Teaching the Simple Past

The simple past is a verb tense that students are introduced to fairly early on. It usually follows the simple present and the present progressive. It’s pretty hard to have a conversation in English without using the past tense. From sentences like “What did you do last weekend?” to “Did you watch that show last night?”, the simple past is essential to speaking as well as reading, writing, and listening. Try presenting the simple past to your young learners using the tried-and-true method below, which includes explaining the form and use, listing the time markers, giving examples, and using interesting lessons and fun activities to practice this common verb tense. There’s also a handy list of common irregular verbs at the end! 


For regular verbs, the simple past tense is formed by adding -ed to the end of the verb. There are a few spelling and pronunciation changes to consider, but that’s for another blog post!

Irregular verbs are trickier for students because there are a lot of changes to these verbs that can’t be predicted by rules. Unfortunately, memorization of these verbs is required, but teachers can make this easier and more fun by reviewing irregular verbs using the activities suggested below (“Fun Activities” section).

The good news for students is that past verbs, unlike present verbs, only have one form to memorize—the subject doesn’t matter. (The exception to this rule is the BE verb, where was is used for I, he, she, it, singular count nouns, and non-count nouns, and were is used for you, we, they, and plural count nouns.)


The simple past expresses a finished past action that occurred at a specific time in the past. It is important for students to understand when to use the simple past so that they won’t confuse it with the present perfect later on. An upcoming post will address the differences between the simple past and the present perfect—stay tuned!

Time markers are words and phrases that express when an action took place. Time markers are a great way for students to recognize when a certain verb tense is needed. Unless it is clear from the context, most past sentences will contain a time marker.


Simple past verbs are shown in bold; time markers are shown in italics.

  • I went to the mall after school yesterday.
  • When he was six years old, he got his first bike.
  • Four days ago, our teacher gave us our report cards.
  • My friend called me the day before yesterday.
  • The girl made cookies with her grandma last week.
  • I had a dog when I was a child.


Sprout English has over 100 simple past lessons, dialogues, and stories for you to use with your young learners. There are over 20 simple past readings in our Library section (Simple Past Stories), simple past verb lists and spelling rules in our Library section (Lists, Tests, Charts, and Maps), over 75 simple past dialogues in our Conversation Station section, and 3 simple past grammar lessons in our Grammar School section (Basic Grammar Structures and Grammar Stories).

Try our Lesson of the Week for free! This lesson is a simple past reading about Eva, a student who loves making clothes. It includes a print and digital story, comprehension questions, and fun activities to practice past verbs.

For a comparison of the simple past with other past tenses, check out these posts on ESL-Library, our sister site: Simple Past Vs. Past Progressive and 5 Easy Steps for Teaching the Present Perfect & the Present Perfect Progressive (see point 1 for a comparison of the simple past and the present perfect).


One of my favorite ways to practice irregular verbs is Irregular Verb Ball Toss. It’s so quick and easy, and you can do it as often as you need to. Bring in a small, soft ball (or use any small object—just make sure it doesn’t have sharp edges). Call out the base form of a verb from the list below. Toss the ball to a student. That student must say the past form of the verb. Then that student must say a different base verb, toss the ball, and the next student will respond with the past verb, and so on until all the students have had a turn or all the verbs on the list have been covered. Correct their mistakes as you go. As a variation, you could have the students spell out the past forms.

Other fun activities include playing Tic Tac Toe, Concentration, and Bingo using irregular verbs. If you’re unfamiliar with how to play these games, typing those names into Google will get you the information right away.


This list contains verbs that are especially useful for young learners.


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Tanya Trusler

Tanya is a freelance editor and writer with an extensive background as an ESL teacher. She edits lesson plans, creates new materials, and writes weekly blog posts for ESL-Library and Sprout English. Her company is Editing to a T. Follow her on Twitter (@tanyatrusler) and Google Plus.

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