Teaching past simple vs present perfect simple with Cuisenaire rods – a sample lesson and reflection

18 Apr

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 ThornburySandy Millin and Ceri Jones, and on the site 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. Image

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 Imagein 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!


Posted by on April 18, 2013 in Lesson skeletons


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9 responses to “Teaching past simple vs present perfect simple with Cuisenaire rods – a sample lesson and reflection

  1. Mike Harrison

    April 18, 2013 at 11:32 pm

    Great stuff! I haven’t really got any ideas about using cuisenaire rods myself or any other ideas for adaptation, but what you could do to feed in more present perfect is talk about his experiences with a view to CV writing. Or bring in example personal statements to show how it can be used in a real situation (hopefully not too contrived).

  2. englishteachingnotes

    April 20, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    It looks like a great way of teaching grammar differences and making SS remeber them! I love the rods, but have never used them at the lessons myself..btw, are there any other topics or ideas you’ve used them for?

  3. RebuffetBroadus

    April 20, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    Good ideas Mike! They would indeed be a welcome addition to a CV lesson, which otherwise can be a bit straightforward. That wouldn’t be contived because it’s relevant to the function and it would add a bit of color!

    That being said, I was wondering if maybe a bit of highly structured, controlled practice would be welcomed by some learners, just to give them the opportunity to get their heads around the structure and use.

    Let’s try a ‘music–language learning metaphor’:I thought back to when I was studying music and sometimes it was just necessary to practice scales, arpeggios, and what not in isolation, over and over again, the idea being that when you came across these in a composition, they’d be more fluid because you had practiced that specific structure. I think I need to be less afraid of the highly contolled, drill-like (short) activities or could maybe even ask the learners if this type of practice would be beneficial to them. Some like that kind of thing, some don’t and you can’t always guess!

  4. RebuffetBroadus

    April 20, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Englishteachongnotes! I think if you don’t have a set of rods, you could also just use any objects if you enough of the same of them for your needs. Maybe paper clips, game pieces, rubber bands, anything. Or even different colored post-its! The learners could even write on those!

    As for other uses, I’ve used the rods to teach the different meanings of “get”–decide on a few different meanings you want o teach (or that come up in a conversation) and work with the student to create a text with lots of different “get”s (write this on a piece of paper so it lays flat, for the next part). Then go back and look at how, although it’s the same word, it’s got different meanings. Assign a rod to each meaning and then have the student put the right tod in the text (be sure to write pretty big and with lots of space!) covering each “get”. For a bit more controlled practice, you can then have them read the text saying something like “I arrive, I get to work at 8” so that they associate the get with its synonym and it kind of sounds like when we hesitate and rephrase in natural speech. Of course a whole text spoken that way isn’t completely natural, but that’s not the main aim here.

    Also,they’re good for end-position prepositions in questions, i.e. “Who are you going with?” A fun little scenario is to have them imagine a jealous boyfriend or girlfriend who asks them lots of questions about where they were the night before–What restaurant did you eat at?, Who did you talk to?, etc. You might want to brainstorm a few before in case the learners need some prompts. Use the rods to show sentence structure between the question and answer. I use the little white cube to represent the preposition. In an answer like “I was with Katie” the white cube would be in third position, whereas in the question “who were you with?” It comes at the end. This can help them literally see where to put the preposition in the questions, because I find a lot of my adult learners were taught the “preposition-first” versions (To which restaurant did you go, etc.) which while not incorrect, just don’t sound very natural for everyday speech!

    Hope that helps! If you try any ideas out, or have some of ypur own, I’d love to hear them too!

  5. Jonny Lewington

    April 21, 2013 at 9:25 pm

    This was a great lesson, I love the idea of putting the rods onto a timeline.

    I’ve used rods for marking stress patterns. First they listen to sentences and build them with one block for one word (all the same colour). Then they listen again and replace the main stress with a different, bigger block. Then they go again and replace all the weak forms with the smallest blocks. After they have built the sentence, they repeat it thinking carefully about the pronunciation. Then we do 4-5 more sentences, but each time becoming more autonomous, so that by the third they simply listen twice then construct the whole sentence and then repeat it.

    I also tried to use them for passives, using blocks which represented the agent, the recipient and the verb, but it all go a little messy so I need to perfect that lesson!

  6. RebuffetBroadus

    April 24, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    Thanks for the idea, Jonny! Using the rods for stress patterns sounds like a fun idea, and you can get the Ss to manipulate them too, play around with stress, etc. Good that you tried using them for passives too! Even if it wasn’t as successful as you’d hoped, it’s a good learning opportunity! How would we ever progress if we never made mistakes to learn from? If you try it again, please do come back and tell us how you did it and what went well, as I’m sure lots of teachers (myself included) would like to know a “fun” or at least different and interesting way of handling the passive voice!


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