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5 Easy Steps for Teaching the Present Perfect and the Present Perfect Progressive

by | July 6, 2012

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Note

We updated this blog post in November 2016. See Present Perfect: Two Uses and Present Perfect Vs. Present Progressive for new charts and tips.

What do you do when textbook grammar presentations just don't cut it? The present perfect is a confusing verb tense for ESL learners. Students get confused about when to use it versus when to use the simple past, and also when to use it versus the present perfect progressive (also known as the present perfect continuous).

Unfortunately, most of the textbooks I've come across don't explain all the uses clearly. The result is that students can conjugate verbs into the blanks provided in textbook exercises, but they flounder in real life when they have to choose which tense to use.

In other words, when it comes time to choose between the simple past, present perfect, and present perfect progressive (for example, when speaking, writing, or doing a test like the TOEIC), students struggle. That's why I started to present all three tenses at once in my TOEIC classes, and gradually started to use this method for other general classes, too, with successful results. I hope it will help your students as well!

Step #1

Present Perfect

Start by telling your students that there are two uses of the present perfect (most students are not even aware of this). Point out that diagram A indicates a finished past action. Diagram B shows an action that started in the past, continued to the present, and may continue into the future.

Diagrams A and B

A) I have been to Paris.

B) I have lived in Vancouver for two years.

Step #2

Present Perfect Vs. Simple Past

Next, focus on the first use of the present perfect (from diagram A). Help your students understand when they can use this finished past action by comparing it to the simple past's finished past action. Explain that we use the simple past tense when we want to communicate when we did something, as in diagram C. We use the present perfect tense when we don't want to indicate the time, either because we don't know it or it isn't important, as in diagram D.

Diagrams C and D

C) I went to Paris last month.

D) I have been to Paris.

Step #3

At this point, I find it useful to point out the time markers that are associated with these verb tenses. Time markers are words that indicate the time when an action is performed, and they will help students both to recognize which verbs to use in exercises and to produce natural language. I usually get the students to brainstorm these words as a class. Here are the most common time markers for these tenses:

  • Time markers for the simple past: yesterday, the day before yesterday, last, ago, when (for joining two past sentences)
  • Time markers for the present perfect (as in diagrams A and D): usually, no time marker is used, but for emphasis, it is possible to use already*, yet*, still*, ever, never
*Note

Here is a quick note about already, yet, and still. These three adverbs are very common, so it's a good idea to teach them along with the present perfect, though you could teach them in a separate lesson if you think your students' heads will explode from all this information.

Already (used to emphasize that an action has been accomplished in the past) follows the normal pattern of Verb + Adverb + Verb, as in I have already read that book.

Yet (used to signify the intention to do something) follows an unusual pattern. You use yet at the end of a sentence, and the verb must be negative, as in I haven't read that book yet.

Still (like yet, it is used to signify the intention to do something) also follows an unusual pattern. You use still before both parts of the verb, and the verb must be negative, as in I still haven't read that book.

Be careful that students don't get confused with the other use of still (used to emphasize an ongoing action), which is commonly used with a positive verb and the present progressive tense, as in I am still waiting for your call. No wonder English is difficult to learn!

Step #4

Present Perfect Vs. Present Perfect Progressive

Finally, focus on the second use of the present perfect (from diagram B). Explain to students that for this use, the present perfect and the present perfect progressive are pretty much interchangeable. Basically, the present perfect shows an action that starts in the past, continues to the present, and may continue into the future.

For example, in diagram E, the emphasis is on the two months I have lived in Vancouver. I might be moving to another city tomorrow, or I might continue living in Vancouver for many more years. The future is not really important in this case; if it is important, that's when the present perfect progressive should be used instead.

The present perfect progressive shows an action that starts in the past, continues to the present, and will definitely continue into the future. In diagram F, it is clear that I have lived in Vancouver for two months, but also that I am not leaving and will continue to live here for an unspecified amount of time.

