The conditional form in English can be a confusing structure for ESL students. Since it is used to discuss situations that may or may not be true and can be situated in the past, present or future, your students will have to remember many details before they are able to master the conditional.
Here are six activities you can use to teach or review the conditional form with your students. They cover the 6 general situations in which the conditional can be used, and will give your students a chance to practice speaking, reading, listening and writing if you complete all of the activities.
What to Do with the Conditional
A Present Situation That is Possible
Wishes are great context for practicing the conditional. Remind students that when using wish, the past tense is used to represent a present situation. With that in mind, have your students do a genie in the bottle role play to practice. Have one person play the genie who starts by saying, “I will grant you three wishes.” The other person then makes a wish using the conditional form of the verb. For example, he might say, “I wish I had a puppy.” The genie answers, “Your wish is my command.” Once the person has made all three wishes, have your students reverse roles and repeat the role play.
A Future Situation That is Possible
If clauses are another natural context for practicing the conditional tense in English. For an if clause discussing a future situation, the verb is in the present tense. Ask your students to imagine their lives five or ten years from now. What would they like their lives to look like? Have your students write 10 sentences about their futures starting with an if clause. For example, someone may write “If I work in the United States in fifteen years, I will live in New York City.” Remind your students, too, to place a comma after the first clause in each sentence.
A Present Situation That is Unlikely or Impossible
What would your students do if they were not studying English? Have each person imagine what it would be like if he or she was completely fluent in the English language right now. Then, have your students write about what their life would be like. “If I were fluent right now, I would write a bestselling novel,” might be an example. Remind your students that when using be as the verb in the if clause, any subject takes “were”.
A Future Situation That is Unlikely or Impossible
Worst case scenarios can range from outrageous to probable, and in his book The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook, Joshua Piven give the reader plenty to think about. If you are able to get a copy of the book, use these situations to practice using conditional statements for future unlikely events, or come up with some worst case scenarios of your own. Give each student one of the scenarios to read about. In each segment, Piven compiles advice on how to overcome the worst case scenario. Your students will read his advice and then determine how to write the same information in a conditional statement. She will then share her advice with the rest of the class. For example, if she reads about being trapped in quicksand, she might say, “If you are trapped in quicksand, you should try and float on your back.” In this case, the if clause should be in the present tense and the main clause should use should with the main verb.
Something That is Always True If Something Happens
As different as your students might be, they do have one thing in common: they are learners of English. Have your students tap into that experience by writing a brochure giving advice to future students of English. In the brochure, your students should give advice to the reader in an imperative statement and follow it with the reason for the advice. They should use the conditional to express results that are always true when a student performs a certain action. For example, your students might advise their readers to speak with native speakers every day, and they would follow that advice with this explanation. “When a student speaks with native speakers every day, he or she has better pronunciation.” In a sentence with this structure, both verbs are in the present tense.
Something That Would Have Been True in the Past If Something Had Happened
Give your students a chance to get to know one another better while they practice the conditional by sharing stories of their past. In pairs, have one student share something that happened to him at some time in the past, for example, that he got an A on an exam. Then have the second student ask a question beginning with “what if” and using the conditional form of the verb to pose an alternative past. For example, the second student might ask, “What if you had not studied?” The first student would then answer with a conditional statement. “I would have failed.” For a past situation that might have been true, the verb in the first clause should use the past perfect and the verb in the second clause should use would have plus the past participle form of the verb.
It is easy to get confused in a foreign language when you are talking about things that may or may not be or have been, but that is why it is important to review the conditional with your students.
These activities are not for beginning level students, but by the time you are ready to teach and review the conditional with your students, they will be well suited to these activities which review the conditional tense that they already know.
What are your favorite activities for teaching or reviewing the conditional in English?