Quick, if you had to think quick on your feet, right now- could you come up with a simple explanation of the differences between Past Simple and Past Continuous? Be honest, you might struggle a bit. Now imagine your students struggling even more, students that might only have one, not several, Past Tenses? This is an overview that’s both teacher and student friendly for the differences (and how to explain them):
Past Simple: There are several tricky bits to the Past Simple. The first one is the meaning. The second is the form. The meaning looks simple on paper: it’s in the past, and it’s ‘finished.’ End of story, right? Not exactly. It is finished, but it’s also chronological. Let me show you:
I woke up, I went to bed, I ate breakfast and I went to work. It’s nonsense, precisely because we have to use a logical order of events, or chronology, for the Past Simple. 1st this happened, 2nd this happened, 3rd this, etc.
The second problem with the Past Simple is the form, as in regular or irregular verbs. There’s no simple trick to learning which is which, besides memorizing those that are irregular and if they’re not on the list they must be* regular. Prepare for your students to groan.
*An extra tidbit, for regular past tense verb pronunciation, or ‘-ed:’ Verbs ending in ‘T’ or ‘D’ take /ed/, i.e. ‘fitted/hated/needed.’
Past Continuous: Again, it seems like a no-brainer. You just have ‘was/were + -ing.’ The meaning is where it gets confusing. When you look at the Past Continuous, you have to remember: it was an activity in the middle of happening. It’s usually tied to a specific moment in the past.
EX: Where were you when you heard about September 11th? I was drinking coffee and chatting with a friend. (At the precise moment I heard) I hadn’t finished these activities, I was in the middle of them.
Comparing Past Simple and Past Continuous: We’re usually instructed to contrast the two with simple ideas, by using Past Simple as an interruption.
‘I was cooking my dinner when the phone rang.’ (Dinner wasn’t finished, the phone interrupted it)- which is confusing for students. They don’t know which happened first. Or why it makes a difference in English.
Compare it with:
‘I cooked dinner. The phone rang.’ (Dinner was finished cooking, then the phone rang)
Or these two:
‘I was driving to school when* I hit a cat.’ (I was in the middle of driving to school, the cat is finished) vs. ‘I drove to school and I hit a cat.’ (I was done driving, then hit the cat- the second sentence sounds like the poor kitty was punched)
*’When’ is usually used to contrast Past Simple and Past Continuous, ‘While’ is used typically used to signal two simultaneous Past Continuous activities:
I was singing when he barged in. (While would sound pretty silly)
He was washing the dishes while she was drying them. (When doesn’t work here)
Super-Easy Short Practice Activities: Past Simple practice can be done with students working in pairs explaining to their partner what they did that morning/yesterday. To contrast, have them ask about a specific time, i.e. 11 a.m. yesterday- which activities were they in the middle of?
You can also use a drill around the class, asking the first student ‘What did you do yesterday?’ answering, and asking the next student, they answer and ask the next student. You can switch it up with Past Continuous ‘What were you doing at 5 p.m. last Saturday?’ and repeat the exercise.
I do realize for some teachers this might seem simple, but I know that a lot of native English speakers struggle with explaining the two Past Tense concepts to students. This cheat sheet was designed with those individuals, and the newer to the teaching realm, in mind. For those of you that already know, do you have any extra pointers to share?