To catch a thief: Past simple and past continuous practice

This activity practises using narrative tenses, particularly past simple and continuous with pre-intermediate students.

Stuart Wiffin

It is a very structured activity in which students write a short newspaper article about a robbery.


  • Tell students they are going to write a newspaper article about a robbery in a public place.
  • Elicit the kind of information the students think they would need to write the article and write questions up on the board as they give you ideas. At this point the teacher formulates the questions as the focus is on the students creating the content of the story and not an exercise in grammar.
  • Write these questions on one side of the board and leave them there as students will need them again in stage 5 of this activity. Typical questions could be:
  1. Where was the robbery?
  2. When did it take place?
  3. How many robbers were there?
  4. Were they wearing disguises?
  5. Were they armed?
  6. What did the workers and customers do?
  7. Was anybody injured?
  8. What did the robbers take?
  9. How did they get away?
  10. Who called the police?
  11. When did the police arrive?
  12. Have the robbers been caught yet?
  • Help students out with your own ideas if they are not very inspired at this point.
  • In pairs or small groups ask students to answer each question using their imagination. Make bilingual dictionaries available and move round the class assisting with vocabulary.
  • Once the groups have the basic information for their story, you can discuss the organisation of the text. As this is a newspaper article, talk about how the first paragraph would contain a summary of what the writer feels the reader would most like to know about the incident, and the rest of the article would tell the story in full. Of course, the most important/interesting facts may vary from story to story but would most likely be what the robbers took, whether anyone was injured and whether the robbers have been caught. Get students to show their plan by drawing a box for each paragraph and putting key words in. 
  • Ask students to write their texts and tell them that they should focus on communicating their story clearly and on using the past simple and past continuous correctly. At pre-intermediate level students can't be expected to write a perfect newspaper article but by giving them achievable aims within the task the teacher needs only mark the text against the criteria given and will not need to correct every mistake as this could be very demotivating. Give students a time limit of about 15 to 20 minutes for this task.
  • Students now swap round their finished texts with other groups. The new group reads the article and answers the questions on the board that were produced in stage 1 of this activity.

Follow-up activity

  • In open class ask students to talk about events that have been happening recently in the news. You may want to ask them to choose a current event to talk about briefly in the next class and, depending on your curriculum and the interest of the students, you could get students to plan an article on a real news event in a future lesson. Take in the finished articles. You can correct the use of the past simple and continuous and give them a grade or comment as to how clearly they told their story.
Language Level


Submitted by TravellingTeacher75 on Tue, 04/25/2017 - 18:19


I'm definitely going to use this lesson plan, as I am about to tackle this grammar point with my students. And what about this variation? After brainstorming questions, students could be asked to make up answers in pairs, and then role play an interview (reporter-witness), but with a different partner (answers: AA, BB -> role play: AB AB). The article could be written as a follow-up.

Submitted by Notting Hill Girl on Sun, 06/07/2020 - 09:08


I love this idea, as it is so learner-centred.  I am going to use this tomorrow with my upper-intermediate learners who need practise using present perfect (often used for news stories) and passive voice (often used when we don't know the identity).

Eg.  A jewellery shop has lost all it's Rolex watches.  Three men were seen outside the  shop around 9pm.  The owner has said that .......  The watches were taken ......

Thanks so much for this lesson idea.

Research and insight

We have hundreds of case studies, research papers, publications and resource books written by researchers and experts in ELT from around the world. 

See our publications, research and insight

Sign up to our newsletter for teaching ideas and free resources

We will process your data to send you our newsletter and updates based on your consent. You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the "unsubscribe" link at the bottom of every email. Read our privacy policy for more information.