Here are some ESL activities for teaching the past continuous tense also known as past progressive. This tense is often used to describe what was happening at a specific time in the past or what was happening as ‘background’ to a main action.
What were you doing at … ?
Elicit from students the difference between the following two sentences.
- At 7.15 pm I had dinner
- At 7.15 pm I was having dinner
Now ask students, and then, in turn, have them ask each other:
What were you doing yesterday at …?
Explain that the past continuous is often used to give background information or set the scene before moving on to the main event or action.
You can sometimes describe the interaction between the past continuous and the past simple as a long action being interrupted by a shorter action.
I was making myself a nice breakfast when the telephone rang.
I was listening to the football on the radio when I heard the awful news.
Give students some sentence stems and have them complete them in their own way.
I was driving to work …
I was doing some shopping …
I was walking down the street …
What were you doing when …?
It’s a cliche that everybody knows where they were and what they were doing when JFK was assassinated.
Depending on the age (and cultural circumstance) of the students, see if you can elicit other dramatic news events that are similarly set in their memories. For example, the September 11 terrorist attacks or when the Berlin Wall came down. Encourage students to tell stories about what they were doing when the events happened. How did they hear about it? What did they do next?
This classic ESL activity is a really fun way to practise the past continuous. Students take it in turns to plan their alibis and then interrogate the stories of other suspect pairs.
Tense Review Board Game
This tense review board game practises six of the most commonly used tenses including the past continuous.
For more board games see the board games page.