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Teaching the Past Perfect Tense in Italian

By Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch

Teaching your students how to form the past perfect tense with Italian verbs is a key lesson. Your students will really catch on if you use this lesson plan and some other suggested activities.

Introducing the Past Perfect

If students think they have learned all the past tenses in Italian, tell them they have just started! Explain that just like there is a future perfect tense in Italian, there is also a past perfect tense. The past perfect tense in Italian is used to talk about an event that takes place before another one. The structure of the past perfect is essere or avere in the imperfect, followed by the second verb in the past participle. Since the format is very similar to the future perfect tense lesson, you can use the same exercises to review the past participle.

Explain that a sentence with the past perfect can be formed two ways. When the sentence refers to a timeline of two events, the second clause uses the passato prossimo or passato remoto. To show students how this type of sentence works, write an example on the board, such as:

Cristoforo era già partito quando Matteo arrivò alla casa. (Christopher had already left when Matthew got to the house).

Point out that the imperfect can also be used in the second phrase, but it usually indicates that it was an ongoing action in the past (just like when the imperfect is used). Write another example on the board, like:

Ogni sera quando Matteo arrivava a casa, Mama aveva già preparato da mangiare. (When Matthew got home every evening, Mom had already prepared the meal.)

Make sure students can tell the differences between the two types of past perfect tense sentences. If any problems arise, make a note to cover that issue more in-depth.

Reviewing the Imperfect of Essere and Avere

Once students understand when the past perfect tense is used in Italian, and how the sentences are formed, review the imperfect tense. Point out to student that like the future perfect tense, only essere and avere are put in that form. Have flashcards with the imperfect endings (-o, -i, -a, -amo, -ate and -ano). Check that students remember the imperfect stems for essere (er-) and avere (avev-). Holding up an ending card and giving the verb, ask students to give the proper conjugation.

If you do not have flashcards, you can do a lightning round: give each student a verb and person, and ask him or her to conjugate as fast as possible. You can even break the class up into groups and give points for each proper conjugation. To mix things up, give the students the conjugated verb, and ask for the infinitive and person.


Either on the board or on a handout, have timelines with different events marked. Give each student a timeline and ask for a sentence in either the past perfect tense or future perfect tense. If breaking the students into groups, you can get creative and ask them to act out the sentence. The acting exercise can also be done with sentence examples instead of a timeline.