I also point out to students that when in doubt, use the present perfect since it is more commonly used.

Diagrams E and F

E) I have lived in Vancouver for two months.

F) I have been living in Vancouver for two months.

Step #5

Now, you can point out the time markers for these two tenses:

  • Time markers for the present perfect (as in diagrams B and E): for**, since**
  • Time markers for the present perfect progressive: for**, since**, all (as in all morning, all week, etc.)
**Note

I also explain to my students that for is used to show the duration of the continuing action, while since is used to show the starting point of the continuing action.

Of course, there are other cases and exceptions to these basic rules (for example, It has been raining can indicate that the rain recently stopped, which is technically a finished past action), but I believe there's no need to completely overwhelm your students. I suggest dealing with exceptions on a case‑by‑case basis if they come up in the lesson.

For lessons on the present perfect and the present perfect progressive, check out ESL Library's Grammar Practice Worksheets section. Check out our Grammar Stories section too.

Enjoy presenting and perfecting!

Tanya

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Comments (56)

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Taruna (Guest)

Thanks for making understand Present Perfect and the Present Perfect Progressive in such a easy way.

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Taruna (Guest)

thanks for making it simple to understand.

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Heroe (Guest)

This is so funny and informative! I'm a wrintig tutor. I work with a lot of ESL students and I'm just starting to learn about teaching and tutoring ESL and really dissecting my own language to view it from an outside perspective. I wouldn't have known how to explain that type of mistake to a student, but now I do! Thanks!

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Heroe,

I'm so glad you liked it! Isn't it funny how we don't know truly understand the mechanics of our own language until we start teaching it to others? Sometimes I ask my friends, 'Do you know what the present perfect is?' and they haven't got a clue! :)

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Azadeh (Guest)

Great post Tanya. Being innovative has become a major factor in every task and is rather expected in all the businesses. apparently it is more needed in teaching.

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

I agree, Azadeh! It's always great to learn new ways to approach familiar things. :)

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samaneh (Guest)

great post tanya: we should be innovative about everything esp in teaching ,,it is the best way of method of teaching this grammer point we should put ourself in studentds shoes :)

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Dave Hopkins(Guest)

Hi there

I used your little system of diagrams yesterday to revise the present perfect simple and present perfect continuous to a group of Upper Intermediate students. One of them commented that he'd never fully understood the difference between the simple past and the present perfect before . . . until I'd explained it using your ideas. So - thanks very much for posting your ideas up. They worked perfectly.

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Dave,

Thanks so much for sharing this. I'm always happy to hear that students really 'get' a grammar point!

Tanya :)

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Rhiannon (Guest)

This is really useful and I will definitely be using it for my class next week! Thanks.

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Rhiannon,

Thank you! I hope your students find it helpful.

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yasi (Guest)

thanks for sharing...but you said we dont have time makers in present perfect. why we have it in example (E)?

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Yasi,

Thanks for your question. Don't forget that there are two uses of the present progressive. One use has no time markers (image D). This is when it's a FINISHED past action. (Example: I have seen that movie.) You can use a word like 'already' or 'yet' for emphasis, but you don't have to.

The second use has time markers (image E). This is when it's a CONTINUING action from the past to the present. (Example: I have lived in Canada since I was six years old.) You need to use a time marker like 'for' or 'since' to indicate the duration or starting point of the continuing past action.

Hope that helps! Let me know if you have any other questions.
Tanya

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David Portugheis(Guest)

Amazing, thank you so much! This excellent explanation will definitely improve my teaching skills :)

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

I'm happy to hear it! Thanks for taking the time to comment, David! :)

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

I just realized I missed seeing some comments from last year. Taruna, esl jobs, and samaneh, thanks for your comments! And samaneh, I definitely agree that we should always try to put ourselves in our students' shoes. One thing that made me a much better teacher was learning a second language myself. :)

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