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Grammar lesson plan: Narrative tenses

Grammar lesson plan: Narrative tenses

We all tell stories. But non-native speakers can feel inhibited by the fear of making grammatical mistakes and as a result compromise their storytelling. In these activities, students practice telling various kinds of stories using narrative tenses. By the end of this lesson, students will have practiced using narrative tenses and understood how to talk about the past.

1. Warm-up

The teacher prepares a list of questions and divides the students into “evens” and “odds”. Students stand up and start interviewing each other using the prepared questions. Students ask one question per student, with the requirement that even numbered students can only ask odd numbered students, and vice versa. After a while, all students may mingle freely.

Remember, all questions should be answered, responses should be no longer than 2 sentences, and must be in the past.

Sample question: “Have you ever sprained a muscle?”

Model answer: “I sprained my ankle playing tennis a few years ago.”

Example questions:

  1. Where were you last night?

  2. How did you get to school today?

  3. What do you know about the Moon landing?

  4. Who discovered gravity?

  5. Could you tell me something about Barack Obama?

  6. Who was the last musician that you saw live?

  7. Who was Mohammad Ali?

  8. Where did you get that watch?

  9. What did you learn last class?

  10. What was your first day at school like?

2. Explanation – Narrative Tenses

Narrative tenses help us talk about the past. We use them to talk about recent actions, historical events, and biographical information.


Used to emphasize single actions in the past.

“I visited Japan.”


Used to emphasis that the action was in progress when something happened.

“I was living in Japan when I met my wife.”


Used to emphasize that the action already occurred at some point in the distant past. (The following sentence implies that the speaker is living in Japan now for a second time.)

“I had lived in Japan before.”


Used to emphasize a period of time during which an action was happening that ended when a second, more recent, action occurred.

“I had been living in Japan for a few months before I got a job.”


– Do not use the present perfect continuous (“I have been living in Japan…”). This is not a narrative tense.

– Tenses can still be tricky for B2/C1 level students. Remind them that they should use adverbs or connectors to help convey their ideas. Put the following adverbs and useful connectors on the whiteboard for students to refer to and use:










**3. Practice – pairwork


Let pairs form sentences using their own biographical information to practice using these tenses. Monitor and answer questions.

4. Video – “pickpocket” – Speaking

Students work in pairs. One student watches a video clip (muted) while the other doesn’t. In the first clip, students watch a pickpocket demonstrate how to steal a watch. Using narrative tense, each one must describe in detail what they saw (2 minutes). All students can watch the clip at this point. Then students will switch roles. In the second clip, the pickpocket steals a wallet. Repeat the steps and answer any questions. Monitor all the while that students are using narrative tenses and not step by step instructions (10-15 minutes).

Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LoUSO_Mj1TQ

[Video credit to The New Yorker and Apollo Robbins]

  • First clip: 1:14 – 2:08

  • Second clip: 3:05 – 3:54

5. Storytelling – “escape the room” – writing

In this activity, groups of 3 pretend that they are trapped in the classroom. Using any 4 of the objects that are written on the white board by the teacher (example list below), groups must find a way out in under five minutes. Their escape story must be written down and contain narrative tenses. Later, swap escape stories with other groups and let them correct any mistakes that other groups made with narrative tenses. Students may also comment on other stories they found particularly creative or funny. Give students 10 – 15 minutes to write.


– Here are some example objects.

  • A lightbulb

  • A note with a code written on it

  • A raven’s talon

  • A combination lock

  • A painting of a bridge

  • Two bottles of wine

  • An apple pie

  • A bar of soap

– Here is an example script showing what to expect from students.

The lightbulb appeared to have something written on it. But it was too small to read. Robin placed it into the empty lamp socket and a message was projected onto the lamp shade. The message read, “Find me where the troll lives.” Julia told us that trolls live under bridges. Next, Evelin went up to the painting of a bridge and tried removing it from the wall. A note with a code written on it had been hiding behind the painting all along. What happened next was that Jorge read the code: 2, 3, 2. Rebecca tried the code on the combination lock. It worked! We were free!

6. Wrap-up

In pairs, students select a question from the Warm-up activity. They answer it once again, this time using more detail in their responses and a greater control of narrative tenses.

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