How to Teach the Past Simple to ESL Students

Teaching ESL
Hero Images / Getty Images

Teaching the English past simple verb tense to ELL or ESL students is rather straightforward after you've taught the present simple. Students will be familiar with the idea of auxiliary verbs in the question and negative but not in the positive form.

They will be able to convert to past simple using helping verbs as in:

Does she play tennis? -> Did she play tennis?
We don't drive to work. -> They didn't drive to work.

They'll also be happy to know that the verb conjugation always remains the same, no matter the subject of the sentence.

She played tennis last week.

Of course, there's the issue of irregular verbs, which can be frustrating because they just have to be memorized and reinforced through practice. A sampling of these:

  • be—was/were
  • catch—caught
  • speak—spoke
  • understand—understood

Past Time Expressions

The key to teaching the past simple effectively is making it clear from the beginning that the past simple is used when something begins and ends in the past. The use of appropriate time expressions will help:

  • last: last week, last month, last year
  • ago: two weeks ago, three days ago, two years ago
  • when + past: when I was a child when she worked in New York

Start by Modeling the Past Simple

Begin teaching the past simple by speaking about some of your past experiences. If possible, use a mix of regular and irregular past verbs. Use time expressions to provide context. It's also a good idea to mix in some other subjects such as "my friend" or "my wife" to signal that there is no change in the conjugation of the past simple other than putting the verb into the past.

I visited my parents in Olympia last weekend.
My wife cooked a wonderful dinner yesterday.
We went to a movie yesterday evening.

Continue modeling by asking yourself a question and providing the answer.

Where did you go last week? I went to Portland yesterday.
When did you have lunch yesterday? I had lunch at 1 o'clock yesterday.
Which level did you teach last month? I taught beginner- and intermediate-level classes.

Next, ask students similar questions. It's a good idea to use the same verbs—for example: went, had, played, watched, ate—when asking questions. Students will be able to follow your lead and answer appropriately.

Introduce Regular and Irregular Verbs

Using the verbs you've introduced, quickly ask students the infinitive form for each verb.

Which verb is went? go
Which verb is
cooked? cook
Which verb is
visited? visit

Which verb is had? have
Which verb is
taught? teach

Ask students if they notice any patterns. ​Usually, a few students will recognize that many past regular verbs end in ‑ed. Introduce the idea that some verbs are irregular and must be learned individually. It's a good idea to provide an irregular verb sheet for their study and future reference. Quick drills, such as a past simple grammar chant, will help students learn irregular forms.

When discussing past regular verbs, make sure that students understand that the final e in ‑ed is generally silent:

  • listened -> /lisnd/
  • watched -> /wacht/ 


  • visited -> /vIzIted/ 

Introduce Negative Forms

Finally, introduce the negative form of the past simple through modeling. Model the form to the students and immediately encourage a similar answer. You can do this by asking a student a question, then modeling a negative and a positive sentence.

When did you have dinner yesterday? (student) I had dinner at 7 o'clock.
Did he/she have dinner at 8 o'clock? No, he/she didn't have dinner at 8 o'clock. He/she had dinner at 7 o'clock.

Resources and Lesson Plans to Practice the Past Simple

Explaining the Past Simple on the Board

Use a past tense timeline to visualize the idea that the past simple is used to express something that began and ended in the past. Review time expressions that are used in the past, including last week, last month, and last year; in + dates; and yesterday.

Comprehension Activities

After students are familiar with the form, continue expanding their understanding of it, as well as irregular verbs, with comprehension activities. Using stories of vacations, listening to descriptions of something that happened, or reading news stories will help underline when the past simple is used.

Pronunciation Challenges

Another challenge for students will be understanding the pronunciation of the past forms of regular verbs. Explaining the idea of voiced and voiceless pronunciation patterns will help students understand this pronunciation pattern.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Beare, Kenneth. "How to Teach the Past Simple to ESL Students." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Beare, Kenneth. (2023, April 5). How to Teach the Past Simple to ESL Students. Retrieved from Beare, Kenneth. "How to Teach the Past Simple to ESL Students." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).