5 Easy Steps for Teaching the Present Perfect and the Present Perfect Progressive

Tips and techniques to help students understand these two verb tenses

What do you do when textbook grammar presentations just don’t cut it? The present perfect is a confusing verb tense for ESL learners. Students get confused about when to use it versus when to use the simple past, and also when to use it versus the present perfect progressive (also known as the present perfect continuous). Unfortunately, most of the textbooks I’ve come across don’t explain all the uses clearly. The result is that students can conjugate verbs into the blanks provided in textbook exercises, but they flounder in real life when they have to choose which tense to use. In other words, when it comes time to choose between the simple past, present perfect, and present perfect progressive (for example, when speaking, writing, or doing a test like the TOEIC), students struggle. That’s why I started to present all three tenses at once in my TOEIC classes, and gradually started to use this method for other general classes, too, with successful results. I hope it will help your students as well!

Present Perfect:

1. Start by telling your students that there are two uses of the present perfect (most students are not even aware of this). Point out that diagram (A) indicates a finished past action. Diagram (B) shows an action that started in the past, continued to the present, and may continue into the future.

A) I have been to Paris.                    B) I have lived in Vancouver for two years.

Present Perfect Vs. Simple Past:

2. Next, focus on the first use of the present perfect (from diagram A). Help your students understand when they can use this finished past action by comparing it to the simple past’s finished past action. Explain that we use the simple past tense when we want to communicate when we did something, as in diagram *C). We use the present perfect tense when we don’t want to indicate the time, either because we don’t know it or it isn’t important, as in diagram (D).

C) I went to Paris last month.         D) I have been to Paris.

3. At this point, I find it useful to point out the Time Markers that are associated with these verb tenses. Time Markers are words that indicate the time when an action is performed, and they will help students both to recognize which verbs to use in exercises and to produce natural language. I usually get the students to brainstorm these words as a class. Here are the most common Time Markers for these tenses:

  • Time Markers for the Simple Past: yesterday, the day before yesterday, last, ago, when (for joining two past sentences).
  • Time Markers for the Present Perfect (as in diagrams A and D): usually, no time marker is used, but for emphasis, it is possible to use already*, yet*, still*, ever, never.

*Here is a quick note about already, yet, and still. These three adverbs are very common, so it’s a good idea to teach them along with the present perfect, though you could teach them in a separate lesson if you think your students’ heads will explode from all this information.

  • Already (used to emphasize that an action has been accomplished in the past) follows the normal pattern of Verb + Adverb + Verb, as in I have already read that book.
  • Yet (used to signify the intention to do something) follows an unusual pattern. You use yet at the end of a sentence, and the verb must be negative, as in I haven’t read that book yet.


  • Still (like yet, it is used to signify the intention to do something) also follows an unusual pattern. You use still before both parts of the verb, and the verb must be negative, as in I still haven’t read that book. Be careful that students don’t get confused with the other use of still (used to emphasize an ongoing action), which is commonly used with a positive verb and the present progressive tense, as in I am still waiting for your call. No wonder English is difficult to learn!

Present Perfect Vs. Present Perfect Progressive:

4. Finally, focus on the second use of the present perfect (from diagram B). Explain to students that for this use, the present perfect and the present perfect progressive are pretty much interchangeable. Basically, the present perfect shows an action that starts in the past, continues to the present, and may continue into the future. So, for example, in diagram (E), the emphasis is on the two months I have lived in Vancouver. I might be moving to another city tomorrow, or I might continue living in Vancouver for many more years. The future is not really important in this case; if it is important, that’s when the present perfect progressive should be used instead.

The present perfect progressive shows an action that starts in the past, continues to the present, and will definitely continue into the future. In diagram (F), it is clear that I have lived in Vancouver for two months, but also that I am not leaving and will continue to live here for an unspecified amount of time. I also point out to students that when in doubt, use the present perfect since it is more commonly used.

E) I have lived in Vancouver for two months.       F) I have been living in Vancouver for two months.

5. Now, you can point out the Time Markers for these two tenses:

  • Time Markers for the Present Perfect (as in diagrams B and E): for*, since*.
  • Time Markers for the Present Perfect Progressive: for, since, all (as in all morning, all week, etc.).

*I also explain to my students that for is used to show the duration of the continuing action, while since is used to show the starting point of the continuing action.

Of course, there are other cases and exceptions to these basic rules (for example, It has been raining can indicate that the rain recently stopped, which is technically a finished past action), but I believe there’s no need to completely overwhelm your students. I suggest dealing with exceptions on a case-by-case basis if they come up in the lesson.

For lessons on the present perfect and the present perfect progressive, check out  ESL-Library’s Grammar Practice Worksheets section. Check out our Grammar Stories section, too.

Enjoy presenting and perfecting!



