I couldn't believe my eyes

In this activity the teacher creates situations for the students to get plenty of practice with the form and meaning of the past perfect.

Stuart Wiffin and Helen Gibbons



To get the activity off to a good start it’s good to use your best acting skills.

  • Begin the class looking a little upset or flustered and apologise, telling students you’ve had a bad couple of days. When they ask what happened (or if they don’t, just carry on anyway!) tell them that your house has been burgled. I usually build it up a little bit first with a story about how I finished work late and then I had problems on the way home and then couldn’t believe my eyes when I got home. Begin the main part of the story by saying:

    ‘When I arrived home I realized I’d been burgled. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The burglars:
    • had broken down the door
    • had left my papers and photos all over the floor 
    • had locked my dog in the cellar/shed had taken my... ( a special item) 
    • had smashed a window 
    • had stolen my laptop
    • had eaten the cake I’d bought for my (friend/daughter/wife)’s birthday 
    • had urinated all over the floor

    And of course any others you might want to add.
    As you tell your story explain, or ask other class members to explain, any vocabulary students are not sure of.

Focus on language

  • Once your students have a good mental picture of the crime scene write the first sentence up on the board:

    When I arrived home I saw the burglars...
  • Together as a class get students to remember the various events and write up the list on the board. Then spend some time thinking about the form and meaning.
    • Do students know the name of this tense? (past perfect)
    • How is it formed? (had + past participle)
    • Why do we use this tense and not the simple past in this example? (The starting point for the story is when the teacher arrives home from work. The burglars’ actions all happen before this point in the past)
    • How could we tell the same story using only the simple past? (The burglars broke down the door. They stole the laptop etc. The teacher arrived home.)
    • Why do we use the past perfect in this story? (For dramatic effect/ to make the story more interesting)

Practice activity

  • Put students into groups of three or four and give each group a situation. They should keep this secret from other groups. 
  1. Parents arrive home from holiday having left their teenage son in charge of the house. They soon realize he’s had a big party while they were away. Start: When they arrived home they saw...
  2. A man arrived home having left his new puppy on its own for the first time. Start: When he arrived home he saw...
  3. Someone arrived home to discover his/her partner has clearly found out about the affair he/she’d been having with his/her secretary. Start: When s/he arrived home s/he saw...
  4. A teacher came back into the class and realized she shouldn’t have left the students on their own for that long. Start: She walked back in and saw...
  • The teacher needs to go to each group just to make sure they have the idea of what to do and then continue to help and monitor throughout the activity.

Follow up

Once students have written seven or eight sentences, stop the activity and pass the papers from group to group. Each group should read the sentences and see if they can guess what the situation was from the sentences.

Fluency - class discussion

Open the question up and find out if students have any similar stories to tell when they have arrived somewhere to find that things were not as they should be. Help students to use the right tenses as they speak, or, so as not interrupt the flow, note down problem areas just relating to the past perfect and go over these at the end of the discussion.

Language Level


Submitted by EloisaTorres M… on Wed, 03/16/2016 - 14:57


I loved the idea and I would implement a radio soap opera invented , practiced and presented by students.

Submitted by sadeem.alameer on Wed, 05/27/2015 - 16:07


I believe it is a good activity to learn past perfect tens and to practice it. but I think that the story should be more excited. thanks.

Submitted by albana tabaku on Thu, 11/21/2013 - 18:40


It's really helpful and interesting. This activity raises students' motivation and as a result their participation is ensured not only in their inputs but also their outputs.

Submitted by SametKaralı on Tue, 11/05/2013 - 12:51


Hi ! i am an English Teacher candidate.I need an English Teacher throughout the world to help me clarify certain subjects and share his or her works,thoughts and beliefs as to teaching English with me.After looking over your sharings,i wanted to contact with you.Thanks for paying attention :)

Submitted by RizanKandy on Tue, 10/29/2013 - 11:57


Hi, It's really a cool way to get the meaning across to the students. BUT "Why do we use the past perfect in this story? (For dramatic effect/ to make the story more interesting)" Are we sure we use past perfect for dramatic effect/to make the story interesting??? I think, (I might be wrong), we use past perfect to show that it is a completed past action that happened before another past action. (one early past action before the other) We also use past perfect because we were not there at the scene and did not see it happen. Please correct me if I am wrong. Thanks.

Submitted by logilogicman on Tue, 06/25/2013 - 23:58


They soon realize he’s had a big party while they been away.

They soon realize he’s had a big party while they were away.

Submitted by bkktrang on Wed, 05/23/2012 - 20:00


Super!  Fantastic!  Genius!  I don't think it's easy to come up with a situation that can illustrate how to use the Past Perfect!  The authors not only give us the tool to work with, but they have thought through the whole process and give us a PERFECT way to teach the PAST PERFECT!

What can we learn from this?  Great teaching is SIMPLE but PROFOUND!!!!!

Submitted by Viktoriiya on Sat, 01/28/2012 - 14:17


I like the activity but I don't like the burglary. In my opinion the story should have been about something superb and exciting.

Submitted by Maria-de-Amor on Mon, 01/23/2012 - 18:02


Thanks so much for this useful activity 'cuz I think that it's really tough to teach this tense. I will use the activity with my group))) Appreciate this.

Submitted by hyseni on Fri, 01/13/2012 - 20:25


I think that is a god way to learn past perfect tens and to practice it .I will try practice this form.

Submitted by jiksaw213 on Mon, 12/26/2011 - 03:25


A very interesting activity indeed, this will envolve and incourage the students very much!

But to do this good, the teacher should have acting and telling story talent.

Submitted by mceupc on Wed, 11/30/2011 - 20:13


I've enjoyed this dynamic approach to teaching/learning the past perfect. Appropriate contexts/brief stories presented by the teacher help learners with practising the form, meaning and also improving listening/speaking skills.

The follow-up discussions are also likely to get the learners more motivated at that point.



Submitted by Ericzka on Wed, 11/30/2011 - 18:12


Thank you, I find it difficult to teach past perfect and this is a very nice way of doing it!

Submitted by Supriti Chauhan on Sun, 11/06/2011 - 05:33


I found this activity very successful and effective in my classroom (form 7).


Submitted by ozdemir15 on Sun, 10/16/2011 - 08:57


I will present this activity.It seems useful.

Submitted by adel Reda on Fri, 10/14/2011 - 11:38


I believe it is a good activity to teach the past perfect. I think I will try it. Thank you.

Research and insight

Browse fascinating case studies, research papers, publications and books by researchers and ELT experts from around the world.

See our publications, research and insight