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!
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.
A) I have been to Paris.
B) I have lived in Vancouver for two years.
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.
C) I went to Paris last month.
D) I have been to Paris.
Time Markers for the Present Perfect & Simple Past
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
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!
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.
E) I have lived in Vancouver for two months.
F) I have been living in Vancouver for two months.
Time Markers for the Present Perfect & Present Perfect Progressive
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.)
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.
Enjoy presenting and perfecting!