How to Teach the Past Perfect Continuous

Teaching the past perfect continuous is sometimes a choice. On the one hand, to complete the overview of each tense the past perfect continuous needs to be included. On the other hand, the past perfect continuous is rarely used by native speakers in their daily activities. The choice whether to teach this tense should therefore be made based on a student needs analysis: Do the students need to understand the past perfect continuous for use on exams such as the TOEFL or Cambridge exams, or is the focus of the class more on communication skills.

If the class needs the tense for academic tests, a quick one-over of the past perfect continuous is probably worthwhile. Teaching this tense should be relatively easy as students will be familiar with the concepts from having learned the present perfect continuous and the future perfect continuous.

Introducing the Past Perfect Continuous

Introduce the present perfect continuous by speaking about a past event of some import. For example, speaking about a situation in which people were asked to wait for a long period, or some other anticipatory action took place. A good example might be an exciting new product release by Apple.

Duration of a Past Activity

The customers had been waiting for three hours just to get in the door when the store finally opened.
Jennifer said she had bee saving her money to buy the new iPhone.

Another example could be a test that students have recently taken. In this case, you can also ask some questions:

How long had you been studying for the TOEFL when you took it?
Had you been working together before you took the test?

Result of a Past Activity

Students should also understand the past perfect continuous can be used to express the cause of something that happened in the past. To introduce this usage, tell a story about something unusual that happened in the past and use the past perfect continuous to relate, comment and speculate as to the cause:

There was a horrible car crash yesterday on I-5. Apparently, one drive had been texting and didn't see that the other drive had stopped. Not only that, but it had been raining for a few hours so the conditions were awful.

Use in the Third Conditional Form

The past perfect continuous is also sometimes used in the third, or past unreal, conditional form. It's worthwhile pointing this out to students, but also reminding them that the past perfect is generally used. The exception is that the past perfect conditional is used to focus on a specific moment in time in the past.

If I had been working on that project, we would have got the contract.
He wouldn't have been in the accident if he hadn't been texting while driving.

Practicing the Present Perfect Continuous

Explaining the Past Perfect Continuous on the Board

Use a past perfect continuous timeline to illustrate the relationship of the tense to a past event. The construction is a little complicated, so providing a quick grammar chart can also help with understanding.

Subject + had + been + verb(ing) + objects

We had been working for twelve hours by the time we finished the project.
Susan had been complaining for weeks when he finally purchased her the new car.

Activities

Lesson activities should include a thorough comparison of the when to use the perfect or perfect continuous form. A great lesson for this can be adapted by this lesson comparing the present perfect simple and continuous. Take the biography of someone form the past, students then ask questions using either the past perfect of the past perfect continuous to ask and answer questions based on the biography.

Student 1: How many years had he studied law before he became a judge?
Student 2: He had studied law for ten years before his appointment.

Student 1: What had she been doing before she moved to Texas?
Student 2: She had been working for a designer in New York.