The ESL Tutor: Mastering the Perfect Tense

Posted by Zuzanna Fuchs on 4/15/15 10:00 AM

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Oh, you said the “present perfect?” I thought you said the “perfect present!”

Though many of us maynot be able to give a textbook definition of the “present perfect,” as native English speakers we have an intuition for what the difference is between “I saw that movie (yesterday)” and “I have seen that movie.” However, there are languages, including Polish, that don't distinguish between the simple and perfect tenses. For speakers of these kinds of languages, working with an ESL tutor or teacher means learning tenses that they don't have in their native language. Of course, English doesn't have all the possible tenses/moods either, and English speakers face similar challenges when learning for languages. For example, they really struggle with understanding the subjunctive when learning a language like Spanish or French.

The first thing that strikes me about the perfect tenses in English is how important auxiliary verbs are (auxiliary verbs are the little helping verbs in a sentence that complement the main verb). “By 2018 I will have finished my degree.” Think of how much machinery is involved in conveying the idea that my degree is not finished yet, but in a few years it will be. Now consider how just a small change in that machinery completely changes the meaning of the sentence. “I have finished my degree.” I drop one tiny auxiliary verb (“will”) and all of a sudden I've got you thinking I’m a graduate already, resplendent in cap and gown!

When practicing reading and understanding these tenses with my ESL tutoring students, I rely on online articles to find good examples of the perfect tenses in context. I have found that scientific articles, particularly anything about environmental change, are a good source. There's usually talk of “Before, scientists had thought that ____” and “By the year 2050, x percent of the icecaps will have melted”, etc. In the meantime, both the students and I learn a thing or two about what's going on in the science world (a rare luxury for a linguist and ESL tutor).

On the flip side, students also need to practice using the perfect tenses in their own writing. Eliciting lots of the perfect in their writing usually requires a pretty specific context (I've found ESL tutoring students don't like making up sentences out of thin air). The basics can be asking students to write about themselves or their travels, but we can get more creative than that. During the World Cup this past June, when the Netherlands destroyed Spain 5-1, I asked my student (an avid soccer fan) to pretend he was one of the announcers at the game and to pretend it was the 80th minute. The result was an endless string of perfect tenses, including “Spain has been playing very poorly” and “The Dutch team has scored five goals.”

The perfect tenses are complicated and not easy to wrap your head around if these tenses don't exist in your native language, but they're not impossible. With a lot of practice you can understand a complicated sequence of tenses in context and be able to enrich your own writing. If you’re still struggling, consider talking to one of Cambridge Coaching’s ESL tutors. Our experienced tutors can help you improve your grammar, speaking, and writing skills in no time!

For more relevant reading, check out these other blog posts, written by our private ESL tutors in NYC, Boston, and online ESL tutors: Use the Dictionary Like a Pro, The Power of Language Immersion, and How to Learn a Language in Your Living Room. 

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Tags: English, ESL