Learn how to use past tense structures in IELTS Speaking Part 2

Previously in this series, I have already explained how using a flexible structure can really improve your chances of a high band score in IELTS Speaking Part 2.

Check out the earlier blog posts in this series by following these links

IELTS Speaking Part 2 – Don’t Make These Two Common Mistakes

IELTS Speaking Part 2 – Plan + Structure your Answer

I have advised that you structure your answer using a combination of the following options:

Introduction (mandatory)

Past (optional)

Describe (Mandatory)

Opposing View (Optional)

Opinion (Optional)

Comparative (Optional)

Future (Optional)

On the day of your exam, you should be able to identify very quickly which of the functions above are most suitable to answer the question you are given. In today’s blog post, I’m going to show you how you can use past tense grammatical structures to provide a background to your answer in IELTS Speaking Part 2.

Firstly, let’s take a look at some common past tense structures you can use in your exam.

Past Tense Structures

Would + Base Verb

We use WOULD + BASE VERB to talk about repeated actions that happened in that past.

When I was a child, I WOULD RIDE my bike on Saturdays.

My grandmother WOULD TELL me to be careful when crossing the street.

You can also use adverbs of frequency like ALWAYS and OFTEN to add more detail.

When I was young, I WOULD ALWAYS RIDE my bike on Saturdays.

Used To

You can use USED TO when discussing past habits and states that no longer occur.

I USED TO SMOKE when I was a young lad ( I don’t smoke anymore)

I USED TO LIVE in Chicago ( I don’t live in Chicago anymore)

We USED TO GO fishing every July ( We don’t go fishing ever July anymore)

Present Perfect

We use the PRESENT PERFECT to talk about things that started in the past and continue in the present

I HAVE LIVED here for 15 years.

I HAVE KNOWN him since I was a child.

Past Simple

We can use the PAST SIMPLE to talk about completed actions in the past

One year, we WENT on vacation together.

We PLAYED computer games every day

Past Continuous

We can use the PAST CONTINUOUS to talk about past continuous actions or the background of a story.

We WERE ALWAYS joking around

The day we met, I WAS STUDYING in the library and he asked me for a pen

Past Perfect

We can use the PAST PERFECT to say something happened before something else in the past.

We HAD BEEN in the same class for over a month before we spoke to one another

I HAD MET his brother in primary school.

Use Past Tense Structures in IELTS Speaking Part 2

Let’s take the following IELTS questions as an example. I will show you how you can introduce it and then give a past background to the story before you start to describe your topic in detail.

Question 1

Describe a friend who has played an important part in your life. You should say:

How you met this person

How long you have known him or her

The kind of things you do or have done together

And explain why this person has been important in your life

Introduction I’m going to talk about my best friend Dave because he has been an integral part of my life up to this point.

Past Background – So, I have known Dave since I was a young child. We went to school together and were in the same class until middle school. Back then, we used to spend practically every minute together and I remember that would always play football or computer games at each other’s homes on weekends. We were always laughing and joking… I have some wonderful childhood memories with him.

DescriptionNowadays Dave is …

Question 2

Talk about an activity you like doing when you are on holiday. You should say:

Where you usually do it

Who you do it with

Why you enjoy it

And say whether you also enjoyed doing that when you were a child or not, and why

Introduction – Ok, well there are many things I like to do on holiday but if I have to choose one, I’ll speak about playing volleyball on the beach

Past Background- So, I have been into beach volleyball since I was a child. I used to play it with my friends and cousins most weekends from March to September. We would go to the local beach, it’s only a 15-minute drive away, and we would set up our own nets and play for hours. We were all incredibly competitive so sometimes we argued but it was great fun.

Description – These days, I continue the tradition whenever I’m on holiday. Beach volleyball is a really fun sport; all you need is a net and a ball and away you go! It …

Question 3

Describe an important decision you have made. You should say:

what the decision was

why you made that choice

who helped you make the choice

and explain why the decision was so important.

Introduction – I’ll talk about a decision I took back in 2017 that has had a major impact on my life. It was when I decided to move to Australia

Past Background – So, in 2017 I was living in Chile, where I had lived all my life, but I was a little depressed and kind of sick of my everyday routine. I had a good job but I found it really boring. A friend of mine was living in Australia at the time and he suggested that I join him. Well, I did some research, bought a ticket and the rest, and they say, is history

Description – Now that I have been here for over 2 years, I have to say that the decision to come here was the best decision I ever made in my life…

Now, it’s your turn to PRACTICE!

As you can see from the examples above, speaking in the past tense at the start of your answer allows you to use a range of past tense structures and gives you more things to talk about. It is a logical and natural way to introduce your chosen topic. You might find it difficult to spend two minutes just describing your friend Daveo but once you include a past background and some of the other structures we will cover later in this series, it becomes much easier to speak for the whole two minutes without repeating yourself.

I practice these structures regularly with my private students and the results have been impressive. However, remember that you need to practice any new structures you wish to use in the exam until you can use them perfectly. Do not take risks on the day of the exam!

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