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Teacher's Corner: Conditionals
This month we’ll take a closer look at some of the ways conditionals function and how we can provide students meaningful (and fun!) ways to practice using these grammatical forms.

Conditionals can be a troublesome grammar point for EFL learners.  However, teachers should invest time in exploring this topic because conditionals allow us to express a wide variety of English language functions.  To name a few, we can use conditionals to state facts, to give advice, to discuss and analyze future and past situations, and to talk about hypothetical situations.  This month we’ll take a closer look at some of the ways conditionals function and how we can provide students meaningful (and fun!) ways to practice using these grammatical forms.

To begin, examine these conditional sentence and their functions.  What do the sentences have in common?

  • If water reaches 212° Fahrenheit (100° Celsius), it boils. (fact)
  • If I were you, I wouldn’t waste money buying junk food. (giving advice)
  • She will pass the class if she studies and does her homework. (talking about the future)
  • You would have caught the bus if you had woken up 15 minutes earlier. (analyzing the past)
  • If Maria were president, she would pass more laws to protect the environment. (talking about a hypothetical situation)

Although these sentences perform different functions, they share a common feature:  all conditionals include a cause and effect relationship.  The “cause” part of each sentence describes a condition or situation. This part of a conditional is called the “condition clause,” and usually begins with the word “if” (or an equivalent phrase like as long as or in the event that).  The “effect” part of a conditional is called the “result clause,” which explains an outcome that is dependent on the condition described in the other part of the sentence.

                     If you mix red paint and blue paint together, you get purple paint.

                                 condition clause (cause)     +     result clause (effect)

 

As you saw in the sentence list above, the condition clause and the result clause can be placed in any order.  For example, look at Sentences A and B below.  Do they have the same meaning? 

                     A:  She will pass the class if she studies and does her homework.
                     B:  If she studies and does her homework, she will pass the class.

Notice that if the condition clause comes first, it is followed by a comma (Sentence B).  A comma is not needed when the result clause is first in a conditional sentence (Sentence A).

Some teachers may already be familiar with several ways of classifying conditional structures, such as the zero, first, second, and third conditional or systems that focus on real and unreal states along with the conditional’s time or function (e.g., unreal past conditional, timeless factual conditional).  Don’t worry!  Advanced knowledge of conditional classification schemes isn’t needed to successfully use this month’s activities in your classroom.

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“What would happen if…?” Chain StoriesExpand

We can use conditionals to talk about hypothetical future events that are unlikely or impossible.  Use this activity to practice or review unreal future conditionals (also called hypothetical conditionals or the second conditional).  It can be used as a fun closing activity after a grammar presentation or as a review-oriented warm up activity. 

Level:  Intermediate and above

Language skill focus:  Speaking or writing, grammar (primary focus); listening or reading (secondary focus)

Goal:  Students will use oral or written conditionals to develop a series of related “cause and effect” events.   The chain of events will create a short, often funny, story.  Repetition in the story creation process enables students to both hear and practice the grammatical pattern several times. 

Materials:

  • Teacher: whiteboard, chalkboard, or large pieces of paper posted on the wall; markers or chalk; a clock or timing device
  • Students: pencils or pens, blank writing paper, small cards or squares of blank paper (enough for each group of 4-8 students to have 10 cards)

Preparation:

  • Prepare a list of 5-7 unreal conditional prompts.  The prompts can be unlikely or completely impossible. For example, your list may include prompts such as:
  • If I got a perfect score on my college entrance exams, ….
  • If I visited the United States next week, ….
  • If I won the lottery/a million dollars, ….
  • **If I were elected president, ….
  • If the internet was shut down tomorrow, ….
  • If aliens landed in my city, ….
  • If scientists found a way for humans to live for 150 years, …
  • Select the amount of time you want to devote to the activity.  A warm up or brief review may take 10-15 minutes of class time; for a closing activity after an initial grammar presentation, you may want to dedicate 20-25 minutes to the activity.

** During the lesson you may wish to review or highlight that, according to prescriptive grammar rules, with this conditional form the verb “to be” becomes “were” for all persons in the condition clause (If I were you, If John were 10 years older, etc.).   You can also explain that many American native English speakers no longer observe this rule, so students may also hear If I was you, If John was 10 years older, etc.

