Past simple

The past simple is used:

to talk about completed actions in the past:

My brother got a new job in Madrid last week.
What did he say when you told him?
Shakespeare died in 1616.

to talk about habits in the past:

We always had roast beef on Sundays when I was a boy.
We never went abroad for our holidays until the 1970s.
I travelled by bus until I passed my driving test.

to talk about events that happened one after the other:

He jumped out of bed, ran into the bathroom and slammed the door.
I came, I saw, I conquered.

Past continuous

The past continuous is used:

to talk about an activity in progress at a particular time in the past:

What were you doing at 9 o'clock on the night of the murder?
At 9 o'clock I was getting the dinner ready.
At 2 o'clock everyone was having lunch.

to describe a situation or activity:

Cars were speeding past and people were hurrying towards the station.
It was raining so hard that everyone was sheltering in doorways.
He was wearing his best suit.

when a past action is interrupted by a shorter action:

I was walking along the road when it started to rain.
Someone knocked on the door as I was getting dressed.
I was wondering what to do when the phone rang.

when a past action takes place during another, longer past action or state:

She was living in Madrid when she met her husband.
I decided to give up smoking while I was working in the hospital.
I was learning Arabic when I got the chance to visit Egypt.

Past simple and past continuous

As far as Spanish speakers are concerned, the main thing that you should remember is that you have more verb tenses in Spanish than we have in English.

Even though it might sound strange to you, you need to use the correct English tense according to the rules. Look at the following examples which could help:

When we arrived she made some tea. (One action followed another)
When we arrived she was making some tea. (She was in the middle of making it)

I painted the living room yesterday. (I finished it)
I was painting the living room yesterday, (I did part of it)

He drowned. (He's dead)
He was drowning. (I jumped in and saved him)

He hit his brother. (Single action)
He was hitting his brother. (Repeated activity)

The old pub stood by the river near the bridge. (Permanent)
He was standing outside the pub waiting for it to open. (Temporary)

Past perfect simple and continuous

The past perfect simple expresses an action that happened before a definite time in the past:

I got to his house at 10 o'clock, but he had already left.
She started to cry because she had had such a terrible day.
I asked him if he wanted a coffee but he had already had one.

The continuous is used for longer activities that had been going on up to a definite time in the past:

He was a wreck. He hadn't been sleeping well because he'd been worrying so much about his money problems.

The continuous is used for repeated or continuous activities, while the simple is used for completed or single actions:

He was drunk. He had been drinking all day. (Repeated activity)
He was drunk. He had drunk a whole bottle of whisky. (Completed action)

Past perfect and past simple

The past simple can tell a story in chronological order:

She was all alone in the world. Her parents got divorced when she was a girl, her sister got married and went to live in Turkey, and her boyfriend left her after five years of living together.

The past perfect can be used for dramatic effect, looking from one point in the past to another point even further in the past:

She was all alone in the world. Her parents had got divorced when she was a girl, her sister had got married and gone to live in Turkey, and her boyfriend had left her after five years of living together.

The past simple can be used when one action follows another and it's obvious that it happened afterwards:

When the doorbell rang I got up to answer it.
I heard the milkman and went to order an extra carton of milk.

If it's important to show that the second action started after the first one was completed, the first action must be in the past perfect:

When I had finished reading the paper, I threw it away.
I didn't leave the house until I had made sure that all the windows were closed.