Past Simple: Learning English through History Study Book

David Ronder, Peter Thompson


A flexible classroom resource for students interested in British history and culture.

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ISBN: 9781859645291

Upper intermediate to proficiency
CEF Level: B1+  IELTS Level: 5.0+

Product Description


Past Simple: Learning English through History

Past Simple is a fascinating introduction to British history and culture, designed to improve the language skills of adult learners of English but suitable also for use in sixth-forms and FE colleges in Britain. The authors, both practising teachers, succeed in delivering a wealth of historical facts and improving students’ language and critical thinking skills all in an engaging, entertaining and often humorous way.

Past Simple comprises 22 chapters, 12 on key episodes or periods of British history (such as the First World War), 10 on significant themes (imperialism, the growth of democracy, etc.) that run through the story of these islands. Each chapter is based around a central reading text, followed by comprehension and critical thinking exercises, additional primary source material and a focus on relevant language points. There is a clear emphasis on skills development and follow-up extension tasks to encourage Internet and library research.


Format: Paperback


1. Civilizing the barbarians: The Romans in Britain
2. 1066 and all that: The Norman Conquest
3. Majesty and marriages: King Henry VIII
4. Good Queen Bess: Elizabeth I
5. Roundheads and Cavaliers: The English Civil War
6. Fire and plague: Samuel Pepys’ London
7. The longest reign: The Victorians
8. A long way from Tipperary: World War I
9. Britain can take it: The Blitz
10. From the cradle to the grave: The welfare state
11. Cultural revolution: The swinging sixties
12. The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher

1. From barons to ballot box: The long road to democracy
2. The Bard of Avon: William Shakespeare
3. The Sun never set: The British Empire
4. A special relationship? Britain and the USA
5. A funny old game: Cricket
6. Seen and not heard: British childhood
7. Auld enemies: England and Scotland
7. That cloud in the west: Ireland
9. A safe haven: Immigration to Britain
10. An enduring obsession: Social class in Britain

Author details

David Ronder started his English teaching career in Barcelona in the early 1990s. He has taught business and general English in the UK for many years, recently specialising in ESOL. An Edinburgh history graduate, he has always been interested in the connections between language and history. He devised and ran an innovative course to teach British history to ESOL students at the Institute in North London, which formed the initial basis for Past Simple.

He is a published travel journalist, and though he continues to teach, he now works mainly as a freelance editor and Spanish translator. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.

Peter Thompson is head of history at London’s leading sixth-form college and has over 20 years’ history teaching experience, working mostly with 16-19-year-olds and adults.

He taught English as a foreign language whilst living in Berlin, Germany, for three years during the 1990s.


"This is a cleverly thought-out and attractively presented book, which uses amusing classroom activities and insightful articles to develop language learning. It does this by providing stimulating discussion topics, a selection of playful English idioms, good internet-based research and creative writing tasks, all within a historical, cultural and British citizenship context.

Its 22 chapters are divided into two parts, beginning with the Chronological chapters, a short but nuanced chronological survey of British history, beginning in Roman Britain and ending, presciently, 12 chapters later with The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher. Also included in this section are chapters on the 1960s and the national health service (NHS). A further ten chapters (the Thematic chapters) deliver material on topics such as democracy, immigration and even cricket. The chapter on democracy, for instance, sympathetically explores the emancipation of women through the activities of the suffragettes, and in the chapter on cricket – ‘a funny old game’ – there is an exploration of class and race issues. The book is not exclusively Anglo-centric either; it is about Britain, and rightly includes Ireland and Scotland.

The structure is accessible, but an entire chapter is not doable in a single two-hour lesson. Each chapter has pre-reading discussion questions, followed by an in-depth reading text with a glossary, which will take students between 20 and 30 minutes to complete. (I think it would be a very good idea to set the pre-reading at the end of class and then get the students to do the reading for homework, ready for a follow-up lesson.)

