When and While

Clarify when to use ‘when’ and ‘while’ with the past continuous and past simple.

Pre Teach

This is a practice activity, so students will have already studied the form of the past simple and past continuous, and that ‘when’ precedes the simple and ‘while’ precedes the continuous. This activity will allow them to practise using this with real situations in a visual way.

What You Need

A few suitable DimmiDeck cards (Suggested – The Waitress, The Electrician, The Waiter, The Student and The Plumber)

Suggested Lesson Plan

(As part of a PPP lesson plan, this would be the Practise phase. In the full DimmiDeck, there are more cards with complex situations with which you could Present the language)

  1. Show The Waitress card.
  2. Elicit three or four verbs from the group that are happening in the card. For example, there is work, drop dishes, see snake, break dishes, jump.
  3. After eliciting four or five different verbs from each group, have them put the verbs into the past simple and past continuous (if feasible). Correct together, and be careful of irregular verbs.
  4. Next you need to clarify the order of events together. Create a model sentence with the group to explain what happened first. You could also show this on a timeline. In the case of the waitress, ‘she was working when she saw a snake’
  5. Clarify with the students that when is generally used before the past simple and while before the past continuous.
  6. Have the students work in pairs to reformulate the sentence using while. (She saw a snake while she was working.)
  7. Next, have them create sentences explaining the other actions in the card, using different combinations of past continuous (for actions interrupted by a past simple event) and past simple (for action independent of each other).  Some optimal examples for the Waitress, for instance, would be:‘she was working when she saw a snake.’
    ‘she jumped in the air when she saw the snake .’
    ‘she dropped the plates while she was jumping in the air ’
    ‘the plates broke when they fell.’
  8. You can then change cards and work together as a class to create new sentences. The Electrician, The Student and the Postwoman are all good examples to use here.
  9. Repeat the activity with in pairs with the new cards, and reformulate sentences with the class. These situations are largely subjective, so encourage conflicting sentences so long as they are correct.


This is an excerpt from a full PPP lesson with the complete DimmiDeck. We have specially designed eight more complex cards such as the waitress with cause and effect situations where this grammar point can be clarified.