Simple Past Activities

The simple past is one of the most important verb tenses in English. For English teachers, it may be the most important.  

Why?  Because most students have difficulty using the past tense in speaking. Sure, they can handle grammar tests, but ask a student to tell a story in the past and you will often find several mistakes.  This includes advanced students too.

So how can you help? Try some of these simple past activities in your next class.

Simple Past Charades

In this activity, students act out simple past sentences like in a game of charades. The only difference is instead of a word, the students act out whole sentences. 

Here are the instructions.

1.  Put students in pairs.

2.  Give each pair two base verbs. (e.g. Make, Play)

3.  Students change base verbs to past tense verbs. (Made, Played)

4.  Students create a sentence for each verb. (e.g. I made a cake yesterday. I played baseball last week,)

5.  Students act out their sentences in front of the class.  

6. The class must try to guess the sentence.

This is a fast activity, but its good for testing their understanding of the verbs and their ability to conjugate the verbs into the simple past.

Simple Past Story Tellers

In this activity, students create stories from a list of prompt words.

1.  Put students in pairs or groups of 3.

2.  For each group, write out the following information:

Group 1
Place: (City, country, etc.)
Time:  (last night, 3 years ago, etc.)
Verbs:  (Any verbs, some irregular)


Group 1 - Amy and Kevin
Place:  Tokyo
Time:  2 weeks ago
Verbs:  go, listen, have, make

Ideally, the teacher will brainstorm this information with the students, so each group is giving ideas for another group.

3.  After the groups have their information, they work together to create a short story.

4.  Students then present their stories to the class.

Elimination Game

This game is for groups. You can keep score of this game and make it a competition. For the game, the teacher randomly writes the following types of words on the board:

Base Verbs (e.g. go, play, dance, run)
Subjects (e.g. He, She, We, Tom, Susan and Tom)
Past Time Phrases (e.g. Yesterday, Last night, 3 years ago)

The teacher can write about 20-30 words. They should be written randomly all over the board. That way students must find them, not just choose from set categories. Each group takes a turn and must make a sentence with a word from each of the three categories.

For example:
(Go, Paul, Yesterday)
"Yesterday Paul went to the museum."

The teacher awards points for correct sentences and then erases those 3 words from the board. As the words are eliminated, the game becomes more difficult.

What did you do yesterday?

This simple past activity helps students practice the verb tense and conjugate the verbs.  

Many students have trouble using past tense verbs when speaking in the past. When telling a story, it is common to use a few verbs in the present instead of the past. This is especially true with irregular verbs. This activity will help them fix that issue.

Here are the steps:

1.  Students work in pairs.

2.  Student A tells Student B everything he/she did that day. They key is to be very specific.  For example, 

  • I woke up at 7 am.
  • I made breakfast.
  • I ate breakfast.
  • I had a shower.
  • etc.

3.  Student B writes down every verb mistake Student A makes.  

4.  Students changes places and repeat.

5.  Students share the verb tense mistakes with each other.

You will notice the activity is simple, but it is something students can do every day for 5 minutes. It is also a good activity for homework. The idea is to close the gap between students' grammar abilities and their use of verbs in speaking.

I have made it a routine for students to explain what they did the day before in every class. It is amazing how doing this 5-minute activity each day can lead to dramatic improvements.

Do you have other activities you like to do for the simple past? 

Would you like some simple past tests to help your students? Try these exercises from learnEnglish-online:

Simple Past Test
Simple Past Test 
Simple Past Questions Test
Simple Past Questions Test 2

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