How to Teach the Present Perfect

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The present perfect is one of the most difficult tenses to learn for students. Teaching the present perfect effectively involves making sure students understand that the present perfect in English is always connected in some way to the present moment in time. Many languages including French, German, Spanish and Italian use the present perfect for past events. The present perfect in English covers what happens from a past moment to the present moment in time. Establishing this connection in students' minds early will help students avoid mistakes. It helps to divide usage into three major areas:

1) From the past until now: I've lived in New York for twenty years.

2) Life experience: I've visited every state in the country.

3) Recent past events that influence the present moment: I've just had lunch.

Start by Speaking about Your Experiences

Introduce the present perfect by providing three short situations One about life experiences, one speaking about some things that started in the past and continue into the present. Finally, also illustrate the present perfect for events that influence the present moment in time. Speak about yourself, your family or your friends.

  • Life Experience: "I've visited many countries in Europe. I've been to Germany and France a few times. My wife has also been in Europe quite a lot. However, our daughter has never visited."
  • Past to Present: "My friend Tom has a number of hobbies. He's played chess for more than fifteen years. He's surfed since he was a little boy, and he's practiced the art of the Japanese tea ceremony since September."
  • Recent Events that Influence the Present: "Where's Pete? I think he's gone to lunch, but he's been away for about ten minutes. I know he's been to the bank this afternoon so he's probably decided he needs a nice meal." Ask students about the differences in these forms. Once the differences have been understood, return to your short scenarios and ask students related questions using the present perfect.
  • Life Experience: "I've visited many countries in Europe. Which countries have you visited? Have you ever been to XYZ?"
  • Past to Present: "My friend Tom has a number of hobbies. He's played chess for more than fifteen years. Which hobbies do you have? How long have you done them?"
  • Recent Events that Influence the Present: "What have we just studied? Have you understood the form?"

Explaining the Present Perfect

Using the verbs you've introduced, quickly ask students the infinitive form for each verb. (i.e. "Which verb is gone? - go, Which verb is bought? - buy, etc."). After having studied the past simple, students should recognize that many past verbs in '-ed' whereas others have irregular forms. Introduce the past participle form use in the present perfect. It's a good idea to provide an irregular verb sheet for future reference.

Use three timelines showing the differences between usages: life experience, past to present, and recent events.

At this point in the curriculum, students should easily be able to switch between positive, negative and question forms. However, it's important to point out that questions in the present perfect are most often formed with "How long" for past to present usage, and "Have you ever..?" for life experiences. Finally, for present perfect that affects the present moment, it's important that students understand the differences between the time expressions 'just', 'yet' and 'already' as well as 'for' and 'since' for past to present.

Comprehension Activities

Each of these uses of the present perfect can be practiced through present perfect role plays and reading comprehension activities. It's also a good idea to compare and contrast time expressions used for the present perfect and past simple. Present perfect worksheets and quizzes focusing on differences asking students to choose between the present perfect or the past simple will also help. To practice switching between the present perfect and the simple past practice short conversations with "Have you ever...?" followed by a question asking for specifics with 'when', or 'where'.

Have you ever been to France? - Yes, I have.
When did you go there?
Have you bought a car? - Yes, I have
When did you buy one?

Challenges with the Present Perfect

Common challenges with the present perfect include:

  • Use of present perfect for events that happened in the past
  • Switching between present perfect and past simple fluidly
  • Use of 'yet' and 'already' in questions, negative and positive forms
  • Use of 'since' with dates and 'for' with periods of time