Past Perfect Tense

How to teach the past perfect

How to teach the past perfect

It is easier to teach the past perfect than to teach the present perfect. The past perfect is clearly situated in the past. This can even be represented without any ambiguity through a timeline or a diagram. what is more, an example with a past perfect tense may give a clear picture of the tense. In this lesson plan we will give ideas and hints on how to teach the past perfect.

Start with contextualized examples

It is of paramount importance to introduce grammatical constructions in clear contexts, relating them to the real world. The past perfect tense is undoubtedly well understood if it is used in contextualized examples because learners need to have a clear picture of not only the “how” but also the “why.” The following is a situation (borrowed from this article) that may be a good start.

I couldn’t believe my eyes

Yesterday when I arrived home, I couldn’t believe my eyes:

  • Someone had broken into my house.
  • They had broken the door and the window.
  • They had stolen all my money.
  • They had broken my TV and my computer.
  • They had emptied my drawers.
  • They had even eaten the food in the fridge.

Ask them:

Which things happened first? Had those terrible things happened before or after arriving?

Draw a diagram to make the situation clearer:

Past Perfect Tense

Past Perfect Tense

The above situation provides two important prerequisites for the teaching of the past perfect tense:

1. Contextualizing the past perfect (they had broken into my house, they had emptied the drawer…)
2. Contrasting it with the simple past (when I arrived)

This will help learners notice not only the use but also the form of the tense.

The form

After the students understand the use of the past perfect, elicit the form.

Had + past participle

Ask them to underline the tense in the examples above.

Noticing, discussing and personalizing

To grasp the past perfect, students need to notice and discuss the different uses of the tense. The past perfect doesn’t only refer to an action prior to a past event, but it is also used to express regret and third conditional sentences.

Here are some activities to teach the tense.

Matching exercise

Match the numbers with the letters
 1. I was very tired
2. I didn’t want to go to the movies with my friends
3. They offered me muffins,
4. As soon as she had done her homework,
5. I was interested in the discussion about the story
a. because I had seen the film already.
b. as I hadn’t slept well for several days.
c. but I wasn’t hungry because I had just eaten lunch.
d. because I had read the novel before.
e. she went to bed.

 Sentence completion

Another way to help your students use the past perfect is by asking them to complete sentences like the following:

  1. She was late for work because she………….. (miss the bus)
  2. They talked about the film they………….. (see) .
  3. She read the letter her husband ……….. (send) .
  4. The teacher was satisfied with the essay he…………..  (write) .
  5. They ate the chicken their mother……………… (cook)

Join sentences

Ask students to join two sentences like the following:

I went to bed. Before that I watched a documentary on TV.

They have to transform it into:

Before I went to bed I had watched a documentary on TV.
After I had watched a documentary on TV I went to bed.
When I had watched a documentary on TV I went to bed.

Here are more examples:

1. I left the house. Before that I had my breakfast.
2. She set up her own business. Before that she studied business management.
3. The association built a school in the poor village. Before that they collected donations.

Third conditional

Another use of the past perfect is the third conditional. Here is an activity you can try with your students:

What would have happened if things had been different?

Give a model sentence:

Today I was late because I had missed the bus. I wouldn’t have missed the bus if I had woken up early

Then ask them to complete theses sentences:

  1. I would have been the happiest person on earth if I …..
  2. He wouldn’t have died if they…
  3. She wouldn’t have left him if he…
  4. They would have finished the project if they…

You can also introduce constructions like the following:

  • Had I known he was mean, I wouldn’t have married him.
  • Had she been able to join them, she wouldn’t have stayed at home.


Expressing regret is another use of the past perfect tense. Write this example on the borad:

I didn’t pass the exam. I wish I had worked harder.

Then ask them to give examples. You can help with prompts like the following:

1. Start smoking. → I wish….
2. Break with a friend. → I wish….
3. Move to another town. → I wish….

What’s the difference?

Contrasting tenses can be very effective to enhance the use of the past perfect. For example ask students to discuss the difference between these two sentences:

A. When I arrived they had had dinner.
B. When I arrived they were having dinner.
C. When I arrived they had dinner.


After formal practice of the past perfect, you can proceed by personalizing the use of the tense

What had happened?

What had happened when you arrived home yesterday?
What had you done before you came to school?
Where had you studied before you joined this school?

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14 Responses

  1. Christopher says:

    am really enjoy this lesson it was so good me teach us more

  2. Mohammad Al Zain says:

    it is very useful.I need more.

  3. shakti says:

    nice .

  4. court dube says:

    its a wonderfull lesson ,hope you will teach us more

  5. abdelkhalek says:

    it’s really a good and very useful lesson..I need more of such lessons.

  6. MOSES says:

    Like Oliver Twist I ask for more.

  7. Ken says:

    it is a very good way to teach the past perfect, but instead of starting with sentences one can start with an audio of someone narrating what happened!!! but Thanks 🙂

  8. Jane says:

    Thank you for the detailed lesson. Pedagogically, it flowed well. I especially liked the last section where you get pupils to look at the 3 sentences and they are to discover the differences between them. That is inductive teaching – very useful for the higher progress pupils.

  9. Mohammed,

    I like how you start by giving contexualized examples of the past perfect by relating it to real world situations. Like you said, timelines can show students how the past perfect focuses on a completed action happening before another past action. In a sense, using the past perfect helps to show the order of past actions for the listener or the reader.

    Your lesson on teaching the past perfect has given me some ideas for a lesson that I want to create for my Online TOEFL Course students at .

    Thanks for sharing!

    Michael ([email protected])

  10. clarane yhane says:

    very nice ,please keep me posted

  11. just good thanks for sharing

  12. Namra says:

    very well

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