Teach past tenses with these 12 fun & engaging ESL games
By Allan Sweeney
By Allan Sweeney
Are you struggling to come up with fun and engaging ways to teach your students about past tenses? Don't worry! We've compiled a list of 12 ESL classroom games that are perfect for teaching past tenses.
From charades to dictation, these games will make grammar lessons more exciting and memorable for your students.
As always, we've modified these ideas to be used in classrooms with limited resources and made the instructions as simple as possible. If you like what we do here, you can always find more ideas in our ESL lesson plan library or consider becoming a member.
1. Snowball darts
Students have to spell verbs to earn a throw of the snowball and a chance to win points for their team.
We use this game in our free ESL lesson plan on the past simple negative.
Start by drawing a circular target on the whiteboard with several concentric layers of different score values. Crush a blank piece of paper into a snowball shape.
On each turn, give a student a verb in its infinitive form. Depending on what you want to revise, you could ask the following:
- Correctly pronounce the verb in its past form
- Correctly pronounce the verb's past participle
- Spell the verb in its past form
- Spell the past participle
If they get it correct, they can throw a snowball at the board.
Depending on the class size, play as an individual or team game. You may need a list of irregular verbs for this game. The students should also have a copy to study.
Tally up the scores at the end and declare a winner.
Students will interrogate two suspects of an imaginary crime to look for holes in their story.
First, explain the concepts of 'alibi', 'suspect' and 'interrogation' to your students. Next, try to elicit an imaginary crime. Try to make it as funny and culturally relative as possible. Some examples if you get stuck:
- Kidnapped the King of England.
- Stole a penguin from the zoo.
- Murdered Ronald McDonald.
Now, select two students to be the suspects and each other's alibi. Inform them that they will have to answer questions about what they were doing at the time of the crime.
Before sending them away to get their story straight, elicit where they were at the time of the offence for all the class to hear (zoo, cinema, theme park, football match).
Send the suspects off and instruct the rest of the class to devise a list of questions they will use to interrogate the suspects. You can help the students with their questions.
Bring the first defendant back to answer the questions while their alibi either leaves the classroom or listens to some music.
Fetch the alibi when the students have finished interrogating the first defendant.
The students then interrogate the alibi. If the stories match, they are off the hook. If not, guilty.
3. A dicey situation
For this ESL game, students roll a die to select prompts for a funny sentence, earning points for grammatically correct and humorous sentences.
Begin the activity by explaining the game concept and providing examples of how it works.
Write three lists of prompts on the board consisting of six subjects, six verbs, and six past tenses (the tenses can be repeated). These should be culturally relevant and appropriate to your students' age and level. Check the examples at the end.
Split the group into teams, depending on the class size.
For each round, the teacher rolls the dice three times to select a subject, verb, and tense for the student. That student then has one minute to come up with a funny sentence using the prompts chosen by the die.
Once the time is up, the student shares their sentence with the class.
Score each sentence based on grammar and humour, with 1 point awarded for a grammatically correct sentence, 2 points awarded for a funny sentence, and 3 points for a grammatically correct and hilarious statement.
At the end of the game, count up the scores and declare a winner.
- A cat
- A superhero
- A vampire
- A robot
- A pirate
- A chef
- Past simple
- Past continuous
- Present perfect
- Past simple
- Past perfect
- Past perfect continuous
4. Call my bluff
Players have to trick the opposing side using a past simple statement about themselves.
Start by dividing the class into two teams. For each turn, students are given a time expression and must make a past statement about themselves. It can be true or false, and the opposing side has to ask questions to determine which one it is.
Encourage the team carrying out the interrogating to ask as many questions as possible by awarding a point for each grammatically correct and contextually relevant inquiry.
Below are some time expressions to get you started:
- Yesterday morning
- In 2012
- Last year
- Two weeks ago
- Last week
- When I was ten
- This morning
- A month ago
- A long time ago
- Last summer
The student in play gets five points for a grammatically correct sentence and another five for bluffing the opposing team. The opposing team scores a point for each valid question they ask.
Tally up the scores at the end of the game and declare a winner.
5. Where was I?
Players use the past tense to question another student who has to pretend that they were in a specific place.
On each turn, a student will have to describe a particular place to the rest of the class in terms of:
- What they brought back
- How it was
- What they saw
Before they start, add these prompts to the board and elicit the type of questions they should ask for each. Dialogue for the beach might look like the following:
Student A: What did you bring back?
Student B: I have a bucket and a spade.
Student C: How was it?
Student B: It was a lot of fun.
Student D: What did you see?...
You can assign locations or have students come up with their own.
- A library
- A beach
- A music concert
- A grocery store
- The cinema
- A water park
- If you have ESL flashcards for places in town, you could pin them up on the whiteboard with magnets before starting.
6. Whiteboard relay: Irregular verbs
Two teams of players race to the board to convert verbs from their infinitive form to past or past participle.
Divide the class into two teams.
Write two lists of irregular verbs on the board in the infinitive, one for each team.
When the game begins, a student from each group will run to the board to convert a verb to the past tense. When they finish, they'll return to their team and hand the marker to the next student.
The race ends when one of the teams finishes.
Finally, tally up the scores and give a point for each correctly spelled verb. The team with the most points at the end of the game wins.
