Dear Diary: the Preterite and the Imperfect on Extempore

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If you teach Spanish (or French, for that matter), you know how mighty the battle can be for students to learn and use correctly the two verb forms used to talk about actions in the past. Yep, I’m taking about the preterite and the imperfect. Just mentioning those two words often sends chills down the spines of my students. (And let’s face it–it can certainly be a challenge to teach, too.) I won’t go into detail about when to use each one because you teachers out there already know. If you want to buff up, you can read more about the preterite and the imperfect here.

Oftentimes, the challenge for us teachers is to create creative, meaningful opportunities for our students to use the preterite and imperfect together, especially if we want to move away from the fill-in-the-blank type of activities that you see in workbooks. So, here I’m going to offer a much more communicative speaking activity that will allow your students to flex their grammatical muscles, with the caveat being that it’s probably best implemented as a summative assessment given its fairly high degree of difficulty, at least for beginning and intermediate students.

As an Extempore speaking assessment, ask students to log a “diary entry” in which they narrate what happened on a particular day. To add a wrinkle, you as the teacher may want to specify what type of day it was. Maybe it was an “unforgettable” day, or a “productive” day, or a “low-key” day, or even a “lucky” day. You might even want to assign the activity twice or three times, changing the type of day each time to give the students more chances to use the two past tenses. It’s important to remind them that it shouldn’t simply be a list of activities, one after the other, which would most likely only generate the preterite. Instead, be sure to work with students ahead of time to identify ways for them to incorporate the imperfect as well (background details, descriptions, or repeated activities in the past).


Students inevitably catch on to the preterite and imperfect, difficult though the subject may be at first. However, I think we can all agree that pushing students to demonstrate their knowledge on the subject out loud is not always easy but critical nonetheless. Using an activity like this on Extempore is a great way to have students think about narrating in the past in a creative, fun ways to show you what they can do.