Procedures - Speaking Activity:

  1. Write several prompts from your list on the board.  To emphasize these events are hypothetical (not real in the present), ask students a few concept-checking questions, such as, “Have these things already happened? Are these events likely to happen in real life?”
  2. Highlight that the situations all begin with “If” and elicit the verb tense used in the “if” clause/condition clause (simple past).  Ask the class to brainstorm a few more hypothetical situations and add them to the list on the board.  Aim to have a list of at least 10 situation prompts.
  3. Create groups of 4-8 students, and ask student volunteers to pass out stacks of 10 blank cards to each group.  Ask groups to copy 10 prompts onto their cards, and then to put the cards in a facedown pile.
  4. Tell groups they will create chain stories using the hypothetical prompts. Model how to develop a chain story, writing the information below on the board as you go along:
  • Provide a prompt that isn’t on the list written on the board:  If I never needed to sleep,….
  • Complete the prompt:  If I never needed to sleep, I would learn 10 languages.
  • Explain how to create a “link the story chain” by using the result clause in the next sentence’s condition clause (in other words, by using the previous effect as the next cause): If I learned 10 languages, I would travel the world.
  • Highlight how the verb in the old result clause changes from would + verb to the simple past tense, if desired.
  • Repeat the process to create 4 or 5 story links, eliciting some of the result clauses from the class.  Your completed chain story might look like this:

     If I never had to sleep, I would learn 10 languages.
     If I learned 10 languages, I would travel the world.
     If I traveled the world, I would eat lots of interesting food.
     If I ate lots of interesting food, I would study cooking.
     If I studied cooking, I would return to my country and be a famous chef.

  1. Tell students that the person with the next birthday in each group will pick the first prompt.  This person should pick a prompt card from the stack, read it out loud, and then verbally complete the conditional sentence following the model.  The person to his or her right must complete the next link in the chain story by taking the previous result clause and turning it into a condition clause. For example: Person 1 - If I won a million dollars, I’d buy a spaceship. Person 2 – If I bought a spaceship, I would take my friends to Mars.  Each person in the group must make a link in the chain story until everyone has contributed.  When the story is complete, the person to the right of the original “story starter” will choose a new card to start the process again.  Remind students that the stories can be serious or funny, but they should be classroom appropriate.
  2. Tell students how long the activity will last, set the timer, and direct groups to begin.
  3. To focus on grammatical accuracy, there are several ways to provide feedback during this activity.  For example, group members can give each link in the story a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” based on whether or not they think the contribution is grammatically correct.  Groups can discuss any observed problem areas and the contributor can try to correct his/her statement.  Alternatively, you can monitor groups as they create their spoken chain stories, and collect examples of student errors for a delayed feedback and error correction session at the end of the activity. 

Procedures - Writing Activity Variation:

  1. Follow steps 1-4 above.
  2. After modeling how to create a chain story, explain that when the activity starts, each person will pick a different prompt from the facedown pile.  Students will write their prompt on a piece of paper and complete the conditional sentence in writing.
  3. Then everyone passes his/her paper in a clockwise direction. Each person then adds a link in the new story.  Students then pass the papers clockwise again.
  4. Continue the process until everyone receives his/her original paper back.  The group members then read the different chain stories aloud.
  5. To focus on grammatical accuracy, each student can check the story he/she started for errors during and after the read aloud.  Group members can work together to address any questions about correct usage.      
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Regrets and Wishes of the Rich, Famous, or FictionalExpand

In this activity, students will practice or review using conditionals to express wishes and regrets about the past.  This conditional form used in this situation is often called the past unreal conditional or the third conditional. 

Level:  Upper intermediate and above

Language skill focus:  Writing, grammar (primary focus); speaking, listening (secondary focus)

Goal:  Students will use the written and spoken unreal past conditionals to describe wishes or regrets of famous/well-known people, historical figures, or fictional characters.  Other students will guess the person or character based on the wishes or regrets that are described.

Materials:

  • Teacher: whiteboard, chalkboard, or large pieces of paper posted on the wall; markers or chalk; a clock or timing device
  • Students: pencils or pens, blank writing paper

Preparation

  • Develop 1-2 example characters and a list of 3-4 wishes or regrets that could identify them to use in the modeling/explanation stage of the activity (see Step 3 below).

Procedures

  1. Write the word “regret” on the board and elicit the meaning from the class using prompting questions if needed. 
  2. Ask students to give a few examples of regrets, such as “I never met my grandmother.” or “I didn’t do my homework last week.”  Ask students why these situations are regrets, that is, why do they wish the past were different?  Based on their answers, write unreal past conditional sentences on the board such as:
  • If I had met my grandmother, she would have told me stories about my father.
  • If I had done my homework last week, I would have done better on the exam.

