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3 Ways to Practice the Preterite and Imperfect Tenses

By Anthony / September 2, 2016

When talking in the past, Spanish has two tenses: the preterite and imperfect. Determining which one to use (and when) is probably one of the hardest things to master in Spanish. Like anything in life, practice makes perfect. If you are a Spanish learner in a classroom setting, practicing with the different past tenses is structured for you within the lesson.

You are given opportunities to test your knowledge. But, what if a classroom setting is not available to you? If you are someone who is learning Spanish on your own, finding ways to practice may present a challenge. Here are three ways to help you practice the preterit and imperfect tenses in the comfort of your own home.

1. Write About Your Life

One of the easiest ways to practice the preterit and imperfect is to write about yourself. Think of something interesting (or comical) that happened to you and write a story about it….IN SPANISH! Use a Spanish-English dictionary if you get stuck and just try your best. After you have finished, read your story to someone else: a teacher, friend, or significant other.

If the person you are sharing with knows Spanish, ask them to look over your story and be open to corrections. Continue to read your story to as many people as possible. After a while, the story will be easier to read out loud and your preterite and imperfect skills will become second nature.


If you are hesitant to write a story in Spanish, try a writing a timeline of your life instead. This breaks down the sentences into more manageable structures for a beginner learner, but you still get a great opportunity to practice the tenses. Don’t forget to share your timeline with someone else, especially if they speak Spanish!

I’ve Shared My Story With People I Trust….Now What?

Once you have shared your story with a few people you know, now it is time to branch out and find more native Spanish speakers. There are always Spanish groups that meet up in local areas to encourage practicing the language with either other Spanish language learners or native speakers. I have used Meetup.com in the past and have had great experiences.

Nothing beats real conversation practice!

Find a group in your area and read your story to them. Who knows, maybe you will even inspire other learners to write their own interesting story!


After you have mastered your first story, continue to write others. The more you practice with the tenses, the easier they get. Eventually, you will be able to use both the preterite and imperfect tenses without even stopping to think about when to use them or how to conjugate them.


2. Break Out Your Favorite Movie or TV Show

Watching TV & Movies in Spanish can be an important tool in mastering the past tense

Netflix (or any other internet streaming service) will now become your best friend in your preterite vs. imperfect learning process. After a few short steps (and lots of practice), you will have a better command of when it is appropriate to use each tense.

  1. Find your favorite show or movie and click on the Spanish subtitles.

  2. Fast forward to your favorite scene and listen for someone talking in the past tense. As soon as you hear it, pause the TV so that you can write down the phrase in both Spanish and English.

  3. Repeat step 2 until you have 8-10 phrases

  4. Determine why the preterite or imperfect was used in each phrase. What rule did it follow? Use the basic chart below to verify your answers:

PreteriteImperfect
Telling a story in the past about what happened.How things were (in childhood or a past occurrence).
An action that takes place at a specific moment.A repetitive action in the past. An action that occurred over a long period of time.

5. Once you think you have mastered step 4, continue the process but only write down the phrase in English.

6. Translate the English phrase into Spanish. Check the subtitles to see how you did. Did you use the correct tense? Don’t get too hung up on translating the phrases word for word, they are many different ways to say the same thing. Make your main focus about using the preterite and imperfect tenses correctly.

3. Behold the Wikipedia Articles in Spanish

Wikipedia has millions of articles written in different languages, Spanish being one of them. The best part about these articles is that they are fact driven (like an encyclopedia) so they are written in the past tense. Simply pick a topic of interest and start reading away.

I am not a huge fan of reading on a screen, so I personally would print off the article. From there, go through the text and circle all of the past tense verbs. Take note if the verb is in the preterite or imperfect tense. This will give you a heads up as you start to read the article if the information is a one time occurrence, or a repetitive action.


As you read, make notes in the margins summarizing what each paragraph is about. DO NOT translate word for word! Simply write a quick summary about each paragraph (in English) as a way to check for understanding. If you get stuck on a word, try and use the context clues to help you out. Give yourself a gold star if you can do this without a dictionary, but no big deal if you can’t. Looking words up is a great way to expand your vocabulary.


Encyclopedia Info Not Your Style?

Children’s books in Spanish are also a great way to practice the past tenses. Visit your local library and pop into the children’s section. Most libraries will have a section of books for kids in other languages. Flip through the book to make sure it is mainly in the past tense. Some examples are:

The Giving Tree (El árbol generoso) by Shel Silverstein Are You My Mother? (¿Eres tú mi máma?) by P.D. Eastman


Look for the verbs first and notice which tense is used. Take note of why the author used the preterite or imperfect in case. After you read through the book, write a brief summary in Spanish to check for understanding.

Conclusion


Learning the preterite and imperfect verb tenses is one of the more difficult concepts in the Spanish language, but can be mastered with practice. Using different ways to practice outside of a classroom setting is a great way to perfect your skills.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, we are here to help! Please write your questions in the comment box below so we can answer them. And remember, practice makes perfect so don’t hesitate to put yourself out there. You got this!

About the author

Anthony

Coffee drinker, Spanish speaker, habitual traveler, taking life one beautiful day at a time.

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