How to teach the present perfect without tears

When I told my colleague Jim I was writing about how to teach the present perfect, he compared teaching the present perfect to climbing up a hill backwards in flippers: time-consuming, frustrating and difficult. Looking back, the present perfect would have to win the prize for the grammar point over which the most metaphorical tears have been shed in my classroom- and not only by the participants!

The majority of the people I have presented the present perfect to have been German speakers, for whom it often proves extremely challenging. One of the greatest obstacles to understanding appears to be the fact that in German the combination of have with a verb form which signifies the past is used to convey finished time. The same issue can also arise with French speakers for the same reason. In Arabic too, a difference in grammatical assumptions may lead to confusion. Some Arabic speakers would find that it makes more sense to use their equivalent of the present simple to convey a situation which began in the past and continues into the present, for example.

The bottom line is that it can be tough to implement a linguistic concept in a foreign language when it doesn´t exist in your first language. Fortunately, the concept of the perfect does exist in Spanish, where it is also formed using the verb have, and in Portuguese, so, in theory at least, learners who speak these languages should have fewer difficulties with the English present perfect.

You´ll notice that I use the word concept, rather than tense, since I believe that seeing the present perfect in this light is a step towards making it easier to grasp for our learners.

In the lesson plan, I have focused on introducing learners to the present perfect for the first time (or perhaps, re-introducing them to it after a twenty year hiatus during which they have had no or very little contact with English).  My approach definitely pushes function to the forefront and focuses on strategies learners can employ in order to be able to use the present perfect effectively.

Download the lesson plan here. If you try this approach out in your classroom, please leave me a comment below because I´d love to hear how you got on with it.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “How to teach the present perfect without tears

  1. big-hat-harry

    I shall try this lesson plan. Present perfect here in Portugal is, as you say, not a problem as Portuguese recognise this verb form.

  2. natalie

    Teaching this in Latvia next week. Thanks for the tips, your visuals are clear and easy to understand!

  3. Carmen Martínez

    When I explain that to my Spanish students, they understand the use, the problem for them has always been the difference between FOR and SINCE. In Spanish we have the perfect but we do not use a word when you use FOR. (I have lived in Madrid FOR three years /vivo en Madrid tres años) however we use, I have lived in Madrid SINCE 1998/ vivo en Madrid DESDE 1998. In these cases, in Spanish we use PRESENT SIMPLE whereas in English it is present perfect, it is difficult for students.

    • Hi Carmen, Thanks for your comment. I know what you mean, German learners have the same issue. I always say use “since” when you say a time point in the past (in contrast to “for”- time period) and you can remember this because since has a point in it (on the i). You use since in combination with the present perfect. Saying present perfect sentences often come in response to “How long…?” questions can help, it can emphasise the link between the past and present, if you are talking about unfinished time, and therefore the need for a tense other than present simple. Have a good week:-)

  4. Paul Hewitson

    Hi Claire,
    Good stuff on the present perfect. It might be worth mentioning that the impact of a past event on the present is also important. eg.
    1.Shakespeare wrote many plays. ( not ‘has written’)
    2. J.K. Rowling has written a new Harry Potter book. ( not ‘wrote’ )

    • Hi Paul, Yes, I know exactly what you mean. We definitely need to include this in our presentations/ explanations of the present perfect. I would do this by getting the learners to talk about (recent) developments in their companies and things that have recently been in the news. I like your examples with Shakespeare and J.K. Rowling though. Best, Claire.

  5. tettyherawati

    Hi , Claire….I like the way how you teach Simple Present Perfect is very good.I’ ll try next time to my students.when I teach Tenses I give formula S+have/has+V3+…Thanks!

  6. Hi, your examples make the point very clear, thanks for sharing.
    It is true that the Present Perfect is used in Spain, but not in all other Spanish speaking countries. I have taught the Present Perfect to French, Italian and people from Latin American countries, and they all have a different type of mental construction of the grammar aspect involved. For example, my Spanish students tend to overuse the Present Perfect, while the other ones don´t find the need to use it unless they are guided to it with a question, for example.
    Just some thoughts,.

    • Hi Fabiana,
      Thanks for your comment, I´m glad to hear you like the post. I know what you mean about students over-using the present perfect. Some of my German-speaking students do that too when the tense they want to use is actually the past simple, since you construct the equivalent of the past simple in German using have/ has and the past form of the verb. Then when they need to use the present perfect they have to be guided to do so. I guess raising awareness about when to use the present perfect and also when not to use is the only thing we can do!
      Best regards, Claire

  7. Hi Claire, I am a new teacher in united Arab emirates. And was completely baffled by the perfect! It’s the first time I’m teaching it, and you lesson plan has really helped clarify how to teach it. Thanks so much!!
    Emily 🙂

    • Hi Emily,
      You´re welcome, I´m glad you found my ideas useful. I was also baffled by the present perfect when I was a new teacher. It has taken me a long time to get my head around it and figure out how to present it so my learners get it too. Another good idea, especially if you have visual learners, is to show them pictures of people who have clearly just finished doing something, or something has just happened to them: e.g. they´re wet, they´re sweating, they look stressed out, and ask the learners to speculate about what has happened to them or what have they just done. This should reinforce the usage of the present perfect for talking about things which happened in the past, but have visible effects in the present.

      You might also find Jamie Keddie´s lesson “The English Tenses” useful, I know I do. Here´s the link: http://lessonstream.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2011/04/The-English-tenses.pdf

      Best,
      Claire

  8. I really like itt that you focused on introducing learners to the present perfect for the first time. I’m a teacher trainee and my teacher always tells me that you should go out from the mindset that the students know nothing (yet)!

    I also have a question. When you teach a tense, would you opt for making a scheme for the students to give them afterwards so that their scheme to study from is correct and they can follow during your explanation or would you tell them to follow carefully and copy the scheme afterwards so that they remember more from copying it instead of it being given to them?

    Kind regards,
    Jochim

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