     If desired, elicit the underlying grammatical form for these unreal past conditionals:

     If + past perfect tense…, would have + past participle….  

  1. Next, write one set of example descriptive conditional regret or wish sentences you developed before the lesson on the board.  Ask students to guess the target character or person.  For additional modeling, read your second set of example conditional regret or wish sentences aloud and allow students to guess the target.  For example:
  • If I hadn’t been so round, life would have been much easier for me.
  • If had never sat on that wall, I would have avoided a disaster. 
  • If the kings’ men had been smarter, I would still be in one piece.

Answer: Humpty Dumpty, a nursery rhyme character

  • If I hadn’t lived during wartime, my job would have been much less challenging.
  • If southern U.S. states hadn’t supported slavery, my country would probably have remained unified. 
  • If I hadn’t attended a play at Ford’s Theater, I would have been able to share more time with my family.

Answer:  Abraham Lincoln, American president during the Civil War

  1. Depending on your class size, put students in groups of 4-8 students, and then have the group members divide into pairs.
  2. Ask the pairs to work together to choose a target person or character.  Remind students that they can choose any famous real person or fictional character, past or present.  
  3. Tell pairs they will have 10 minutes to develop a written list of 3-4 wishes or regrets the target person or character might have about the past.  Adjust the amount of time dedicated to this portion of the activity according to your students’ level.
  4. After the designated time has elapsed, ask pairs to rejoin their group mates. Each pair will read their “wish or regret” clues aloud, and the other pairs will try to guess the target character or person.
  5. When the activity is over, groups can share their funniest, most unique, or most difficult set of clues with the whole class.     

 

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“What would you do if…?” Making Plans to Deal with Difficult SituationsExpand

In this activity, students will practice or review how to use conditionals to discuss plans to get out of tricky situations.  This conditional form used for this language function is called the unreal future conditional or the second conditional. 

Level: Intermediate and above

Language skill focus:  Speaking, listening, grammar (primary focus); writing (secondary focus)

Goal: Students will orally use unreal future conditionals to ask and answer questions about their plans for solving a variety of problems.  Students will take written notes during their interviews so that they can accurately report interview results to the class.

Materials:

  • Teacher: whiteboard, chalkboard, or large pieces of paper posted on the wall; markers or chalk
  • Students: pencils or pens, blank writing paper

Preparation

  • Develop a list of 8-10 “What would you do if…?” question prompts for students to use during the interviews.  The questions should present dangerous or challenging situations.  Adapt the content to be relevant to your students’ local environment. Examples might include:
    • What would you do if you saw a bear while walking in the woods?
    • What would you do if you were trapped in a room where the walls were closing in on you?
    • What would you do if there were a fire in your kitchen? **
    • What would you do if there were a snake in your bedroom? **
    • What would you if your computer broke and you lost all of your files?
    • What would you do if a shark appeared next to you while you were swimming?

** During the lesson you may wish to review or highlight that, according to prescriptive grammar rules, with this conditional form the verb “to be” becomes “were” for all persons in the condition clause (If I were you, If John were 10 years older, etc.).   You can also explain that many American native English speakers no longer observe this rule, so students may also hear If I was you, If John was 10 years older, etc.

Procedures

  • Tell students that this activity will require them to be creative and “think on their feet” to solve problems or manage difficult situations.
  • Ask a few volunteers to share responses to one of the “What would you do if…? questions you developed before class. For example, if you ask “What would you do if you saw a bear while walking in the woods?” students might respond with partial answers, such as “Run away.” or “Make loud noises and try to scare it.”  Write student answers on the board in the form of complete future unreal conditional sentences:
    • If I saw a bear in the woods, I would (I’d) run away.
    • If I saw a bear in the woods, I would (I’d) make loud noises and try to scare it.
  • As desired, draw students’ attention to the grammatical form used in the complete responses:  If + past tense…, would + verb…..
  • Write your complete list of “What would you do if…?” question prompts on the board. Ask the class to brainstorm 3-4 additional tricky situations to add to the question list.
  • Ask students to make three vertical columns on a blank piece of paper.  Tell students to write Question, Name, and Plan at the top of the three columns.  Draw an example on the board, if needed.  Ask students to pick their favorite five “What would you do if…?” questions and write in the first column.
  • Ask students to get out of their seats and interview five different people about their plans to deal with the difficult situations.  As they interview each person, students should write down his/her name in the second column and make notes about the person’s plan in the third column.
  • When the interview period is complete, ask students to circle the three most creative or funny answers on their interview sheet. 
  • Next, in a whole class setting, go through the list of  “What would you do if…?” questions on the board, asking 2-3 students to report any unique answers back to the class.  Be sure to prompt students to give complete answers when sharing responses.  For example:  If Saeed saw a snake in his bedroom, he’d try to hypnotize it by playing music.  Address any errors, as needed, while students share their interview results.
  • If desired, at the end of the sharing session, the class can vote on their favorite plan.
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SuperstitionsExpand

