Imparfait vs Passe compose – practical ideas for teaching it

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Teaching the imparfait vs passe compose is always a little bit challenging, because most of our students don’t really have a concept of it. Many of my students do come from Spanish-speaking backgrounds, which helps a bit. But what do I do for my English-only students? Here are some of my favorite teaching methods and resources.

Introducing the concept of imparfait vs passe compose

I often use films and television shows as a way to introduce and practice the concept. Once I’ve given students the general idea of the difference between the two, I will then choose a popular film to come up with some examples. I tell them that the imparfait is for the background information such as the setting, descriptions of the characters, the things that really don’t matter as much if you were writing a movie review.

I tell them the story of a film like Titanic or whatever the latest superhero film is using only the imparfait. For Titanic, this means I describe the ship, what the characters were wearing, what the weather was like. Then I ask them “what happened?” They realize that I haven’t given them any of the plot! This will be the passé composé – any time you are answer the question “what happened?” you are likely going to be using this tense. Now I tell them the actual plot of the film.

Once I’ve done an example for them, I choose another film and we come up with descriptions together. I’ll make a chart with two columns – one for the background and setting, one for the plot. We will fill out the chart with whatever we can think of. When this step is done, I will now have students choose their own film and work together in small groups to come up with a similar chart for that film.

Practicing the imparfait vs passe compose

To give them some guided practice, there are several activities that I use. One of the first is a game that has them choose whether they would use imparfait vs passe compose by reading English sentences and choosing. When they are a bit more secure in the concept, I have them play the French imparfait and passé composé review game.

For seeing the concept in action, we do two reading activities: a short fictional story about a Zombie Attack and a biography of Sidney Crosby. Finally, the most challenging (but fun!) activity I use is a digital escape game where students try to help a friend who is lost in the Louvre and they will have to use their French skills to find a way to get them out. They choose the imparfait vs passe compose for the different activities to find the codes that will unlock the different locks.

Practicing forming the imparfait vs passe compose

While this post has focused on choosing between the two tenses, your students may also need some time to practice the formation of the verb tenses. For this, I use conjuguemos as a starting point. I will also make a game on Gimkit or Blooket where they have to choose the correct translation of a subject/verb phrase. So I may give them “I used to eat” and then have them choose between j’ai mangé and je mangeais.

Once they have had enough practice with learning the difference in meaning between the two tenses and the basics of forming them, you can move on to a slightly more difficult activity – typing the French translation of the English phrase. I make a special imparfait vs passe compose set on Gimkit that is text-input for the responses rather than multiple choice. I put an English phrase such as “we were swimming” and then they have to type in the French translation.

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