Leave a Comment ↓

  1. ifievet@hotmail.com'

    Isabelle says:

    Sep 24, 2015 at 12:23 pm

    Present perfect simple, you focus on the result of the action.
    Present perfect continuous, you focus on the duration of the action.


  2. gisellasuarez@hotmail.com'

    Giselle says:

    Sep 30, 2014 at 4:41 am

    Dear Tanya:
    I have smoked 10 cigarettes.
    I have eaten 40 cookies.
    I have made 110 salads.

    All are ok? Is it possible NO use of TIME MARKERS in the examples? I heared that with quantities there is a rule? This confuses me, but this makes me study more and soon, I’ll be a master like you hihihihi :D Thanks!!

    PD: The same with the PPProgressive:

    I have been smoking 10 cigarettes.-I have been eating 40 cookies-I have been making 110 salads. (Possible NO TIME MARKERS? AND MEANS i continue the action! I learn quickly hihii):)
    I have been eating 40 cookies.(I c


    • tanya@tbtk.net'

      Tanya says:

      Sep 30, 2014 at 11:26 pm

      Hi Giselle,

      Good question. Your examples above are possible, but using quantities without a context sounds a little strange. Usually you would use the simple past if you were finished doing the action (e.g., I smoked 10 cigarettes yesterday) or the present perfect if you were planning on continuing the action (e.g., I have smoked 10 cigarettes since 9 am).

      A single action is a lot more common (e.g., I have been to Paris). We can use the present perfect with a repeated past action (e.g., I have seen that movie ten times / I have made this salad many times) but just remember that you’re emphasizing how many times you’ve done something in your whole life. It is strange to say “I have smoked 10 cigarettes” unless you’ve only smoked 10 cigarettes in your entire life.

      As for the present perfect progressive, no, we can’t use quantities with it. It’s not correct to say “I have been smoking 10 cigarettes.” Instead, you could say something like “I have been smoking since 9 am.”

      Hope that helps! I’m glad you’re studying this so hard! Keep up the good work. :)


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Sep 30, 2014 at 11:33 pm

      Hi again Giselle,

      I recently blogged about the Present Perfect over on our sister site, Sprout English. I encourage you to study the chart and notes, and then try the exercise. Good luck! :)


  3. jimmysugarvi@gmail.com'

    Jimmy says:

    Aug 05, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    Hi Tanya,

    I found this interesting and you seem to have put together a nice site (I’ll definitely visit again ^^)

    However, I’m a little unsure of the explanation given to the difference between the present perfect and the present perfect continuous. In the example given, I would say that ‘I have lived in Vancouver for two months’ suggests greater future certainty than that of ‘I have been living in Vancouver for two months’. As far as I understand, the present perfect tense is favored for more permanent situations (as in s/he is less likely to leave Vancouver) and the present perfect continuous is more commonly used for temporary situations (as in s/he is more likely to leave Vancouver in the (near) future).

    As far as I know, the main difference between the two tenses are;

    finished vs unfinished

    I’ve read The Lord of the Rings vs I’ve been reading The Lord of the Rings

    how many/much/often vs how long

    I have read 10 books vs I have been reading a book for 2 hours

    permanent vs temporary

    I have lived in London for 10 years vs I’ve been living in Spain for 6 months.

    So, I would say that the present perfect continuous only suggests greater future certainty than the present perfect when the latter is finished (and therefore can’t be continued into the future) and not when the action is unfinished (as in the Vancouver example).

    All the best.


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Aug 05, 2014 at 4:48 pm

      Hi Jimmy,

      Thanks for your comment! Great points. We are definitely in agreement with the finished/unfinished actions (which also includes your how many/much/often vs. how long, in my opinion). As for permanent vs. temporary, I haven’t heard it explained in those terms before, but it makes sense! I still think that when you use the present perfect, it’s possible that the action could end in the near future (e.g., I’ve lived in Vancouver for 10 years, but I’m moving next month.) However, native speakers usually prefer the shorter form of a verb tense, and I too would choose “I’ve lived in Vancouver for 10 years” over “I’ve been living in Vancouver for 10 years” if I wasn’t planning on moving. I think the only reason to use the present perfect progressive for a permanent situation is to emphasize that you’ll be staying (such as during a job interview when you want to assure the employer that you won’t be going anywhere). Using the present perfect progressive to indicate that the action is temporary is a new concept for me, but your examples make sense so it’s something I will look into further! Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

      Tanya :)


  4. gisellasuarez@hotmail.com'

    Giselle says:

    Jul 03, 2014 at 5:53 am

    Dear Tanya, I am using this simple explanation, but I have a little doubt: When i looked on Present Perfect but with time expressions, i found a video in which a teacher said, that the present perfect is focused on the TIME that the action happened. The time is not finished and the action is finished or not started. For example: “I have eaten breakfast today”(Today is important in the present perfect)
    So, I confused, since I red that in the present perfect is not important when?? Thanks for your help:)


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jul 03, 2014 at 5:05 pm

      Hi Giselle

      Good question. Your example (I have eaten breakfast today) refers to example D above, when the time is not important. Because your sentence includes “today”, I can see why you’re confused!

