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Alibi is essentially a role play in which some students play the role of police detectives, while others play the role of suspects. Students can get very into their roles, especially the police who “try to break” the suspects. A version of alibi is included in the Cutting Edge books to teach past tenses.

The game is predicated on the idea that there has been a crime and some of the students are suspects. The police are therefore trying to find the guilty suspects. To do so, they must question two suspects who have a shared alibi (i.e. they claim to have been in the same place at the time of the crime) and try to find holes in their story. The suspects should meanwhile try to present a water-tight story to avoid further suspicion of guilt.

teach past tenses alibi
Alibi is a classic ESL game used to teach past tenses.


1: Tell students that there was a burglary at the school last night (try to elicit key vocabulary related to the crime). Some money has gone missing. Tell students that they are all suspects because whoever did it left their course book.

2: Divide the class into groups of four, then divide the groups into two police officers and two suspects. If there is a group of five, it is better for there to be three police officers.

3: Suspects and police officers should now be seated separately. The suspects should work together to decide on their alibi. Encourage them to invent as much detail as possible in case they are asked. Meanwhile, police officers should prepare their questions for the suspects about their alibi. Police officers should be told where the suspects will say they were (e.g. at the cinema). For both groups it is helpful to provide points to think about.

4: When you feel students are ready, ask one suspect from each group to leave the room. If you have another room or waiting area this is ideal (although you may wish to inform school administrators with teenagers so that they don’t think they are being sent out for bad behaviour). Police officers should interrogate the remaining suspects and make notes.

5: After a set time (about 5 minutes), swap the suspects. Police officers ask the same questions to confirm the suspects’ stories.

6: Call the other suspects in to class. Police officers now discuss whether their suspects stories matched, while suspects discuss the answers they gave.

7: Finally, police officers give their impressions of whether the suspects are guilty or not (i.e. whether they found any holes in the suspects’ stories or not).

P1: Where were you last night?
S1: I was at the cinema with my friend. We were watching the new Brad Pitt movie.
P2: Really? And what time did it start, exactly?


1: In order to involve the past perfect, police officers could start by questioning the final events of the evening and working back to the beginning (e.g. How did you get home?).

2: Although no preparation is strictly necessary, students benefit from at least some ideas for their alibi and the questions to ask, especially with lower level or less creative groups.

Follow on:

Students could write up the crime as a newspaper report, or students could attempt a mock trial with the guiltiest pair, while students from the other groups take up other roles e.g. judge, jury, witness, lawyer, etc.

Example Questions:

Which cinema did you go to? Where is it?
Who did you go with?
What were they wearing?
Whose idea was it to go to the cinema?
What movie did you see?
Who were the lead actors?
Did you buy any food or drinks?
Who paid for the tickets?
Which seats were you sitting in?
How did you get there?
What did you do after?

photo credit: f4niko Burglar Bill at large via photopin (license)

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