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"Books and movies are like apples and oranges. They both are fruit, but taste completely different."

- Stephen King

Help! Preterite or Imperfect? It is not the same! - Resources for your Spanish Classroom

By Spanish Classroom 7537 Views Leave a comment Go to comments
Apr 24

Evelyn Silva

Two weeks ago, I was teaching the uses of the imperfect. My students seemed to be confused and some frustrated because they couldn't understand why Spanish language has two different tenses to narrate events in the past. Several of them stopped by after school and asked me the same question: but is it not the same?

In Spanish, deciding when to use preterite or imperfect can be one of the biggest challenges for every student. Practicing is never enough. That's why I decided to create a handout, an easy way to describe the use of these tenses:

1. Preterit is used to list/express completed actions in the past.

2. Imperfect is used to describe habitual actions in the past.



Refers to an action or state completed in the past. Usually, time expressions indicate that the action have been accomplished during an specific period of time in the past. Time expressions such as ayer, anteayer, anoche, la semana pasada, etc. help us to identify the use of preterite.


        a) Ana bailó en el carnaval ayer.

        b) Regresamos a la ciudad la semana pasada.


When we are listing series of sequential actions in the past. Adverbs like primero, después, entonces, etc., are often used to detail a sequence of actions.  


Los hermanos García salieron de la casa de su abuela temprano en la mañana. Primero, recorrieron toda la ciudad con su amiga Ana. Después fueron a visitar a sus primos y comieron un rico almuerzo que preparó la tía Gertrudis. Ya por la noche, regresaron a la casa de sus padres para descansar. 


Recalls a past action without indicating specifically when the even or the condition began or ended.

Describes an ongoing past action; a repeated (habitual) past action or a long-standing situation.

1.   Age in the past: Carla tenía 3 años cuando (when) sus padres la llevaron a Disney.

2.   Telling time in the past: Eran (it was…) las tres de la tarde cuando Ana llegó al parque.

3.   Describing the weather in the past: Ayer hacía mucho frío y llovía.

4.   Describing people, actions or situations in the past:

         a) Mi abuela tenía el pelo largo cuando era joven. Ella compraba palomitas de maíz todas las tardes.

         b) Había muchas personas en el parque ayer.

5.  Feelings: Elena estaba feliz montando los carros chocones.

6.  An action in progress in the past over an indefinite period of time:

          a) Los jóvenes disfrutaban de las atracciones en el parque.

7.   An action which was an habit in the past: Cada verano visitábamos San Salvador.

8.   Two simultaneous actions in the past:

          a) Yo comía golosinas mientras (while) mi hermano montaba en el carrusel.

9. An ongoing action in the past interrupted by another action which occurred in the past:

          a) Montábamos en la rueda de Chicago cuando comenzó a llover.          

Share and Enjoy
Maria May 19, 2014 at 2:36 PM Reply
I also use the WATERS acronym...
T-time (days/hours)
R-repeated actions
Leshia Rosa September 12, 2014 at 12:29 AM Reply
Excellent suggestion, thank you!
Spanish Classroom May 20, 2014 at 6:30 PM Reply
Great idea. Thank you for sharing!
Alicia Wuornos May 31, 2014 at 12:34 AM Reply
Thank you so much for sharing this! My students will appreciate it very much!
Leshia Rosa September 12, 2014 at 12:30 AM Reply
Magnifico! Gracias
Glessie October 24, 2014 at 3:23 AM Reply
I always introduce the idea of preterite and imperfect with cookie dough ice cream. I have students describe what they're tasting--vanilla in the background, cookie dough scattered throughout and then relate it to the uses of preterite and imperfect. Vanilla is the background that's always there--the taste is never quite out of your mouth and then throughout you'll have instances of cookie dough that are there and then they're gone. It seems to help students. When then go through stories and I ask them about different events in the story (typically a common fairy tale) Once a upon a time there was a beautiful princess...**is that vanilla or cookie dough? why?** she had a wicked stepmother (same question as before), one day the wicked stepmother ordered someone to kill her (same question). It seems to help my kids!
Spanish Classroom October 24, 2014 at 11:28 AM Reply
Great idea, thank you for sharing!
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"Books and movies are like apples and oranges. They both are fruit, but taste completely different."

- Stephen King

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