      First, be aware that “today” is not so important because the sentence is perfectly grammatical without it (I have eaten breakfast). In a simple past example, you must include the time marker (or it must be mentioned at some point in the conversation).

      Second, if you were referring to a specific time, you would have to use the simple past (I ate breakfast at 6 am / I ate breakfast this morning).

      Third, the problem with a word like “today” is that it is vague. You could be thinking of “today” as a specific time and say “I ate breakfast today”, or you could be thinking of it as unspecified time and say “I have eaten breakfast today”. In the present perfect example, you’re saying you have eaten breakfast at some point today, but you didn’t say exactly when (6 am, or in the morning). It is even possible to say “I have eaten breakfast this morning” because you didn’t say exactly when (at 6 am, at 7 am, etc.).

      So it depends how specific you’re making your time reference. My advice is to not go into all of this with your students because it can be confusing, and only explain it if it comes up (if the textbook has that kind of example). Usually, in a sentence like D, we don’t include a time marker, though it is possible to include an “unspecified” one.

      Hope that helps,
      Tanya :)


  5. munye_1972@yahoo.com'

    munir says:

    Feb 01, 2014 at 7:03 pm

    Hi Tanya very nice explanation and simple for present perfect and I will use it for my next lesson, which is next week. I need help regarding the countable and uncountable nouns and how to present it to group of pre intermediate students. I will really appreciate if you can help me regarding this, as I am a newly qualified teacher. Thank you in advance.


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Feb 02, 2014 at 12:32 am

      Thank you, Munir! Good luck with your lesson. Count and non-count nouns are tricky for lower-level students, but I have some ideas on how to explain them to your class! I’ll blog about this as soon as I can. Thanks for the idea! :)


      • tanya@tbtk.net'

        Tanya says:

        Feb 04, 2014 at 11:14 pm

        Hi again Munir, I blogged about Count & Non-Count Nouns today over on our sister site, SproutEnglish.com. I included grammar presentation tips, a chart of common non-count nouns, and a printable exercise sheet. Hope that helps! :)


  6. u2girlie@gmail.com'

    Rebecca says:

    Jan 31, 2014 at 5:43 am

    I have been avoiding teaching Present Perfect to my students because…well, it’s a difficult tense for students to wrap their brain around. The other day, I planned a clear and concise grammar class with clear explanations of uses, form, and marker sentences. Should have gone off without a hitch! Alas, what I thought was going to be a really great class turned out to be an OK class…maybe a mediocre class. Even with my well thought out plan, I couldn’t make them understand.

    I went back to the drawing board and found your blog with the timelines and simple explanations. It was EXACTLY what I needed and EXACTLY what my students needed. I re-wrote my grammar lesson, presented it tonight and all of them said “Now I understand!!” AHHHHHHHHH Thank you!!! You saved my class….and as a result, I signed up for a subscription to this website. Tanya, You deserve a bonus!


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jan 31, 2014 at 6:14 pm

      Rebecca, you just made my day! Thanks for taking the time to let me know that this lesson worked for your class. I’m so happy to hear it! :D


  7. bubfh39@hotmail.com'

    Lizzie says:

    Dec 12, 2013 at 11:48 pm

    Thank you for all clear explanations, I’ll use these tips and your diagrams in my classroom.
    Do you have any idea for presentation part? I am trying to design materials to introduce this subject by eliciting, but as an inexperienced teacher, I can not decide what to do.. A foreign language and I want them to discover it as much as possible.


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Dec 13, 2013 at 12:32 am

      Hi Lizzie,

      A natural way to elicit the present perfect vs. the simple past in diagrams C and D might be to have a Question and Answer session with your students. You could do it as a class or in pairs, either orally or via written questions on the board. I’d start with a present perfect question such as “Have you ever been to Paris?” When a student answers “Yes, I have”, you could follow up with a past question such as “Really? When did you go?” This will emphasize the present perfect/no time marker and simple past/time marker difference. Another example is “Have you graduated from university?” and “When did you graduate?” Try to come up with about 10-15 questions. Personally, I’d do the first two with the class, and the next 8 in pairs or small groups. Your students will probably naturally use the verb tenses without realizing it. Follow this up with the grammar presentation using the diagrams and tips above. Hope that helps!

