15 fun activities for Present Simple/Present Continuous
The best way of teaching the present tenses is to compare and contrast them. These ideas will show you how to do the even more difficult task of combining them in practice activities, all of them done in simple and entertaining ways.
There are many well-known and fun activities for the Present Continuous, such as ones involving miming and ones using pictures of crowded street scenes. There are also quite a few things you can find in photocopiable activity books for the Present Simple, such as timetables where students have to fill the gaps in by asking each other questions. However, by far the easiest and clearest way of showing the meanings and uses of the Present Simple and Present Continuous tenses is to contrast them. Perhaps the main reason why this approach isn’t used more in the classroom is that it can be difficult to find speaking and writing activities with a natural mix of the two tenses. These activities aim to do away with that lack once and for all!
1. Mimes plus
Give students a list of Present Continuous sentences that they can mime to their partners for them to guess, e.g. “You are eating bread and jam.” You can add the Present Simple to this by choosing actions that some people do every day (e.g. “You are eating spicy food” and “You are blowing your nose”) and asking them to go on to discuss how often they do those things and why. This is more interesting if it is a topic that is linked to cultural differences, e.g. table manners.
2. Mimes plus Two
Another way of combining Present Continuous mimes with the Present Simple is to ask students to mime actions that they do in their real lives (perhaps choosing from a list with sentences like “You are taking a shower”). The people watching the mimes have to make a Present Continuous sentence to describe the action and also make a true Present Simple sentence about the person miming and that action (e.g. “You take a shower every morning” or “You sometimes take a shower but you usually take a bath”).
3. Definitions game
Give students a list of words and ask them to choose one and describe it with just sentences using the Present Simple and Preset Continuous. For example, if the word is “breathe” they could say “I do this many many times every day” and “Everyone in the world is doing this now except some divers.”
4. 20 questions
With the same list of words as in Definitions Game above, students ask each other Present Simple and Present Continuous Yes/No questions until they guess which of the words their partner chose. Possible questions include “Are you doing this now?”, “Is anyone in this class doing this now?”, “Are many people in this city doing this now?”, “Do you do this every day?” and “Do you do this more than twice a week?”
Ask students to imagine that they are writing a postcard while they are sitting on the balcony of their hotel room, on the beach or outside a café. They should naturally use the Present Continuous to describe what is happening at the moment they are writing (e.g. “The sun is shining” or “The children are playing beach volleyball”) and the Present Simple for their daily routine while on holiday (e.g. “I spend most of the day next to the swimming pool” or “I have breakfast in the same café every morning”), but you could also specifically ask them to stick to those tenses. Alternatively, you could give them sentence stems that should get them using those two tenses, e.g. “All around me…” or “In the evenings…” You can then get students to read other people’s postcards with a task to do as they are reading, for example to guess which place the person writing was supposed to be in or to choose the best holiday.
6. Chain postcards
Especially if you have prepared sentence stems for the start of each line of the postcard, you can combine the ideas in Postcards above with the famously fun game Chain Writing (= Consequences). Each person fills in the first line of a postcard, e.g. completing “I am writing to you from…” with “… the best holiday resort ever” or “… the hills of Tuscany”. They fold over the paper so that the next person can’t see what they have written and pass it to the next person for them to continue the postcard. They continue writing and passing until the postcards are finished, then they are passed one last time and opened for general hilarity and a discussion about which postcards make most sense, sound like the best holiday and/or are funniest.
7. Present Simple and Continuous taboo topics
The strange thing about the use of the Present Continuous to talk about the present is that we actually rarely use it in conversation, and least of all to ask typical textbook questions like “What are you wearing?” In fact, questions like “What kind of underwear are you wearing?” are basically taboo. We can take advantage of this by giving a list of such taboo Present Continuous questions mixed up with similarly taboo Present Simple questions like “How often do you shave your armpits?” If we sprinkle in a few more typical and harmless questions such as “What time do you usually get up?”, we can ask students to rank the questions from 5 points (taboo) to 1 point (easy to answer), then decide on which ranking of question they want to be asked. How many points they actually get depends on how well they answer the question. For example, if they ask for a four point question (usually uncomfortable to answer but not really taboo) and kind of answer it but with lots of pausing and some avoiding of the question, their partners can decide to reward them with two points (half the total of four points that they could have got).
8. Ask and tell
Students make Present Continuous and Present Simple questions, then flip a coin to see whether they will have to answer the question themselves (tails = tell) or be allowed to ask the question to someone else (heads = ask). This is more fun that it sounds because many present tense questions are quite personal and the person who has made the question will often be dismayed by having to answer their own question. You can make this more risqué and add vocabulary by suggesting words and expressions that they can or must include in their questions, e.g. “snore” and “itchy”. Alternatively, they could roll a dice to decide which tense they should use in their questions (e.g. Present Simple if they throw a one, two or three), or the topic they should ask about (e.g. families if they throw a one).
9. Time zones
If you give students a list of countries in different time zones, they should be able to make sentences about what is probably happening there right now, as well as their impressions of what daily life is like, e.g. “People are probably coming home from bars about now. I think they often stay up until very late but sleep after lunch” to describe their picture of Spanish life. Their partners should listen and guess the country.
10. Guess the person
You can also get the students to describe and guess different kinds of people from what they are (probably) doing now and their routines, e.g. “your mother-in-law” from “She texts my husband several times a day” and “At this time she is probably doing a flower arrangement class.”
11. Describe a photo
Perhaps the most natural situation in which to use a mix of the two tenses is to describe a photo containing people that you know, for example “The person standing next to my brother is his girlfriend. She lives in Canada, so they only meet a few times a year.”
12. Tour guides
A group of people who probably use the two tenses together more than the rest of us is tour guides, for example to explain what is happening in a painting and how many people come to see it every day. The same language is fairly natural to describe Tower Bridge opening, Big Ben striking twelve, and a herd of wildebeest running across the plains. You can use this situation by asking students to guess the tourist site from the descriptions and then make up their own descriptions for other people to guess from, or with roleplays in which the people on the tour keep on asking more and more questions.
13. Test your classmates
Students test each other on the present dress and actions and routines of their classmates with questions like “What is George wearing on his feet?” and “Does Ronaldo often wear glasses?” Students will need to have their eyes closed when they are being tested, and they might need to check some of the answers with the person who the question is about.
14. Sentence completion
Give students incomplete sentences for them to complete to give true personal information, e.g. I am feeling __________, I often feel __________, I rarely __________ and My brother is __________. Students read out just the part they have filled in (e.g. “cook” or “hungover”) and their partners guess which sentence they put those words in.
15. Discussion questions
You can easily make discussion questions with the Present Simple and Present Continuous, e.g. “What things are getting better in your country?” and “Do people in your country pay attention to government campaigns? Why/why not?” You can also use both tenses for sentences that students should agree or disagree with, e.g. “People buy brands because they think they are better quality” and “People are slowly becoming more ecologically friendly in their lifestyles.” Alternatively, you can give questions which aren’t written in those tenses but should elicit answers that are, e.g. “Describe the changes in the economy of your country at the moment.”