The Puzzling Present Perfect For The TEFL/ESOL Classroom

Written by: Larry Walder



Time to read 6 min

Anyone who has been in the ESOL or TEFL world for a while will know that one of the first and most persistent stumbling blocks learners encounter when trying to grasp English Grammar is the Present Perfect Tense. No matter how you try to explain it, lower-level students often look dazed and confused. Even with more advanced students, misuse of the Present Perfect is one of the most common mistakes in exams and tests.

In this article, I will look at some of the reasons the Present Perfect is difficult to teach and why students are often perplexed by it. I will try and convince you that it can actually be fun, both to teach and to learn! Finally, I will leave you with a free Present Perfect lesson plan to download and use.

Many of us who grew up in English speaking countries were not taught grammar as rigorously as speakers of other languages often are. We use the Present Perfect (and other grammatical forms) instinctively without having been explicitly taught the grammar rules behind it. Sure, at university or during our TEFL training we probably looked at the Present Perfect in a more grammatical way, but I wonder how much impression that makes when we already know it instinctively? Perhaps it is only when we see our students struggling that we go back to our grammar books and try to understand the technicalities behind a form we usually use without much thought.

Let’s look at things from the learner’s point of view. The actual form of the Present Perfect is not too difficult to grasp. We need the appropriate form of the verb ‘to have’ in the present tense. So that will be either ‘have’ or ‘has’. Then we need the past participle (third form) of the verb we want to use. Providing we are reasonably familiar with regular and irregular past participles we can now form sentences in the Present Perfect…

  • I have visited Paris. She has eaten her lunch.

It is not too much of a step to make negative statements and questions…

  • He hasn’t gone to school. Have you seen that film?

Bingo! We can do it! The Present Perfect is easy! Hmm… The problem really is when and why you use it. That’s where things get tricky!

Looking in various grammar books and internet sites in preparation for writing this article I have come across definitions that give everything from one to seven different reasons for using the Present Perfect. In fairness, nearly all of them begin with the notion that we use the Present Perfect when there is some form of connection between the past and the present. But those connections are then described in all sorts of different ways. There is always the assumption that there is a logic to the different uses of the tense, but I don’t think it is likely to seem that way to our learners. I have found that telling them that it isn’t particularly logical takes the stress off the students. It’s not because you are stupid that this seems confusing, it’s just that English sometimes is a bit crazy and confusing!

As teachers, we need to explain the present perfect in ways that make sense to us and to our students. We are all individuals and there might be nuances of the present perfect that seem more important to some of us than others.

Personally, I tell my students that there are four ‘main’ reasons for using the present perfect. I do this because I find it the easiest way to explain things and because each of the four reasons for using the Present Perfect that I describe lend themselves to different activities.

1. Things that began in the past and are still true now

When using the Present Perfect for this reason I find it useful to draw lots of timelines on the board and then get the students to draw their own timelines on paper to illustrate the sentences they are making. With younger students, I give them a while to draw and decorate their timelines as I think this gives the concept time to settle in their minds. For this aspect of the tense, there is an extra piece of grammar to consider; the use of ‘for’ and ‘since’. (For a period of time; since the time point when something started).

  • ‘She has lived in London for ten years.’ She has lived in London since 2012.’

I find students usually grasp this concept fairly easily and there are plenty of grammar exercises they can do to consolidate their understanding. The result is happy students who are confident in using the Present Perfect. The real problems begin when you inform them that there are several other quite different reasons for using the same tense.

2. Life Experience

I usually explain this as things that you have experienced sometime in the past, but we don’t know exactly when or how often. Conceptually I don’t think this iteration of the Present Perfect is as simple or logical as most grammar books suppose. The link between the present and the past is quite tenuous. Older and more advanced students might grasp the concept that things you have experienced in the past play a part in determining who you are and what you know now; but for younger students, I don’t think there is any obvious connection between the past and the present in this case. I, therefore, approach the life experience aspect of the Present Perfect as something in its own right and I don’t stress the connection between past and present too much.

There are a lot of fun activities you can use when talking about Life Experiences. For example, you can do class surveys or ‘Find Someone Who,’ mingle and speaking activities. Find someone who has eaten snails. Find someone who has been to America. Find someone who has been in hospital… You can also do stand-up/sit down games or circle games… Stand up if you have met anybody famous. Change chairs if you have been to a zoo…

With this aspect of the Present Perfect, one of the key teaching points is that once the ‘experience’ has been established the rest of the conversation is likely to happen in the Past Simple.

  • Have you broken any bones? Yes, I have.

  • Which bone did you break? When did you break it? How did it happen? 

3. Past Action-Present Result (Changes)

The key concept in this manifestation of the tense is that you use the Present Perfect to describe something you know must have happened to account for what you see now. If you see a friend who looked perfectly healthy last week but now has a leg in plaster and is walking on crutches you can deduct that they have broken their leg based on what you see now. You didn’t see them break their leg (sometime in the past week) but that is what must have happened. I encourage my students to think of themselves as detectives, deducting what has happened based on evidence they can see in the present. You can download a free lesson plan based on this concept at the end of this article.

4. News of very recent events using just

I tell students that we use the word ‘just’ plus the present perfect to emphasize that something has happened very recently or a few moments ago. This concept lends itself to drama work. I sometimes ask students to act as newsreaders in which they talk about real or fictitious news of the past day in the past simple but then give a newsflash about something that has just happened (using the present perfect). Other drama work which includes, or could be interrupted by, something that has just happened could revolve around the themes of accidents, hospital dramas or family disputes.

I have found that using the four methods above helps take some of the puzzle out of the present perfect. However, there is at least one other major hurdle to understanding that needs to be considered.

While versions of the Present Perfect do exist in other languages, its form and more importantly, its usage may be very different to the English Language version of the tense. Therefore, there can be a lot of language interference in which your students are instinctively drawn back to the way the tense is used in their own language. For example, in many parts of the German-speaking world, the Present Perfect is used in spoken language to refer to the past in situations whereas in English we would normally use the Past Simple. However, they differentiate between the Past Simple and Present Perfect in more formal writing. Thus, their instinct is to think of the Present Perfect as a less formal, colloquial way to refer to the past; only when ‘speaking’. Getting them to let go of the understanding they have grown up with, and accept the English version of the Present Perfect as something entirely different can be a bit challenging!

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned yet…yet. Nor have I spoken about the subtle differences between the Present Perfect Simple and the Present Perfect Progressive; although I have been meaning to do it all day!

While you are thinking about that, don’t forget to download the free lesson plan below. I hope you find it useful in your TEFL or ESOL classes.