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How to Teach Conditionals

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Conditional forms should be introduced to students once they are familiar with the basic past, present and future tenses. While there are four conditional forms, it is best to start off with the first conditional focusing on real situations. To help students understand, I find it helpful to point out parallels in future time clauses:

I'll discuss the plan if he comes to the meeting.
We'll discuss the issue when he arrives tomorrow.

This will help students with the structure of using the 'if' clause to begin the sentence, in parallel with the same structure for future time clauses.

If we finish work early, we'll go out for a beer.
When we visit our parents, we like to go to Bob's Burgers.

Once students have understood this basic structural similarity, it's easy to continue on with the zero conditional, as well as the other conditional forms. It is also helpful to use other conditional names such as "real conditional" for the first conditional, "unreal conditional" for the second conditional form, and "past unreal conditional" for the third conditional. I recommend introducing all three forms if students are comfortable with tenses as the similarities in structure will help them digest the information. Here are suggestions to teaching each conditional form in order.

Zero Conditional

I recommend teaching this form after you have taught the first conditional. Remind the students that the first conditional is similar in meaning to future time clauses. The main difference between the zero conditional and a future time clause with 'when' is that the zero conditional is for situations which don't happen on a regular basis. In other words, use future time clauses for routines, but use the zero conditional for exceptional situations. Notice how the zero conditional is used to underline that a situation does not regularly occur in the examples below.

Routines

We discuss sales when we meet on Fridays.
When she visits her father, she always brings a cake.

Exceptional Situations

If a problem occurs, we immediately send our repairman.
She informs her director if she can't deal with the situation herself.

First Conditional

The focus in the first conditional is that it is used for realistic situations that will take place in the future. Make sure to point out that the first conditional is also called the "real" conditional. Here are the steps to teaching the first conditional form:

  • Introduce the construction of the first conditional: If + present simple, (then clause) future with "will"
  • Point out that the two clauses can be switched: (then clause) future with "will" + if + present simple
  • Note that a comma should be used when beginning the first conditional with the "If" clause.
  • To help students with the form, use a first conditional grammar chant to repeat the construction.
  • Use a first conditional worksheet to ask students to practice the form.
  • Create a first conditional chain by asking each student to repeat the result of what the previous student has said in the "if" clause. For example:

    If he comes, we will have lunch.
    If we have lunch, we'll go to Riccardo's pizzeria.
    If we go to Riccardo's pizzeria, we'll see Sarah.
    etc.

Second Conditional

Stress that the second conditional form is used to imagine a different reality. In other words, the second conditional is an "unreal" conditional.

  • Introduce the construction of the second conditional: If + past simple, (then clause) would + base form of verb
  • Point out that the two clauses can be switched: (then clause) would + base form of verb + if + past simple
  • Note that a comma should be used when beginning the second conditional with the "If" clause.
  • One problem with the second conditional is the use of "were" for all subjects. Cambridge University now also accepts "was". However, many academic institutions still expect "were". For example:

    If I were the teacher, I'd do more grammar.
    If I was the teacher, I'd do more grammar.

    I recommend using your best judgement based on your students' objectives. In any case, point out the difference in common usage and academic expectations.

  • To help students with the form, use a second conditional grammar chant to repeat the construction.
  • Use a second conditional worksheet to ask students to practice the form.
  • Create a second conditional chain by asking each student to repeat the result of what the previous student has said in the "if" clause. For example:

    If I had $1,000,000, I'd buy a new house.
    If I bought a new house, I'd get a swimming pool, too.
    If I had a swimming pool, we'd have lots of parties.
    etc.

  • Discuss the differences in usage between the first and second conditional. You can also use this ready to go conditionals lesson plan to further help students with the two forms.
  • Practice the differences between the first and second conditional forms with a comparative forms quiz.

Third Conditional

The third conditional can be challenging for students because of the long verb string in the result clause. Practicing the form repeatedly with the grammar chant and conditional chain exercise are especially useful for students when learning this complicated form. I suggest also teaching the similar form of expressing wishes with "I wish I had done ..." when teaching the third conditional.

  • Introduce the construction of the first conditional: If + past perfect, (then clause) would have + past participle
  • Point out that the two clauses can be switched: (then clause) would have + past participle+ if + past perfect
  • Note that a comma should be used when beginning the third conditional with the "If" clause.
  • To help students with the form, use a third conditional grammar chant to repeat the construction.
  • Use a third conditional worksheet to ask students to practice the form.
  • Create a third conditional chain by asking each student to repeat the result of what the previous student has said in the "if" clause. For example:

    If I had bought that car, I would have had an accident.
    If I had had an accident, I would have gone to the hospital.
    If I had gone to the hospital, I would have had an operation.
    etc.

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