Last night, I was looking for a way to liven up a lesson the next day on that good ol’ grammar favorite “past simple vs. present perfect simple” (a topic specifically requested by a learner in the previous lesson). Out came the Cuisenaire rods.
For those of you who may not know, Cuisenaire rods are…you guessed it, rods. There are generally about 10 different colors and an equal number of different lengths. They may come in a rectangular plastic box and attractively packed so that when you open the box, students let out a little “ooh” or “aah.” How often do grammar lessons start with oohing and aahing?
You can use them for lots of things in the ELT classroom. There are posts by Scott Thornbury, Sandy Millin and Ceri Jones, and on the site busyteacher.org on where Cuisenaire rods come from and the many things you can do with them, so I’m not going to list many ideas here, just the one idea used in my class this morning.
Lesson on past simple vs. present perfect simple for unfinished time with Cuisenaire rods
- 1-on-1 lesson
- A1.2-ish / elementary student who likes lots of revision and tries really hard to recycle vocabulary from past lessons when he speaks
- In-company lessons, but he prefers general English to get the basics
- Last lesson, he asked to look at past simple vs. present perfect, so he is expecting this lesson
- A set of Cuisenaire rods
- 2 different colored markers (but 1 marker is ok)
- A big piece of paper (from a paper board is ideal)
- A pen
1. I come in and we start talking about discussions he had with his colleagues and his boss l last week. We also talk about his English lessons, his colleague’s lessons, progress that’s been made, etc. This topic comes up naturally when I ask “How has your week been?” and we go from there. As we talk, I begin making a few notes on the things he tells me about, notably the phrases where he uses (or should be using) the past simple or present perfect simple. I don’t correct anything at this stage.
2. I pull a piece of paper off the paper board and lay it on the table. I invite him to come over to this table and I divide the paper into two halves with a marker. On the left half, I write the infinitives of the verbs used in the conversation in step 1. I also make a “past simple” column and a “past participle” column.
3. Together, we write the past simple of each verb in the appropriate column and place a green rod above the verb. The green rods indicate “past simple.”
4. We then write the past participle of each verb in the appropriate column and place a maroon rod above the verb. Maroon indicates “past participle.”
5. I explain that we use this conjugation to create the present perfect simple write this next to the past participle column. I then write “has/have” in parentheses in front of the past participle of the first verb as an example. We add a short red rod, which now indicates the auxiliaries “have” and “has.” We go through each verb, adding the red rod while the student says the present perfect form of each verb. By now we have a red rod + a maroon rod (representing the present perfect simple) sitting above each verb in the past participle column.
6. At the top, on the right side of the big piece of paper, I draw the classic timeline with “now” at the far right of the line. I explain that we are going to situate some sentences from the conversation at the beginning of the lesson in time and decide which tense we should use.
7. Student looks terrified, having been traumatized by time lines and the present perfect simple in school
8. I give him a sentence from the conversation, but pointing to the infinitive where the verb in the sentence would be conjugated. For example “Last week I (me pointing to ‘to discuss’) it with my colleague.” The student selects the appropriate rod(s), places it/them below the time line and writes the sentence “Last week I discussed it with my colleague.”
9. We continue this for the remainder of the verbs written on the left side of the big piece of paper.
10. I ask the student to explain what he understands of the two tenses and we clarify as needed.
11. To wrap up, we draw boxes around the past simple examples on right side of the paper to show that they are isolated in the past and we draw open-ended boxes around the present perfect examples to show that the time is not finished.
12. I ask the student what he takes away from the lesson and he replies “Past simple vs. present perfect simple is not easy!”
Thoughts and reflections
I liked the way the conversation led naturally into the study of the target structures, but I think this was just a stroke of luck. I had actually planned a few questions to start a conversation and then guide it to the need for the PS/PPS, but in the end, I didn’t have to use this “grammar ammo” which made it feel more natural. Also, since I didn’t have to force the grammar in, we came up with about an 80%-PS-20%-PPS ratio, which seems to be characteristic of this type of discourse. (Disclaimer: That is just based on my own experience in doing lessons on the same grammar point. I have no research to back it up. I do know that when we try to get a more balanced ratio, it often feels contrived and “PPS for PPS’s sake”-ish.)
That being said, this student would probably benefit from more exposure to the PPS. Does this lesson give him enough? Probably not. But perhaps now that the contrasting tenses have been introduced and correctly manipulated, it will be my responsibility to “drip feed” more PPS into the lessons, preferably as the need to use it comes up. By this, I mean drawing the student’s attention to the tense and why it will be used in a particular situation.
I liked using the Cuisenaire rods because it got us both out of our chairs. Also, they provided a very visual representation of which tense was used and how it related to the time of the action.
However, the different positions in time could have been done better. Looking at the picture, you’ll see that “two hours” and “twenty years” are represented by two orange rods and three orange rods respectively. This was a spur-of-the-moment decision on my part to represent time with long orange rods, but I’ll need to consider the length of times being represented to add clarity.
The same thing goes for the placement of the rods on the timeline. Ideally, actions closer to the present will be closer to the right end of the time line. On our model, they were a bit haphazardly placed. Maybe two pieces of board paper would have been better to give us more space. Or I could have just put the conjugation table on a separate A4 sheet and used the entire paper board page for the timeline work.
The rods did seem to help the learner get a clearer grasp on these two tricky tenses. I’m not going to fool myself into thinking that this lesson solved all his problems. Next week, he’ll surely confuse the two tenses when using them in conversation, but isn’t this the way second language acquisition works? We learn a bit more about the language, mess it up but realize why we messed up, try to repair it and do better next time and repeat as necessary until the new language is operational.
Perhaps next week I’ll start the lesson off with “So, how has your week been?” again, just to see how the conversation goes.
If you want another idea for using Cuisenaire rods, you may like the post Holistic grammar with Cuisenaire rods (or 9 tenses in one lesson!) and if you want more reasons to use Cuisenaire rods, here they are!
What do you think could have been done differently in this lesson to make it more effective? Also, how have you used Cuisenaire rods in the classroom? Please share your ideas with us!