7. Story chain
Students sit in a circle and take turns adding a sentence to a story using the past tense.
Begin the activity by explaining the concept of the game and providing examples of how it works.
Have the students sit in a circle and choose a starting sentence for the story. For example:
"Yesterday, I went to the park and saw a strange man walking his dog."
The first student begins the story with a sentence in the past tense. The second student then adds another sentence, building on the previous one and using the past tense.
Each subsequent student takes their turn, adding another sentence to the story and repeating all of the previous statements in the correct order.
The aim of the game is to get around the entire circle without making a mistake.
If a student makes a mistake, the whole group must start over again from the beginning with a new story.
Encourage students to use their imagination and creativity to make the story more fun and engaging.
- Set clear rules for what constitutes a mistake, such as forgetting a grammar point or messing up part of the story.
- Encourage students to listen carefully to each other's sentences to ensure that they build on the story cohesively.
8. Two truths, one lie
In this classic ESL game, students create three present perfect statements about themselves, and their classmates must guess which one is false.
This game idea comes from our free upper-intermediate lesson plan on the present perfect tense, but you can modify it for other tenses.
Begin by explaining the concept of the game to your students. Then have each student come up with three present perfect statements about themselves, one of which should be a lie.
If you feel it would help, demo the game with the students before they begin with statements about you.
Example Present Perfect Statements:
- I have eaten sushi before.
- I have travelled to five different countries.
- I have never broken a bone in my body.
Once the students have written their statements, have them take turns coming to the front of the class to read them aloud.
After students read their statements, their classmates will ask follow-up questions to determine which one is the lie.
When each student has presented their statements and the class has guessed which one is the lie, discuss any interesting or surprising ideas that came up.
9. Hot seat: In the past
For this fun ESL game idea, students must describe past tense sentences to the player in the hot seat.
Begin by dividing the class into two teams. On each turn, one student will sit with their back to the board, facing their teammates.
The teacher writes a funny past statement on the board using grammar structures that the students are familiar with. The players must then describe that sentence to the student in the hot seat without using any significant words from the board.
The round is over when the student in the hot seat says the sentence. Set a time limit if you wish. Some example statements to get you going:
- Harry Potter and Justin Bieber were walking to Africa.
- A small sad pig sang a happy song.
- King Charles climbed the Eiffel Tower.
- A silly elephant was driving a giant car.
- A hungry hippo flew to the moon.
- A tired duck was eating a ham sandwich.
- To help the students, divide the sentence on the board into three parts, the subject, verb and object. Encourage them to break up the statement and explain one part at a time.
10. Past tense charades
Students act out verbs for their team to guess.
Begin the game by dividing the class into two teams and explaining the rules of the game.
For each round, students from one team will take turns coming to the front of the class to act out a verb. You will show each student a verb in its past participle or past form.
The student must then act out the verb for their teammates to guess. They cannot speak or use any props. When their team has guessed the verb correctly or if they pass, a new student from the same team comes to the front for a new verb.
Decide beforehand which form of the verb you want and make that clear to the students initially.
Set a timer for 2-3 minutes. The aim is to guess as many verbs as possible within that time. Track the score on a whiteboard or blackboard for the students to see.
Repeat the process for the second team with a new set of verbs.
- Prepare a list of verbs before the game that you know the students are familiar with.
- Consider using a mixture of regular and irregular verbs in the game to reinforce past participle and past tense forms.
- Give hints or clues to help the students guess the verb if necessary.
- Consider playing dramatic music in the background to add to the excitement of the game.
11. Noughts and crosses: Irregular verbs
The students play a version of noughts and crosses, answering questions about irregular verbs to mark a square for their team on the grid.
Begin by dividing the class into two teams, draw a 'noughts and crosses' grid on the whiteboard and label the squares 1-9.
Assign an irregular verb to each square, but don't let the students know what they are.
On each turn, a student from one team will select a square and must answer a question about the verb assigned to that square. The question should ask for the past participle or past verb form, along with the correct spelling.
If the student answers correctly, they mark an 'X' or 'O' in the square for their team.
Play continues until one team gets three in a row, either vertically, horizontally or diagonally, and wins the game.
12. 20 Questions: Just, yet and already
Players use the target grammar of the lesson to find out the time of day that their classmate is thinking of.
On each turn, a student will come to the front of the class. That student must then think of a specific time in their day. Limit this to hours or half hours(12:00 am, 1:30 pm, etc.).
The other students then take turns asking questions and attempting to guess the time.
Participate in a quick demo before they start to give them an idea of the kind of questions they'll need to ask:
Student A: Have you been to school yet?
Student B: Yes, I have.
Student A: Is it 4:00?
Student B: No, it isn't.
Student C: Have you already eaten dinner?
By incorporating a variety of approaches, such as role-playing, storytelling, and group work, you can definitely keep your classes lively and interactive for your students.
A final bit of advice, try to experiment with your own variations of these activities to keep things fresh and interesting.
Let us know your thoughts.
Which ESL games have you had the most success with in the classroom?
Allan is the Co-Founder & Lead Developer on the TEFL Handbook project. He spends his time building software and creating resources that support English teaching. You can learn more about his goals for the project here.