Using the Simple Past Tense to Answer in the Negative

esl curriculumIn the article “Teaching the Simple Past Tense and Its Irregular Verbs”, we offered suggestions for introducing the past tense with positive questions and answers. Now let’s explore ways of making the understanding of using the negative more meaningful.

Let’s assume that the students know how to make a negative question and answer in the simple present tense.


Does your friend study English? No, my friend doesn’t study English.

Point out that the students know how to use “to do” in this question and answer.

We suggest that you then give them the same example using the simple past tense.

Did you friend study English last year? No, my friend didn’t study English last year.

The patterns for both the present and past tense questions are the same. Both use the verb “to do” plus the root form of “to study”. Demonstrating this comparison would be a good first step in promoting understanding.

The next comparison might be to present a simple present tense question using “to be”.


Is your friend at work? No, my friend isn’t at work.

Are your friends at work? No, my friends aren’t at work.

Next give a simple past tense question.


Was your friend at work last week? No, my friend wasn’t at work last week.

Were your friends at work last week? No, my friends weren’t at work last week.

Once again the simple present and simple past patterns are the same, using the present and past tenses of the verb “to be” and the root form of “to work”. It’s likely that the students will find the simple past tense much easier to understand if it is compared to the structure of the simple present.

Other types of questions use the question words: where, what, how, who and why. The structure for the simple past follows the same pattern as the simple present.


Simple Present Tense:  How are you? I’m fine. I’m not very well.

Simple Past Tense: How were you last week? I was fine last week. I wasn’t very well last week.

How were your parents last week? They were fine last week. They weren’t very well last week.

We have worked with many groups that viewed the past tense as a big difficult thing that they had to learn. Perhaps they had heard this from other students or maybe they felt that leaving the security of the present tense is a jump into the unknown. These simple comparisons may help them to relax about starting to use the past tense. Practice will soon make it easier.

Here is an activity the students can work on together. Divide into small groups. Ask and answer each question, then look at the answers.

esl curriculum


1.  Were you studying English last night?

2.  Was your friend at your home yesterday?

3.  Does your friend live across the road from you?

4.  Were you at the theater last week?

5.  Did you walk along the road this morning?

6.  Were you cooking chicken yesterday?

7.  Who is sitting on your right?

8.  Who is sitting on your left?

9.  Who is sitting across from you?

10. Were you watching a video last night?

11. Did you do volunteer work last month?

12. What kind of mountains can you see?


1.    Yes, I was studying English last night. / No, I wasn’t studying English last night.

2.    Yes, my friend was at my home yesterday. /  No, my friend wasn’t at my home yesterday.

3.    Yes, my friend lives across the road from me. /  No, my friend doesn’t live across the road from me.

4.    Yes, I was at the theater last week. /  No, I wasn’t at the theater last week.

5.    Yes, I walked along the road this morning. /  No, I didn’t walk along the road this morning.

6.    Yes, I was cooking chicken yesterday. /  No, I wasn’t cooking chicken yesterday.

7.   _________ is sitting on my right.

8.   _________ is sitting on my left.

9.   _________ is sitting across from me.

10. Yes, I was watching a video last night. / No, I wasn’t watching a video last night.

11.   Yes, I did volunteer work last month.

No, I didn’t do volunteer work last month.

12.           I can see ___________________. 

See Also:

English for Chinese

Learning English with Laughter

Students using our curriculum learn their grammar.

About brian_mu8dft39

Successful ESL was created out of our first company, Learning English With Laughter which began in 1990 when we, George and Daisy Stocker, traveled to the historic city of Karlovy Vary in Czechoslovakia, to teach English in a private language school. Communism was over and the people were embarking along the road to democracy. There were hundreds of students eager to learn the English Language, but suitable textbooks were non-existent. Consequently, we wrote as we taught, making countless revisions as we listened to the students' special needs. Upon returning to our home in Victoria, Canada, we have adapted the Teen-adult Series to meet the cultural needs of students in a number of different countries. A variety of adaptations have been achieved through contacts with many countries. Thousands of students have encouraged us to use a conversational approach to English that stresses communication in a variety of everyday situations. See our facebook page:
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