Spanish Past Tense: Preterite vs. Imperfect

Teacher Guide by Lourdes Fernandez

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Spanish Preterite vs. Imperfect Tense Lesson Plans

Student Activities for Preterite vs. Imperfect Include:

Learning the difference between preterite and imperfect tenses in Spanish is a lengthy, challenging, and often frustrating task. Students must first master regular conjugations for each, and then the irregulars. Next, students must understand the basic concept behind using the preterite versus using the imperfect. The chart below simplifies the uses into general categories; however, the application is often much more complex. In general, the preterite tense is used to convey an idea of completed action in the past, something perceived to have a definite beginning and end, even if it’s not directly stated. In contrast, the Spanish imperfect tense is used to imply an ongoing or incomplete action in the past. It is used for actions that don’t have a defined beginning and end.

Some of the storyboards for this topic are designed to isolate these concepts for the student to practice. Others give students the opportunity to piece it all together. In all storyboard activities, it is useful if the student already knows their conjugations.

Preterite Imperfect
Completed Action Incomplete Action
Interrupting Action Interrupted Action
Repeated/Habitual Action

Preterite vs. Imperfect Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Preterite vs. Imperfect: Concept

After learning the conjugations for the preterite and imperfect tenses, students should focus on understanding the different applications of each. Preterite vs. imperfect is a very challenging topic, and creating a storyboard highlighting the different uses is a good start towards mastery.

Have students create a T-Chart storyboard, like this model, to practice and demonstrate their understanding of preterite vs. imperfect. Instruct students to make a cell for each category, label it, and provide a sentence below the image using either the preterite, the imperfect, or both, correctly. Since there is some overlap among categories on each side, clarify which ones you would like students to target. For example, specifying a defined time-frame for preterite, or a routine action for imperfect. As a cursory summary, the chart above describes the broadest categories, and can be used as a reference.

Alternate activity 1: Students create a storyboard to focus solely on preterite

Alternate activity 2: Students create a storyboard to focus solely on imperfect

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Imperfect: Description

After learning the conjugations for the imperfect tense, both regular and irregular, students must become accustomed to its common uses. A common use of the imperfect tense is description; when stating the time, weather, mental or physical states of characters, or the ongoing or background activities before any main action occurs, a student would use the imperfect tense.

Have students practice this descriptive property of the imperfect by creating a spider map storyboard to focus solely on the description of a narrative. The cells should work together as part of the same narrative, but will isolate in individual cells each of the most common descriptive tasks the imperfect tense performs.

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Preterite: Completed Action

After learning the conjugations for the preterite tense, both regular and irregular, students must become accustomed to its uses. One use of the preterite tense is to show a completed action. The completed action could be defined by a specific timeframe or the tense itself could give the feeling of plot progression. Verbs in the preterite tense give a sense of stating what happened and moving on.

Have students write a narrative that only uses the preterite tense, demonstrating this feeling of plot progression.

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Interrupting Actions

After learning the conjugations for the preterite and imperfect tenses, students will need to focus on how the two work together. Arguably the most straightforward situation in which preterite and imperfect tenses work together is with interrupting actions. Especially with visually or conceptually obvious interruptions, the student can clearly see how the interrupted action uses the imperfect tense, whereas the interrupting action uses the preterite tense.

Have students brainstorm scenarios that lend themselves to clear interruption. In a T-Chart like the model, have students label each column as “interrupting” or “interrupted” action. Students will then create their interrupted scenes as well as provide the narrative for the action, drawing extra attention to their choice between preterite and imperfect. Based on each student’s progress with the topic, the number of required examples can be increased or decreased.

Once students are comfortable with obvious examples of interruption, challenge them to create more subtle interruptions that would also employ both preterite and imperfect tenses.

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Once students have mastered the conjugations and uses of preterite and imperfect, they are ready to be challenged on all the material together. A complex topic with many parts to consider, students should work methodically as they create their own, original storyboard narrative to combine the preterite and imperfect. Students will need to not only consider the different uses of preterite and imperfect, but they will also have to attend to verb conjugation, including the many irregular forms of the preterite tense.

While there are many ways to create a narrative storyboard, one way to target all the categories is for the student to create a timeline storyboard focused on their childhood. Students should, however, be wary of assigning specific times, as it can appear misleading to use the preterite for specific timeframes. Instead, have students label these timeline sections as “childhood” or simply block them out. Have students create a narrative timeline that includes description, habitual/repeated action, incomplete action, completed action, and interruptions. Below each image, students will provide their text, highlighting the use of imperfect, preterite, or both.

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Meaning Changers

Once students have mastered the conjugations and uses of preterite and imperfect, they are ready to learn about a few, special cases of verbs that change meaning when switched from the imperfect tense to the preterite tense.

Have students create a T-Chart storyboard like the model to highlight the differences in meaning for some verbs that occur based on tense.

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•   (English) Preterite vs. Imperfect   •   (Español) Pretérito vs. Imperfecto   •   (Français) Pretérité vs Imparfait   •   (Deutsch) Preterite vs Unvollkommen   •   (Italiana) Passato Imperfetto vs.   •   (Nederlands) Praeteritum vs. Imperfect   •   (Português) Pretérito vs. Imperfeito   •   (עברית) Preterite לעומת Imperfect   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) Preterite مقابل ناقص   •   (हिन्दी) भूत-काल बनाम अपूर्ण   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Претерите Против Несовершенной   •   (Dansk) Præteritum vs Imperfect   •   (Svenska) Preteritum vs. Imperfect   •   (Suomi) Preteriti vs. Imperfect   •   (Norsk) Preteritum vs. Imperfect   •   (Türkçe) Preterite Karşı Imperfect   •   (Polski) Preteryt a Niedoskonały   •   (Româna) Preterit vs. Imperfect   •   (Ceština) Préteritum vs. Nedokonalá   •   (Slovenský) Preterite vs. Imperfect   •   (Magyar) Praeteritum vs. Tökéletlen   •   (Hrvatski) Preterite Protiv Nesavršenog   •   (български) Претрийт Срещу Несъвършен   •   (Lietuvos) Preterite vs Netobulas   •   (Slovenščina) Preterite vs. Nepopolne   •   (Latvijas) Preterite vs Nepilnīga   •   (eesti) Minevik vs Puudulik