In this tutorial, you will learn how to use the past and past perfect tense to help you in your IELTS Speaking exam.
In this tutorial you will learn:
- How to use the past tense
- How to use the past perfect continuous
This will help you in your IELTS speaking exam because:
- You will be able to demonstrate that you have a range of grammatical structures to tell a story in part 2 of the IELTS speaking.
In part 1 and part 2 of the speaking exam, it is highly likely that you will have a chance to tell the examiner a story.
The content of your story might be interesting, but the examiner is more interested in the way in which you tell your story.
What vocabulary do you use?
Important points or do you use a range of grammatical structures to present the information in your story?
The most common tense to use when telling a story is the past simple, but very few test takers make use of the past and past perfect continuous forms to enhance their storytelling.
Below we will examine why you should use the past and past perfect continuous and how you can use these structures in the exam.
Why you should use the continuous forms in IELTS Speaking
When we tell a story it’s important to describe the events that happen; however, it is equally important to set a context for the story.
Where were you?
Who were you with?
And what was happening at the time?
Let’s take a look at two short stories and decide which is better.
- I was with my friend Juan in the park. We saw a fire in the distance. We both got up and ran to the fire to see.
- Last summer, I was hanging out with my friend Juan. We had been sitting in the park having a picnic for a couple of hours when we saw a fire in the distance. We both got up and ran to the fire to see what was happening.
In the first story, there is very little information about the context; we know where the storyteller was, who he was with, and the basic facts.
In story B the picture the storyteller has created is richer.
We know a lot more about the background (that the speaker was relaxing and having a picnic).
In ‘B’ the story feels more connected whereas in ‘A’ it sounds more robotic, like a list of facts.
The main difference between the two is the use of the past and past perfect continuous.
By using these tenses, we can make our stories more alive, more exciting and more engaging.
Past continuous tense
We use the past continuous to talk about an event in the past, which was happening over a period of time and was incomplete in the past. For example, “I was hanging out with my friend Juan at the park.” In this example, the event was in the past and happened over a period of time.
Let’s take a look at a graph to understand this more clearly:
Subject + Past be + verb+ing
- I was hanging out with my friend
- We were watching a movie.
- He was talking on the phone.
How to use the past continuous tense in the exam
With most stories, it is essential to set the context before you talk about the main events of the story.
You can use the past continuous near the beginning of the story to help set your context.
By using the continuous form early in your story, you will quickly be able to show the examiner that you are flexible in your use of grammatical structures. Let’s take a look at another example:
Examiner: Tell me about a time when you had to change your mind.
Candidate: Last year I was studying economics at university. I remember the day really clearly. I was sitting in class and taking notes like usual when the professor asked an interesting question….
In this example, the test taker used the past continuous and the past simple to create a context before moving on to the main events of the story. The use of the past continuous creates a dynamic story and demonstrates the speaker’s grammatical range.
Past perfect continuous tense
The past perfect continuous is similar to the past continuous in that we use it to talk about an event in the past that was happening over a period of time.
But we generally use it when we want to identify how long something had happened before another event in the past.
For example: “We had been sitting in the park having a picnic for a couple of hours.”
Let’s take a look at a graph to understand this more clearly.
Subject + had + Past Participle + verb+ing
- We had been sitting in the park for a couple of hours.
- We had been watching a movie for an hour.
- He had been talking on the phone for about 15 minutes.
How to use the past perfect continuous tense in the exam
Like the past continuous, you can use the past perfect continuous to develop the context of a story.
The main reason for choosing the past perfect continuous is that you want to talk about the duration before the main event of the story.
Like the past continuous it is a form that is best used at the beginning of a story when you are trying to set the context. Let’s look at an example:
Examiner: Describe a time when you felt angry.
Candidate: Just a couple of days ago I was at the bank, and I was standing in line. It was busy in the bank, and I had been waiting for over 3 hours to talk to the manager!
In this example, the test taker wants to make it clear that they had been waiting for a long time.
This is most likely important information because they are about to talk about ‘a time when they felt angry.’
Using the past perfect continuous here makes the context very clear and will support the main events of the story.
Let’s have a look at some recent questions seen in the exam by students sent to us at IELTSPodcast.com.
Cue card 1
I’d like to tell you about an old friend I have called, Mat. Mat is no longer my friend because of this exact incident. When we were younger, my family and I lived in a bungalow, in our village. My friend Mat used to come over to our house, he’d take a shortcut through the fields and then climb through the fence. Well, one evening I had been expecting him to come over but he didn’t. My mum later told me that my sister had seen someone looking through her window in the evening, and the ‘peeping tom’ -so to speak- had a beige jacket on, the same color as my friend’s Mat. My sister couldn’t confidently say it was him, however, with the fact that I had been expecting him, it was clear in my mind, what had happened. So as you can expect, I confronted him about this, and he categorically denied it, but I’m 99% sure it was him. Obviously, he denied it because it’s shameful, embarrassing, and would have led to serious issues. I felt tremendously (not really) disappointed, I was also really confused. I think in the end I just ditched him as a friend, I feel nobody should put up with liars like that, I guess life is too short for rubbish like that. And that’s the end of my story.
Word order: my family and I
Cue card 2
Describe an intelligent person.
You should say:
Who the person is
How you know them
Why you think they are intelligent
A tremendously intelligent person I know would be my uncle Allan. He’s so smart he retired at around age 50 -most people have to wait until after 65. Anyway, I think he’s smart for a number of reasons, firstly he’s UK chess master champion, and he’s won numerous tournaments. He’s also had a dazzling career as a tax advisor, he worked in the best firms in his field in the UK. For example, he worked at PriceWaterHouseCoopers, Deloitte, and I think possibly Ernst and Young – although I’m not so sure about the last one. I know him because when I was younger we met at a wedding, and just recently at a funeral too. At the funeral, he was telling me how he had been researching his family tree way back in the past. He found out that his ancestors were humble peasants in Preston. I think he’s intelligent because of his career, and his expertise in complex subjects such as tax and chess. But for me, I admire the fact he managed to retire so early, that is the goal that really resonates with me. And that’s the end of my story.
Cue card 3
Describe a singer you like.
You should say:
Who the singer is
What specific elements you like about them
The style of the singer
The singer I’d like to tell you about is a very famous singer, with a terrific voice. He’s British but has Iranian roots if I remember correctly. He definitely had an old-school Iranian moustache! I think he had been studying at Cambridge or Oxford when he responded to an advert to join a local rock band. Anyway, this singer has an immensely powerful voice, and although I’m not an expert on this, I think his voice covers the entire musical range. For example, in one song, Barcelona, he sang alongside a famous opera singer! Not many modern-day singers are capable of such a feat. His style is very unique, sometimes he just blasts the vocals, and in other songs, it’s rather melodic, and smooth. His name is Freddy Mercury, and he sang in the famous rock band, Queen.
You want to make your stories in the IELTS speaking exam not only interesting and engaging, but you also want to demonstrate to the examiner how you can do this through a range of grammatical structures.
Although there are a number of ways to do this, one excellent tool is the use of the past and past perfect continuous forms.
To maximize your score on the speaking exam, you can use these forms to create a more meaningful and engaging context for your story and show the examiner that you aren’t afraid to use complex structures.
You can download or listen to the audio version here: