past simple tense which covers all language domains:

  • Vocabulary
  • Sentence Frames
  • Reading Passages
  • Discussion Pages
  • Worksheets
  • Writing Practices
  • and More!

Free Teaching Resources from the ESL Curriculum Membership

Click below to grab the resources mentioned in this article. Links open in a new window.

Get a Free Irregular Verbs Resource Pack

Kid-Inspired ESL Curriculum Membership

Sign Up for the Membership for Access to the Entire Past Simple Tense Collection


What tips or activities do you have for teaching the past tense?

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