OET Writing Tips Using Past Tenses

Each of the tenses in English (past, present, and future) has four aspects (simple, perfect, continuous, and perfect continuous). Of course, these tenses each have different meanings and reflect different elements of time. They should be employed carefully throughout any form of writing, including the OET writing sub-test.

1. Using the past tenses accurately

Having a high degree of English proficiency requires being able to use each of the tenses accurately. That means knowing how to form it correctly (including positive, negative, and interrogative forms) and also knowing when it should be used.To put it succinctly, the past tenses of the English language look like this:

Past SimpleCarmen ate.Carmen didn’t eat.Did Carmen eat?
Past ContinuousCarmen was eating.Carmen wasn’t eating.Was Carmen eating?
Past PerfectCarmen had eaten.Carmen hadn’t eaten.Had Carmen eaten?
Past Perfect ContinuousCarmen had been eating.Carmen hadn’t been eating.Had Carmen been eating?

The following is brief guide to the situations in which these four tenses are used in English, although there may be other, less common instances not included here.

2. When to use the different past tenses

2.1. Past Simple

  1. actions that were completed in the past.
    • She graduated in 2010.
    • He moved out three years ago.
  2. routine actions in the past.
    • I called her every evening.
    • They spoke with their grandfather often.

2.2. Past Continuous

  1. past actions during a stated period of time.
    • They were driving to Adelaide last night.
    • She was reading a book at ten o’clock.
  2. longer actions that were interrupted by a shorter action.
    • I was making dinner when I cut my hand.
    • He was driving to the dentist when he saw the sign.
  3. an action interrupted by another action.
    • They were listening to music when the doorbell rang.
    • The dog was sleeping when the fireworks started.

2.3. Past Perfect

  1. describing the past from the perspective of another time later in the past.
    • I was hungry because I had not eaten for hours.
    • We were fighting because we had disagreed about the music in the car.
  2. describing repeated or extended situations
    • We had lived in London for nine years.
    • By then, they had dated for a long time.
  3. explaining a situation
    • I was confident because I had studied really hard.
    • They were scared because the animal had already bitten people.

2.4. Past Perfect Continuous

  1. actions that occurred further back in time that other events, but which continued for longer.
    • She had been knitting for several hours when the doorbell rang.
    • The man had been working in a hospital before the war began.

3. Using the past tenses for OET letters

If you are remotely familiar with the OET writing sub-test, then you should be aware that it will certainly involve situations that occurred in the past. In other words, there is plenty of scope for using your past tenses. This is one reason why it is very important to be confident in how and when to use them. Remember that having a good grasp of grammar is essential for this writing sub-test, and knowing how to use each of the English tenses will set you on a good course towards OET success.

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In the OET writing exam, you will be presented with notes on a patient, and you will have to write a letter based upon the instructions that follow it. In the nursing exam, for example, you might have to write a discharge letter. The notes would have information about the patient’s history and medical background. Obviously, all of these things happened in the past and so you would need to employ your knowledge of the past tenses in order to pass this information along correctly.

The patient’s medical history might, for example, say:

  • Admitted with broken arm – x-rayed, bone set

In your discharge letter, you might then turn this into the following sentences.

  • Mr. Cramb was admitted to the ER department on July 17th with a broken arm. An X-ray was performed on the limb, which confirmed the fracture. After undergoing an operation, the bone was set and his arm was secured in a cast.

Here is another possible OET writing passage:

  • After a week in the hospital, Mrs. Carmichael was feeling much better. She has been observed carefully during her stay, and the doctor has decided she is well enough to be discharged.

You can see that in the first short passage, the past perfect and past simple have both been used. These are the most commonly used of all the past tenses, but you may well be able to use all four of them, depending on the circumstances of the task. In the second passage, the less common past perfect continuous was used, as well as the past continuous. These have helped to located certain events accurately in time, which lends a greater degree of complexity to the narrative and will help the reader to better understand the details conveyed in the patient history information.

When writing your own OET letter, make sure that you read the case notes very carefully, and use the tenses that are required. This will include a mixture of past, present, and future tenses, as well as active and passive voices. You should prepare for the exam by ensuring that you are completely familiar with all of them.

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