Superstitions, sometimes called “old wives’ tales,” are longstanding, traditional beliefs that aren’t based on logic or fact.  In English and many other languages, superstitions are often phrased in the form of a first conditional statement.  In this activity, students will examine superstition statements in English, will think about English equivalents for superstitions from their own culture, and will play a short guessing game related to superstitions.

Level:  Intermediate and above

Language skill focus:  Grammar, vocabulary (primary focus); reading, speaking (secondary focus)

Goal:  Students will explore vocabulary content in and the meaning of superstitions phrased as conditional statements.  Students will brainstorm additional examples of superstitions from their own culture that can be restated in English using the first conditional.  Students will work in small groups to guess superstition statements based on a group mate’s miming or drawing the superstition’s meaning.

Materials:

  • Teacher: whiteboard, chalkboard, or large pieces of paper posted on the wall; markers or chalk; small slips of paper with superstitions on them, enough for each group of 4 students to have 8 slips:  print or photocopy the superstitions below and cut them into paper strips, or ask students to write down 8 different superstitions on small blank slips of paper that you provide to each group.
  • Students: pencils or pens

Preparation:

  • Review this list of superstition statements phrased in the first conditional.  You can add more statements to the list if you like.  Also, think of one or two superstition statements from your own culture that can be worded in a first conditional statement to use during the presentation stage of the activity.
    • If you break a mirror, you’ll have seven years of bad luck.
    • If you blow out all of the candles on your birthday cake in one breath, your birthday wish will come true.
    • If you find a four-leafed clover, you’ll have good luck.
    • If you step on a crack (in a sidewalk), you’ll break your mother’s back.
    • If you walk under a ladder, you’ll have bad luck.
    • If you carry garlic, you will be protected from vampires.
    • If your palm itches, you will receive money soon.
    • If your feet itch, you will travel soon.
    • If you touch a frog (or toad), you’ll get warts.
    • If you find a penny that is heads up and pick it up, you’ll have good luck.
  • Print or photocopy your superstition list, and cut the lists into paper strips, each containing one superstition, or prepare blank paper strips for students to fill out during the activity. 

Procedures:

  • Write several superstitions from your list on the board.  For each superstition, poll the class (ask students to raise their hands) to determine (1) if they have ever heard of the superstition and (2) if they agree with each item.  Provide vocabulary explanation support, as needed, while you present the superstitions.
  • Write “superstition” on the board, tell students that all of the examples on the board are superstitions, and then elicit a definition or explanation for the term “superstition.”
  • Tell students to turn to a partner and brainstorm a few superstitions that are common in your local culture.  Provide an example to get the brainstorming process started.  Tell students that they should try to rephrase the local superstitions in English.  Elicit responses from several pairs, and add their examples to the list on the board.  As you add examples, prompt students to provide their answers in the first conditional format (If you + simple present tense verb…, you will + verb….  or  You will + verb…if you + simple present tense verb….).
  • Put students into groups of 4.  Ask student volunteers to pass out the superstition strips to each group.  Consider including a few blank strips in each pack and asking students to write in some of the local superstitions they supplied.  If students are making all of the strips, ask them to copy at least 8 superstitions on the blank slips of paper you provide. Tell groups to put their strips face down and mix them up. 
  • Explain that group members will each pick a strip from the pile and then try to get their group mates to guess the corresponding superstition by drawing images to represent the superstition (like the game Pictionary) or acting out their superstition’s meaning (like charades).  Each student can choose his or her preferred communication method.  Model an example superstition for the class by acting or drawing and having the students guess.  Encourage students to provide their guesses in the form of a conditional statement.
  • Start playing the game.  Monitor groups as they begin guessing, prompting students to give complete answers if needed.  Everyone should get two attempts to act or draw, and the game ends once most groups have exhausted their piles of superstition strips.  
  • If you want to add a competitive element, groups can keep score while playing:  students collect a point every time they are the first to correctly guess the superstition being acted out or drawn.
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