Tips for Present Perfect
Lesson Plans for ESL Teachers

How to Teach Conjugation,
Form, and Function for the
Present Perfect Tense

Present Perfect lesson plans are appropriate for high beginning ESL students, as well as intermediate and advanced students.

I find that even with my advanced ESL students, a review of the Present Perfect tense is always in order.

Almost all advanced ESL or EFL students know how to conjugate this verb tense correctly, but knowing when to use it (the functions of the tense) is often confusing.

The three essential components to teaching any verb tense are (1) conjugation, (2) form, and (3) function.

Present Perfect lesson plans should first focus on verb conjugation and form, and then the functions of this tense. 

Present Perfect Verb Conjugation

The Present Perfect is constructed this way:

    subject + have/has + past participle

Here are some examples of verb conjugation using the subject pronouns I, you, he/she/it, they, and we.

  1. I have talked. I have walked. I have danced. I have eaten.

  2. You have talked. You have walked. You have danced. You have eaten.

  3. She/He/It has talked. She/He/It has walked. She/He/It has danced. She/He/It has eaten.

  4. They have talked. They have walked. They have danced. They have eaten.

  5. We have talked. We have walked. We have danced. We have eaten.

Reinforcing and teaching Present Perfect tense conjugation can be done with drills and also cloze exercises. Cloze exercises have blanks for students to fill in the correct past participle, helping verb, or subject. For example:

  • She has __________ (act) in many plays.

  • __________ have eaten together many times. (More than one subject answer is possible.)

  • I __________ already seen that movie.

Present Perfect Verb Forms

(the five forms English students must learn)

  1. Affirmative Usage (I have studied English. You have studied English. She/He/It has studied English. They have studied English. We have studied English.)

  2. Negative Usage (I have not learned Spanish. You have not learned Spanish. She/He/It has not learned Spanish. They have not learned Spanish. We have not learned Spanish.)

  3. Yes/No Questions (Have I studied? Have you studied? Has she/he/it studied? Have they studied? Have we studied?

  4. Short Answers (Yes, I have. No, I have not. Yes, you have. No, you have not. Yes, she/he/it has. No, she/he/it has not. Yes, they have. No, they have not. Yes, we have. No, we have not.)

  5. WH- Questions (e.g., When have you traveled to Spain? Why has he given up? What has she done? How have they learned English so quickly? Where have I seen that man before?)

Functions of the Present Perfect Tense

Present Perfect lesson plans must teach the functions of this tense. The functions can be confusing and it usually takes more than one lesson to adequately teach all the functions of the Present Perfect.

Here are the three functions of this verb tense.

  1. Unspecified time

  2. Repetition

  3. Started in the past and continues until the present, may or may not continue into the future (there just isn't a short way to describe this function)

Function 1: Unspecified time

The Present Perfect verb tense can be used to express something in the past, when:

  1. We don't know when it happened (e.g., I have lost my keys), or

  2. When it happened is not important (e.g., She has traveled to Ethiopia).

This function is often confusing for ESL and EFL students. English Language Learners confuse this function with the Simple Past. The key is whether a time was specified or not.

Compare Present Perfect usage to Simple Past usage:

Present Perfect: "I have traveled to Europe." In this sentence, no time is specified.

Simple Past: "I traveled to Europe in 2004." The Simple Past is used when a time is specified. The specified time could be "this morning," "yesterday," "at 6pm," "when I was a child," etc.

Present Perfect lesson plans often ask ESL students to decide which of these two tenses to use.

Function 2: Repetition

The Present Perfect is used to describe something that has happened many (or a couple of) times in the past.

For example, "I've traveled to Brazil many times," "I've eaten at that restaurant twice," "John Grisham has written several books."

Function 3: Started in the past, continues until now, and may or may not continue into the future

For example, "I've lived in this city since 1995."

This tense can be replaced with the Present Perfect Progressive when emphasizing duration. For example, "I've been watching soap operas since 1970" or "I've been waiting for you for ten minutes." (Note that the duration does not have to be long to use the Progressive form of the tense. The point is that the speaker wishes to emphasize the duration.)

You'll notice that "for" and "since" are often clues to use the Present Perfect instead of the Simple Past. Many Present Perfect lesson plans highlight the use of "for" and "since." 

ESL Student Challenges

ESL and EFL students will have these challenges with Present Perfect lesson plans:

(1) Subject-verb agreement with the correct helping verb (have/has).

(2) Deciding when to use the Present Perfect or the Simple Past tense to express something that happened in the past.

(3) Knowing the correct past participle of some irregular verbs.

Additional ESL Teaching Resources for Present Perfect Lesson Plans

The above is a general overview to help you understand and to prepare Present Perfect lesson plans.

For additional help, you can use a good grammar textbook, such as Azar's Understanding and Using English Grammar. I consistently use this book to prepare lessons for high intermediate and advanced English Language Learners.

For a thorough discussion on how to teach verb tenses in general, see Teaching ESL Verb Tenses. Conjugation, form, and function are each discussed in more detail.

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