How to teach the past perfect

The past perfect is one of those tenses which is usually dealt with quite briefly in curricula, purely because it is not a very common structure in everyday English. There are a lot of other structures which appear much more frequently and so are more useful for learners of English. However, the past perfect should not be neglected – it is a handy structure to be able to manipulate.

Before we look at ways to teach the past perfect, let’s have a look at the structure itself.

The past perfect is used to talk about an action which happened in the past. More specifically, it is used to refer to an action which took place in the past as seen from another event in the past. In other words, when dealing with the past perfect there’ll be two past actions involved, one having happened before the other.

For example: When I called him, he had already left the house.

Here the past simple (called) is contrasted with the past perfect (had left), showing that the leaving action had taken place before the calling action.

As can be seen from the example above, the past perfect consists of had + past participle.

In terms of teaching, it is a good idea to explain this concept to the students on the board using a timeline.

He left the house.                                  I called.                                           Now.


arrowdown                            arrowdown                               arrowdown

Past perfect                                  Past simple

Once the learners have grasped the meaning and form of the structure, it is time to focus on practising the structure. This can be done using a range of games and activities, such as matching sentences, completing sentences and contrasting sentences. These activities can be done with any random sentences.

To make the practice more effective, however, you can get the learners to use the structure in a specific context. This will help them contextualize the grammar and make it more memorable. For example, learners can use the past perfect to express regrets (I wish I hadn’t eaten that pizza) or discuss hypothetical situations in the past (If I had studied harder, I would’ve passed).

Even though the past perfect is not a very common English grammar point, it still needs to be dealt with in the classroom. If you follow the steps of demonstrating the form and function and then letting your students practice the structure themselves, soon they’ll be using the past perfect appropriately and effectively.