ESL Past Tense Activities and Games

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The past tense in English, it’s a classic grammar point that appears in almost every single ESL textbook in publication! The students have seen it a ton of times before, and you’ve probably also taught it more times than you can count. How do you keep things fresh and interesting, both for you and the students? You’ll need to use some ESL past tense activities or games.

Where do these ESL Past Tense Games Fit into the Lesson Plan?

That’s a great question and we’re happy that you asked! A standard, CELTA style kind of lesson looks like this:

  • Lead-in or warm-up that sets the context and introduces a topic
  • A reading, listening or video that demonstrates the use of the past tense
  • A deeper dive into the finer points of the past tense
  • Controlled practice (fill in the blanks, etc.)
  • Freer practice (conversation, etc.)
  • Follow-up game or activity related to the grammar point
  • (Next class): Review

Most of these ESL past tense games would fit into the freer practice or follow-up part of the lesson. However, some of them could work as a quick lead-in or warm-up and you may also find that some work well as a quick review activity. We’ll make note of how they could work for each activity.


ESL past tense games and activities

#1: ESL Board Games

I love to play board games in real life, and also like to use them with my students. For my students, I make my own in just a few minutes that are related to what I’ve been teaching in class. In this case, I’ll make a variety of questions from the past. For example: Where did you go to elementary school?

Or, I’ll have statements in the past tense and students have to come up with the correct question. For example: I went to ABC middle school.

It’s a great way to do some review before a test, or to finish up a class about the past tense in a fun, challenging way.

Board Games for ESL Students

#2: The Memory Circle Game

This versatile ESL game is ideal for helping students remember names, new vocabulary, or in this case, grammar. The way it works is that the first person says a sentence from the past.

For example, “I played soccer last night.”

Then, the next person says that sentence and then adds their own. If they make a mistake, they’re “out” and then game continues until one person is left.

Find out more about it: ESL Memory Circle.

#3: Rocks Scissors Paper

This ESL game is ideal for reviewing questions and answers in the past tense, especially if you want to mix in some present tense as well to help students differentiate between the two. You can use it as a review before a test, or as a way to finish up a class. It’s quite simple and works better for beginners rather than intermediate or advanced students.

You make some questions and then matching answers. For example:

What did you do yesterday? I went to school. (Past)

What are you doing now? I’m studying English (Present)

Cut up all the little pieces of paper, separating questions and answers. Then, give students 3-4 strips of paper and they have to circulate around the class, trying to find their match. Once that happens, they do rock-scissor-paper and then winner keeps both papers.

More details here: Rocks, Scissors, Paper ESL Review Game.

#4: Telling a Story, the Better Way

In many ESL textbooks related to this grammar concept, students have to tell a story of some kind. Their most embarrassing moment or a memory from their school days for example. It’s usually kind of a throwaway activity, but you can turn it into something way more interesting and useful.

Learn how to do this here: Telling a Story, the Better Way for ESL Students.

ESL Games for Irregular Past Tense Verbs

#5: Flashcard Sentences, ESL Past Tense Games

If you teach kindergarten or elementary school kids, then flashcards hold some serious ESL teaching gold. You can do a ton of things with them. My secret is to not buy random cards, or make your own, but check with the publisher of the textbook you’re using. They often make a set to go along with each book.

The way that you could use them with the past is by doing a quick review game. Hold up a card to each student 1 by 1. They have to make a sentence using a past tense verb. If correct, they keep the card and get a point. If incorrect, move onto the next student and they can try.

For example, there’s a picture of a bus. The student would have to say, “I rode the bus yesterday.”

Or, a picture of an apple. The student says, “I ate an apple.”

More details here: Flashcards for ESL Teaching.

#6: English Central Videos

Maybe you’ve been looking around YouTube for a nice video that has a variety of past tense verbs. Maybe you want your students to listen, and then write down these verbs as a quick warm-up or lead-in.

The only problem is that it can be hard to find appropriate ones sometimes. Instead, check out English Central which is designed specifically for English learners.

Learn more here: English Central (ESL YouTube).

10 ESL Activities for the Past Simple

#7: Dictogloss ESL Past Tense Activity

For more advanced level students, you may want to try out dictogloss. In this case, you’ll want to choose a story from the past. The way it works is that you read the passage, at a more or less normal pace. Then, the students have to try to create the main concepts from it, working with a partner.

Read it again and the students can add more to it. At the end of the activity, you can highlight the past tense verbs.

Check it out here: Dictogloss ESL Activity.

#8: Dialogue Substitution

Students can often get in the habit of reading dialogues mindlessly and basically taking nothing in. Instead, if you choose to use a reading passage to introduce this grammar point, why not remove some of the key words, in this case many of the verbs.

Have a list of possible choices, and students can work together with a partner to fill in the blanks. Once they’re done, they can read the passage together.

Learn how to do it here: Dialogue/Reading Passage Substitution.

#9: Story Timeline

If you’ve used a story to introduce the past tense, then consider this timeline activity to make things a bit more interesting. It’s an ideal partner or group activity.

Check it out: Story Timeline ESL Reading Activity.

#10: Disappearing Text

This is a very, very simple way to review some key irregular verbs. Write a sentence on the board. For example, “Last night, I ate pizza, went to my friend’s house and watched a movie.”

Then, erase the beginning, or end few words and students have to say the sentence without them. Erase the whole thing eventually and students will have memorized it.

Learn more here: Disappearing Text Review Activity.


ESL Past Tense Activities (adults and children)

#11: Diary

An idea for a homework assignment is to have students keep a diary for a few days. Perhaps 3, 50 word entries for beginners and longer ones for more advanced students. For beginners, it can be a very simple record of what they did that day, with an emphasis on past tense verbs.

#12: Who Did the Same?

In this activity, students try to find someone who did the same thing. I usually have the students stand up and mingle with others in the class. They can say things like, “I ate pizza for dinner last night.” Their partner might say, “Oh! I did too.”

If someone else did as well, that’s 1 out of 3 (or however many things in common students have to find). If their partner says no, they can try another sentence, or move onto another person.

Did you Like these ESL Activities?

101 ESL Activities: For Teenagers and Adults
3 Reviews
101 ESL Activities: For Teenagers and Adults
  • Jackie Bolen, Jennifer Booker Smith
  • Kindle Edition
  • English

Yes? Then you’re going to love this book: 101 ESL Activities for Teenagers and Adults. There are dozens of engaging, interesting and useful activities and games that you can use in your classes today.

The book is well-organized into sections, ranging from speaking and writing to grammar and warm-ups. You’ll be able to find what you’re looking for in seconds.

Then, each activity starts off with a brief overview so that you can see, at a glance whether or not it’ll work for your class. After that are more detailed, step-by-step instructions that tell you exactly what you need to do before, during and after the activity. Finally, don’t forget the teaching tips that’ll help you avoid the most common mistakes for each specific activity so that you class can be as awesome as possible.

The book is available in both digital and print formats. The digital copy can be read on any device by downloading the free kindle reading app. Take it with you for lesson planning at your favourite coffee shop. Or, keep a copy on the bookshelf in your office to use as a handy reference guide.

Yes, it really is that easy. Check out this ESL activity book for yourself over on Amazon:


Have your Say about these ESL Past Tense Activities

What are your thoughts about these ESL games and activities to help your students with the past tense? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Also be sure to give this article a share on Facebook, Pinterest, or Twitter. It’ll help other busy teachers, like yourself find this useful resource.


Last update on 2019-07-20 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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