Conditionals can be confusing for ESL students.
Since they talk about real and unreal pasts, presents, and futures, sentences get complicated quickly. If you are ready to introduce your students to the conditional structure in English, here is a basic summary of the four different patterns they will need to know.
4 Important Tips for Successful Conditionals Teaching
Always True: Zero Conditionals
The first type of conditionals are generalized cause and effect statements. These statements, also known as zero conditionals, express a natural and consistent consequence for a particular set of conditions. They are a general truth. These conditions have happened in the past, still happen today, and will continue to happen in the future.
- If it snows, the city plows the streets.
- If you eat too much, you get fat.
- If you don’t brush your teeth, you get cavities.
Like any other conditional statement, zero conditionals have an if-clause and a result clause. The if-clause states the condition, and it is expressed in the simple present tense. The result clause is the independent clause, and it is also expressed in the simple present tense. (Like any good grammar point, there are exceptions to the present tense/present tense rule, but if you are just introducing conditionals to your students or are trying to clear up confusion, keep it simple for now and introduce the exceptions later.)
Possible Futures: First Conditionals
One type of conditionals, often referred to as first conditionals, are used to talk about possible future events. We can predict lots of events that might happen in the future, and an English speaker communicated those events or circumstances in the if-clause of his conditional statement. As with zero conditionals, first conditionals consist of an if-clause (the dependent clause) as well as a result clause (the independent clause). For future events, ones that are possible, the condition expressed in the if-clauses uses the simple present tense even though that condition is happening in the future. If he calls you tonight…if she gets accepted to the school…if we don’t get home on time… The result clause can be expressed with three different structures depending on what the speaker is trying to say.
For simple predictions, the result clause should be expressed in the simple future tense.
- If he calls you tonight, I will be surprised.
- If she gets accepted to the school, she will move to California.
- If we don’t get home on time, we will be in trouble.
A speaker might also want to give instructions in a result clause, and if so he or she should us the imperative structure in the result clause.
- If he calls you tonight, don’t answer.
- If we don’t get home on time, don’t tell your parents.
A third possibility for the result clause of a possible future conditional is the use of a modal verb.
- If he calls you tonight, you should tell him the truth.
- If she gets accepted to the school, she might move to California.
- If we don’t get home on time, you should pay your little brother to keep his mouth shut.
The key for your students to remember is that future conditionals have an if-clause that is expressed in the simple present. The verb tense of the result clause will then depend on what the speaker wants to say about that future.
Impossible Futures: Second Conditionals
We all like to dream about futures that we know will never happen – winning the lottery, getting discovered and becoming famous, winning a Nobel peace prize. For some people these futures are possible, but for the rest of us we already know they will never happen. And that is exactly when it’s time to use second conditionals. Like any other conditional sentence, those that talk about an unreal or impossible future have both an if-clause and a result clause. The if-clause refers to a future situation, one that really has no chance of happening. To indicate such a set of conditions, a speaker uses the simple past in the if-clause. The result clause in second conditionals uses would with the base verb.
- If I won the lottery, I would travel around the world. (I won’t win the lottery because I don’t have a ticket.)
- If I had ten children, I would go crazy. (I do not want ten children and will never have that many.)
- If I ruled the world, I would treat all people equally. (There is no way for me to become ruler of the world.)
Unreal Pasts: Third Conditionals
Do you ever wish you could have done something differently in your past? If so, you might express your wishes using a third conditional. This structure is used to talk about events that did not happen in the past (and cannot happen in the future) and the results that also did not happen. For both the condition and the results, the events are impossible since they should have happened in the past but did not. Third conditionals express these ideas again with an if-clause and a result clause. For unreal past events, speakers should use the past perfect in the if-clause (the circumstances that did not happen). The result clause (that also did not happen) is expressed with would have + the past participle of the verb.
- If she had won the contest, she would not have changed careers. (She did not win the contest. As a result, she changed careers.)
- If he had read the instructions, he would have put it together correctly. (He did not read the directions. He did not put it together correctly.)
- If it had rained last weekend, we would have had the party indoors. (It did not rain. The party was not indoors.)
Also keep in mind that it is possible to use could have, might have, or should have for result clauses in third conditionals.
- If he had asked me to marry him, I might have said yes.
- If you had invited her, she could have arranged a ride.
Now that your students know the basics of conditionals, give them some practice. You can find activities that review each of the four types of conditionals in English right here on Busy Teacher.
Do you have other great activities for practicing conditionals?
Share them with us in the comments below.
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