The past perfect tense is used to express what had happened before something else occurred in the past. This tense, while important, should be reserved for more advanced students as it's possible to communicate in English without mastering this tense. In fact, many native English speakers fail to use this tense on a regular basis. That being said, the past perfect is important to provide the reasons for decisions made in the past - We had invested heavily in research that's why we were able to succeed in the market ... - and imagining past situations with the past unreal conditional form - If he had known, he would have come ...
Introducing the Past Perfect
Start by Providing Reasons for Past Actions
It's a good idea to introduce the past perfect by modeling the form by stating reasons why certain past actions were taken. This will establish the idea that the past perfect is commonly used as a means of explaining past situations. For example, you could begin by referencing an important past news event and speculate what had happened to cause that event.
Let's talk a little bit about the last election. We all know that Dieter Smith was elected. However, what had happened that caused the people to vote for him? Perhaps citizens had become sick and tired of corrupted government procedures. Maybe they had decided the country needed a new direction. There are lots of explanations.
The next step in introducing the past perfect is helping student distinguish the difference between interrupted action in the past taking the past continuous and actions happening before a past action taking the past perfect. Do this by comparing and contrasting the two forms:
Imagine this: When you get home from work dinner is ready. Had dinner been cooked before you arrived, or was someone cooking dinner when you arrived?
Think back to a time you were interrupted. What were you doing when you were interrupted? Had anything happened before then to cause the interruption?
Result of Activity
Another important use of the present perfect continuous is to explain what has been happening that has caused a present result. Stating results and asking questions are effective in teaching this use of the form.
His hands are dirty! What has he been doing?
You're all wet! What have you been doing?
He's tired. Has he been studying for a long time?
Depending on the level of your students, provide examples of the other major use of the past perfect in conditional forms such as the third conditional and speaking about past wishes.
What would you have done if you hadn't joined this class?
I wish I had bought that car. It was beautiful!
Have you ever wished you hadn't done something?
Practicing the Present Perfect Continuous
Explaining the Present Perfect Continuous on the Board
Use a timeline to illustrate the relationship of the past perfect to the past simple. Contrast this with a timeline of the past continuous to illustrate interrupted action. A key time expression that should be introduced is 'already', as it's quite common to use this time expression when giving explanations.
She had already finished the report when he asked to see it.
Had you already eaten before he telephoned?
Help students practice their understanding with past perfect worksheets, and past perfect quizzes - possibly contrasting the form with other past tenses. Using communicative activities with the past conditional form will help students become more comfortable with the form.
Challenges with the Past Perfect Continuous
Students will probably be confused by native English speakers' tendency to use the past simple and past perfect interchangeably even though the situation seems to call for the past perfect. For example:
We had dinner before we went to bed. AND We had had dinner before we went to bed.
Did she arrive by the time you got there? OR Had she arrived by the time you got there?