I sometimes get emails from teachers asking if I can help with their problems. I got this one from Argentina.

This is going to be a long one!

This is the question I was sent:

At college we have read what you wrote about task-based approach. I have found it very interesting but since I dont have the experience in working with this approach, I am a bit at a lost on how to plan a lesson. For example, for my first lessons I have to teach the "present perfect". So far I have only come up with grammar exercises and I could not find a topic which would lead to the use of the present perfect naturally. Can you give me some ideas?

Here's my reply:

Thank you for your message. Present perfect is a very tough one to start with. I suppose the first thing to say is that there are several different uses of the present perfect:

1. To talk about experience up to the present:

I've been to Argentina, but I've never been to Brazil.

I've never seen one like that before.

2. to provide a reason for some action, state or intention in the present:

I'm not hungry. I've just had my lunch.

I can't go out tonight, I haven't done my homework

3. to talk about something which hasn't happened yet but is expected to happen:

They haven't finished work yet. They should finish by tomorrow.

The present perfect has a contextualising function. In spoken English it often introduces a topic: Have you seen that film at the Odeon? (I want to talk about the film) Have you ever been to Buenos Aires? (I want to talk about BA). Or it announces a topic I've just seen your friend Peter. (I'm going to tell you or ask you about him.) I've signed up for an English course.(I'm going to tell you about it or ask your advice about it.) In both spoken and written English it often provides a reason based in the past for an action in the present or future: I've booked an early flight so I'll be arriving at 7.30. I've written to Simon so I should hear from him soon.

What this means is that we very, very rarely get a string of verbs in the present perfect. It's usually associated with the future or, particularly in the case of use 2, with the past: Have you seen one like that before? Yes. There was one in the zoo at San Diego. So we tend to get a starter in the present perfect followed by a string of verbs referring to the future, the present or the past. This means that any task or situation that repeatedly uses the present perfect is likely to be highly artificial.

You can usefully practice the first use of the present perfect with a discussion. This would be the basic task:


Make a list of :


the three best films you have ever seen.

the three best books you have ever read.

the three most famous people you have ever seen.


You could begin with a teacher led discussion perhaps telling them about your favourite books and films and about famous people you have seen. Then ask a few questions to find out how many of them have similar experiences or to find out from one or two of them about their favourites. Then they can move into the task.

After the task you can ask representatives of one or two groups to report back on their findings. As they do this you can comment and ask other learners what they think:

The Simpson’s movie. Yes, I’ve seen that. I really enjoyed it. How many of you have seen it? Did you enjoy it Maria? What about you, Juan? Have you seen it? …

You might then move on to look at a scripted dialogue, possibly something like this:

A: Have you read ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire?

B: Yes. I read it last week. I really enjoyed it.

Explain that the first mention, the introduction is present perfect unless there is a past ime adverbial:

Did you see The Simpson’s on Channel 4 last night?

After that we move to future or past, unless there is another first mention:

A: Have you read ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire?

B: No. But I’ve read ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’ . I read it last week. I really enjoyed it.

You can then go on to a memory game. Get one learner to stand at the front and say:

I’ve read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I read it last year.

Then someone in the class says Juan has read HP and the G o F. He read it last year. Then another student comes out and says, for example:

I’ve seen the Simpson’s Movie. I saw it at Christmas.

Someone in the class says:

Juan has read HP and the G o F. He read it last year. And Maria has seen the Simpson’s Movie. She saw it at Christmas.

Another student comes out and adds to the list. Then someone has to remember what three students have done. This goes on until everyone gets fed up with it – which may be quite a long time!

So that’s how I might introduce the first meaning of the present perfect. What about the other two meanings? I think they are more difficult to handle. Perhaps you can think about this and let me know if you have any good ideas?

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