Illustrations, graphs and tables develop topics interestingly, so that in the chapter on Henry VIII, we are presented with six portraits of Henry’s wives and asked which one we think is Anne of Cleves (Henry was supposedly charmed by the flattering portrait he was sent of her – and agreed to marry her on the strength of it – but was bitterly disappointed when he met the real thing). There are also further opportunities for research, so that students, in one instance, can find out more about the talented black South African cricketer Basil D’Olivera, who embarrassed the South African apartheid regime to its very core with a very successful career in the UK after being denied a platform at home in which to shine.

Past Simple is also very internet-savvy and web-wise, with recommendations for plenty of very good YouTube clips. It has web links to further develop the students’ understanding. For example, they are invited to investigate whether Henry VIII really wrote the words to Greensleeves. I particularly like the way keyword search engine prompts are given. For example, when doing research on the welfare state, it is suggested that they search for ‘state pension’ + ‘history’ and ‘William Beverage’ + ‘last words’ and ‘NHS’ + ‘number of employees’ + ‘annual budget’, thus guiding the students to excellent interactive material.

The final writing tasks in each unit range from writing short essays to more creative approaches, like writing a childhood account or a poem. Best, however, is the treatment of idioms – so on the section for topic development, students are asked if they know the meaning of words like chuddies, chutzpah, kushti/cushty, craic/crack, and so on. My students really warmed to this in class.

Altogether, this is a very pleasing addition to the plethora of English language teaching books out there, but one that stands out as it gets students to practise the four skills while getting to grips with the rich and diverse cultural backstory from which the English language has emerged."

- Ashley Chapman for English Teaching Professional, Issue 87, July 2013

"Past Simple introduces British history and culture, and no doubt enthusiasts of the Clil approach to the ELT classroom will find this of immense interest. Its 22 chapters fall into two parts: twelve on key episodes or periods of British history, such as the First World War, and ten on significant themes, such as imperialism and the growth of democracy. The authors do not state a suitable language level for intended users, but judging by the reading texts and follow-up tasks this would certainly be material for those at or beyond FCE level; that’s B2 on the CEFR or Ielts 6.0.

The twelve chronological chapters in part one look firstly at the Romans in Britain and what they did for the country as it then looked. As with all chapters, following a lengthy and hugely informative reading text, this time on rebellions and ‘barbarians’, the readers meets a page of related and generally high-level multiple choice and true-or-false questions. Section two of this and other units develops the topic in focus by looking at related features, for example Roman architectural splendours. More interestingly, for the general language learner, it also looks at words the Romans left behind after they departed in AD 410, such as thesaurus, abacus, and curriculum. Chapters end with extension activities involving discussion questions, areas for library research and writing.

As Past Simple looks also at events taking place in 1066, King Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and the English Civil War, it would certainly provide absorbing reading about early English history for students in English-medium colleges of further or higher education, or those on summer schools wishing to develop their language skills through private study. Following units on Samuel Pepys’ London, it moves swiftly on to matters relating to Victorian England and the Blitz of the Second World War. The final three units in part one cover the emergence of the welfare state, the Swinging Sixties and the life and times of ‘Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher.

Part two covers themes relating to recent history in Britain, looking first at the development of democracy from 1066 up to the removal from power of wartime prime minister Winston Churchill by the ballot box at the end of WWII.

While some themes are perhaps predictable, such as the life and works of William Shakespeare and Britain’s issues with Ireland, others are a delightful surprise, Chapter seventeen for example, felt like the answer to this reviewer’s silent prayer as it covers the noble English game of cricket, always felt to be a reflection of the true national character of people living there. Although it fails to go into the vagaries of the LBW (leg before wicket) rule, it deals with the well-known cricketing phrases that are commonly used, such as ‘knocked for six’ to describe immense surprise, and ‘batting on a sticky wicket; to express a person’s difficult situation. Extension activities include carrying out internet searches for Test match records, or getting hold of Wisden, the cricketer’s bible. Personally if I ever get used to such material I think I might be gone for a week at least.

Such absorbing material is certainly to be applauded and, while challenging, marks a great change from dull activities covering inevitable grammar points. All chapters in Past Simple could and indeed should be used to supplement developing themes in main coursebooks."

- EL Gazette, October 2013