Friday, June 16, 2017

Problems Teaching the Past Perfect

(Grammar Questions I Couldn't Answer)

I recently had some frustrations teaching the past perfect in my class.

While I was in the midst of it, vague memories started coming back to me from years gone by, and I starting realizing that I had done this all before.

I've taught the past perfect before in Japan, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and, if memory serves, I think I've gone through the same steps each time.

Step 1)
The students don't understand how to use the past perfect, and start panicking.

Step 2)
I don't understand why the students are so confused.  "Look, guys, it's perfectly simple," I'll say.  "You have two verbs in the past that are in the same sentence.  They're both in the past, but one of them happened before the other.  The one that happened first gets put in the past perfect, while the one that happened second gets put in the past simple.  That's it.  That's all there is to it."

Step 3)
We go over some sentences that use the past perfect, and I try to show my students how simple it is.  I use this worksheet on comprehension of the Past Perfect that I made a few years ago, and it seems to do the job.

1.        He had been a newspaper reporter before he became a business man.
(First he was a newspaper reporter and then he became a business man).
2.       I felt a little better after I had taken the medicine.
(First  ________________, and then  _______________________.)

After completing this worksheet, the students usually understand the Past Perfect receptively.

Step 4)
But then the students start using the past perfect in their own production, and I realize that things are actually much more complicated than I originally thought.  The students are following the rules that I taught them, but they're using the past perfect in a lot of contexts where it is not obligatory, and in many cases where it sounds strange.

In a sentence reading: "I went to the supermarket, bought some books, and then I visited my best friend" , my students wanted to change it to "I had gone to the supermarket..."

"She had eaten her breakfast, and she went to school" one student said (when describing her partner's morning).
It sounded wrong to me, but why did it sound wrong?  Thinking on my feet, I explained, "When you join to independent sentences together with 'and' , you don't need the past perfect.  It's only when they are both in the same clause, or when one is in a subordinate clause."
But I just pulled that explanation out of my hat, and I'm not even 100% sure it was right.

But even in subordinate clauses, I got the sense that my students were over-using the past perfect.

A student wrote in her homework: "When the sun rises, I went to school and I felt happy, delight".  During all class-feedback, I tried to elicit from the students the mistakes, and get them to correct the sentence.  I was intending to elicit "When the sun rose, I went to school".  However they wanted to put it into the past perfect.  "When the sun had risen, I went to school."

At best, I thought the present perfect was unnecessary here.  I explained to my students that the past perfect wasn't strictly necessary in cases where the verbs were already in chronological order, and that in this case the use of the past perfect was optional, but not obligatory.

But in my head, I actually liked  better the version with the simple past ("When the sun rose, I went to school") for reasons I couldn't quite put my finger on.

Another example from a student's writing:

When we had gone there, we saw a lot of cows, goats, and many kinds of vegetables.

Again, my native speaker intuition tells me that "when we got there" was preferable than the past perfect.

Another example.
A student was writing about an embarrassing moment, and describing how she mistook someone on the street for an acquaintance, but then after she greeted him, he turned to look at her, and it was a complete stranger.  She wrote:
"But when that person had looked at me, I realized that I didn't know him."

And although I didn't have time to write down all the examples (and so have consequently lost them), there were a lot of these kind of sentences being produced in my class the day after I taught the past perfect--sentences using the past perfect that sounded wrong to me, but that followed the rules I had given my students.

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