ESL Activities and Games | Teaching the past simple and past continuous

Grammar | 60 - 90 minutes

An A2 level ESL lesson plan for teaching the past simple and past continuous. It includes a suggested lead-in activity, several classroom activities, a game and a collection of specially selected ESL resources from around the web.

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Use of the board

Students at this level should already be familiar with the past simple and past continuous. The point of the board work below is to highlight the functional uses for each. The colour-coded text indicates which parts you should be attempting to elicit.

EFL - ESL Lead-in activity | Elementary | Teaching past tenses


Yesterday's news

A group writing activity where the students have to plan an article detailing a dramatic event.

Start by telling your students that they will be working in groups to write a newspaper report on a past event. Next, get some ideas from the class, use famous disaster movies for inspiration. Here are a few simple examples:

Volcanic eruption
Bank robbery
Escaped zoo animals
Alien invasion

Try to elicit the kind of information that they'll need to write the article. Write questions on the board that you want the report to answer. The following should be sufficient:

What was happening before the event?
What were people doing?
What happened?
How did it begin?
What was happening during the event? - People's reaction
How did it end?
What was happening after?

Confirm that students understand each of the above questions, and elicit which tense should be used to answer them.

When all groups are clear on the writing task, they can start to plan and write their articles. Remind them that their reports should attempt to answer all of the questions from the board.

The editor's room

A follow-on activity where the groups review each other's work.

For this activity, the groups will now swap books and analyse each other's work. Tell them that they should look for the answers to the questions from the board, and follow up with each group to see what they found. They should also correct mistakes in grammar and spelling.

Finally, if there's enough time, have one student from each group read the story. Correct any mistakes that you hear.


Hot seat: In the past 

Students will have to describe sentences that contain the target language to the player in the hot seat. 

A twist on an ESL classic. Students have to describe a sentence to another classmate. Divide 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 either the past simple or past continuous (Or both). 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: 

1. Harry Potter and Justin Bieber were walking to Africa. 
2. A small sad pig sang a happy song. 
3. Donald Trump climbed the Eiffel Tower. 
4. A silly elephant was driving a giant car. 
5. A hungry hippo flew to the moon. 
6. A tired duck was eating a ham sandwich. 

Divide the sentence on the board into three parts. The subject, verb and object. This makes it easier for the students to organise their explanation.


Students will interrogate two suspects of an imaginary crime to look for holes in their story. 

This is a fantastic ESL game for practising how to talk about the past. Students will interrogate two suspects of an imaginary crime to look for holes in their story. First, explain the concepts alibisuspect and interrogation to your students. Next, try to elicit an imaginary crime. Make it as funny as possible. Some examples if you get stuck: 

1. Kidnapped Donald Trump. 
2. Stole a penguin from the zoo. 
3. Murdered Ronald McDonald. 

Now, select two students to be the suspects and each other's alibi. Inform them that they will have 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 crime for all the class to hear (zoo, cinema, theme park, football match). 

Send the suspects off and instruct the rest of the class to come up with a list of questions that 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. When the students have finished interrogating the first defendant, bring in their alibi. If the stories match, they are off the hook. If not, guilty.

More A2 ESL lesson plans for elementary students

Our suggested next lesson is on using 'since' and 'for' with the present perfect. If you've found these materials useful, be sure to check out our full list of elementary ESL lesson plans, A2 Lower and A2 Upper. For other levels, have a look at our complete selection of EFL - ESL lesson plans. If you use an  iOS or Android device, try out the TEFL Handbook app. An ESL lesson planner for English teachers. It has a lot more content and gives you faster access to our ESL resources, making it easier to use in class.

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