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How to Teach Conditionals to ESL Students

Instructor: Heather Godfrey Gaddis

Heather has taught ESL/EFL in the United States, Mexico, and Turkey, and has a master's degree in Applied Linguistics.

Are your ESL students struggling with conditionals? You can use different ways to teach conditionals, such as focusing on the form or the meaning. This lesson explains these approaches and how to determine which is the most appropriate.

What Is the Conditional?

  • What will you do if it rains today?
  • What would you buy if someone gave you a million dollars?
  • What would you have done if you had fallen in front of everyone?

When you think of responses to questions like these, you are thinking in the conditional. The conditional refers to a set of grammatical structures used to talk about hypothetical situations or possibilities.

The conditional confuses many native English speakers, so your ESL students may have a particularly tough time learning them! Let's quickly review the four types of conditional sentences.

Type Example Sentence Meaning Uses
Type 0 If you heat water, it boils. Present General Facts
Type 1 If he calls me again, I will not answer. Real Future Possibility Persuasion, Warnings, Threats
Type 2 I would buy a bigger house if I were rich. Unreal Future or Present Possibility Wishes, Advice
Type 3 If I had studied, I would have passed the test. Unreal Past Regrets

Notice that there are two clauses in each conditional sentence. The clause starting with 'if' is a dependent clause, and the other is the main clause.

Now let's take a look at a couple different ways you can approach teaching the conditional.

Focus on Form

Take another look at the example sentences. What do you notice about the tenses used in each sentence? Is the same verb tense used in both parts of the sentence? Each of these questions focuses on the form, or grammar, of the sentences.

To focus on form, the teacher writes an example sentence on the board and gives a short explanation of the structure. This short explanation often includes labeling the different parts of the structure. The teacher then asks questions to check students' understanding of the meaning and form of the sentence, such as:

  • Is this a real or imaginary situation?
  • Has someone given you a million dollars?
  • What verb tense is used in each part of the sentence?

Many languages, such as Spanish and French, use similar structures to express conditionals. For adults who have studied conditionals in another language, it can be helpful to focus on grammatical structure, such as verb tenses, because these students will be familiar with structure. In addition, adults often appreciate a focus on form as they are capable of analyzing grammar.

On the other hand, this approach would not work as well with adolescent or younger learners who lack a frame of reference and would become bored quickly. These students typically prefer to focus on meaning.

Focus on Meaning

A focus on meaning begins by listening to or reading a text that includes several examples of the conditional. After having students explore the text by completing comprehension activities, such as listening or reading for meaning, the teacher draws students' attention to conditional sentences in the text. By using questions, the teacher guides students toward recognizing both meaning and form and the related grammar rules. For example, the teacher may ask:

  • Do we use the past simple or past perfect in the main clause?
  • Does the 'if' clause always come first?

This approach is called guided discovery, and is more suitable for students who are comfortable taking risks and working out meaning on their own.

Practice Activities

Like all aspects of learning English, conditionals require practice. You may choose controlled or freer activities depending on your students' needs.

Controlled Activities

After introducing conditionals, the teacher gives students a controlled activity, such as filling in the blanks of conditional sentences with the correct form of the verb or matching two parts of conditional sentences. Controlled activities usually have only one correct answer and focus on correct form.

Freer Activities

Less controlled activities include rewriting a sentence using the conditional. For example, wishes in the present can also be expressed using the second conditional. The sentence, 'I wish I were taller,' can be extended and rewritten as 'If I were taller, I could run faster.'

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