ESL Past Continuous Tense: Activities & Exercises

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

This lesson introduces the past continuous tense through a grammar formula along with a brief description of its uses. The activities and exercises to practice this tense cover the different uses it has.

Formula

To begin, it is important to define this tense. You can tell your students that the past continuous tense expresses actions in progress that were happening at some point in the past. As a point of reference, usually students are familiar with the present continuous tense before they learn the past continuous. If so, your students will be ready to use this tense if you tell them that all they have to do is substitute am/is/are for was/were.

However, whether or not your students are familiar with the present continuous, you can assure them they will never get the past continuous wrong if they follow this formula: subject + was/were + another verb ending in ING.

You can illustrate the formula with personal sentences like 'Last night, I was preparing this class,' or 'This morning, I was getting ready to come to school,' etc. Next, you can ask your students to use the formula to answer questions such as 'What were you doing two hours ago?' or 'What were you doing last night?'

If students use the correct structure for this tense, they are ready to learn its uses, which are always clearer if you provide examples as follows.

  1. The past continuous tense describes past actions in progress. Aside the examples above, you can give one more such as 'I was teaching the past continuous tense yesterday.'
  2. The past continuous tense combines past actions in progress with a sudden action such as 'I was teaching the past continuous tense when the school principal walked in the classroom.'
  3. The past continuous tense describes simultaneous actions such as 'I was teaching the past continuous while my students were learning.'
  4. The past continuous tense describes repetitive actions with the adverb 'always' such as 'I was always reminding my students about the formula for the past continuous tense last year.'

Now, your students are ready to have fun with any of the activities below.

What Were They Doing?

For this activity, students can either discuss the answers or simply write them down. The only material students need is a handout with a list of sentences. The items in the sentences allow students to infer about what people were just doing. The appeal of this activity is that students get to be creative with their answers. The model is as follows:

Kristin is holding a hairdryer.

Student writes or says: Kristin was drying her hair, or Kristin was drying her dog's hair, etc.

Here you have a few sentences you could include:

  • Anne is holding a broom.
  • Tom is holding a bottle of shampoo.
  • Peter and Mary are holding glasses of wine.
  • My mother is holding my dog's leash.
  • I am holding a blender.
  • You are holding a pen.
  • Brian is holding a spoon.
  • Jane is holding her cell phone.
  • Michael is holding a microphone.
  • Diane is holding a cake.

Combine Activities

With this activity, your students produce sentences with the prompts on a worksheet. The compound sentences students produce use the transition 'while.'

The model is as follows:

Lisa - eat cereal / I - drink coffee

Student writes or says: Lisa was eating cereal while I was drinking coffee.

Here you have a few prompts you could include:

  • I - drive / my friends - sing
  • Carl - wash the dishes / Marianne - mop the floor
  • The secretary - type a letter / the receptionist - send a fax
  • Daniel - do homework / his mom - bake a cake
  • Josh - grill the meat / I - make a salad

Interrupt Someone

Students can work in pairs and take turns. First, student A says a sentence in the past continuous tense. Then, student B says 'when I. . .' in order to imply a sudden action.

The model is as follows:

Student A: 'I was having lunch.'
Student B: '. . .when I called your cell phone.'

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