      Good luck! :)


  8. Tanya Trusler says:

    Sep 18, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    I just realized I missed seeing some comments from last year. Taruna, esl jobs, and samaneh, thanks for your comments! And samaneh, I definitely agree that we should always try to put ourselves in our students’ shoes. One thing that made me a much better teacher was learning a second language myself. :)


  9. davidportugheis@gmail.com'

    David Portugheis says:

    Sep 16, 2013 at 11:18 am

    Amazing, thank you so much! This excellent explanation will definitely improve my teaching skills :)


    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Sep 18, 2013 at 6:08 pm

      I’m happy to hear it! Thanks for taking the time to comment, David! :)


  10. yasaman.kakavand@yahoo.com'

    yasi says:

    Jul 05, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    thanks for sharing…but you said we dont have time makers in present perfect. why we have it in example (E)?


    • tanya@tbtk.net'

      Tanya says:

      Jul 05, 2013 at 5:52 pm

      Hi Yasi,

      Thanks for your question. Don’t forget that there are two uses of the present progressive. One use has no time markers (image D). This is when it’s a FINISHED past action. (Example: I have seen that movie.) You can use a word like “already” or “yet” for emphasis, but you don’t have to.

      The second use has time markers (image E). This is when it’s a CONTINUING action from the past to the present. (Example: I have lived in Canada since I was six years old.) You need to use a time marker like “for” or “since” to indicate the duration or starting point of the continuing past action.

      Hope that helps! Let me know if you have any other questions.


      • gisellasuarez@hotmail.com'

        Giselle says:

        Sep 30, 2014 at 4:28 am

        Dear Tanya: You said:”… there are two uses of the present progressive. One use has no time markers (image D). This is when it’s a FINISHED past action. (Example: I have seen that movie.) But I’m confused, I have seen is not the present perfect? Why you wrote that this is one use of the PPProgressive?? The second use you mentioned is the PPPerfect too or I’m wrong?? Thanks for all!:B


  11. lewisrhiannon@talk21.com'

    Rhiannon says:

    Jun 19, 2013 at 11:47 am

    This is really useful and I will definitely be using it for my class next week! Thanks.


    • tanya@tbtk.net'

      Tanya says:

      Jun 20, 2013 at 4:07 am

      Hi Rhiannon,

      Thank you! I hope your students find it helpful.


  12. dave.hopkins@ntlworld.com'

    Dave Hopkins says:

    May 02, 2013 at 9:09 am

    Hi there

    I used your little system of diagrams yesterday to revise the present perfect simple and present perfect continuous to a group of Upper Intermediate students. One of them commented that he’d never fully understood the difference between the simple past and the present perfect before . . . until I’d explained it using your ideas. So – thanks very much for posting your ideas up. They worked perfectly.


    • tanya@tbtk.net'

      Tanya says:

      May 02, 2013 at 5:40 pm

      Hi Dave,

      Thanks so much for sharing this. I’m always happy to hear that students really “get” a grammar point!

      Tanya :)


  13. samaneh_delshad@yahoo.com'

    samaneh says:

    Dec 29, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    great post tanya: we should be innovative about everything esp in teaching ,,it is the best way of method of teaching this grammer point we should put ourself in studentds shoes :)


  14. acumeneducationn@gmail.com'

    Azadeh says:

    Sep 06, 2012 at 6:40 am

    Great post Tanya. Being innovative has become a major factor in every task and is rather expected in all the businesses. apparently it is more needed in teaching.


    • tanya@tbtk.net'

      Tanya says:

      Sep 07, 2012 at 6:03 pm

      I agree, Azadeh! It’s always great to learn new ways to approach familiar things. :)


  15. namu@homehotel.lt'

    Heroe says:

    Aug 23, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    This is so funny and informative! I’m a wrintig tutor. I work with a lot of ESL students and I’m just starting to learn about teaching and tutoring ESL and really dissecting my own language to view it from an outside perspective. I wouldn’t have known how to explain that type of mistake to a student, but now I do! Thanks!


    • tanya@tbtk.net'

      Tanya says:

      Sep 07, 2012 at 6:02 pm

      Hi Heroe,

      I’m so glad you liked it! Isn’t it funny how we don’t know truly understand the mechanics of our own language until we start teaching it to others? Sometimes I ask my friends, “Do you know what the present perfect is?” and they haven’t got a clue! :)


      • Mohamedchani@live.fr'

        C-MOhamed says:

        Dec 21, 2014 at 10:34 pm

        Thumbs up Tanya. You made it clear and simple. Thanks for that. Native speakers are unaware of the workings of their language until they read about Chomsky’s linguistics


  16. seo@demarlos.in'

    esl jobs says:

    Aug 16, 2012 at 7:38 am

    thanks for making it simple to understand.


  17. seo@demarlos.in'

    Taruna says:

    Aug 01, 2012 at 6:20 am

    Thanks for making understand Present Perfect and the Present Perfect Progressive in such a easy way.


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