If I could be anywhere...how to teach conditional sentences
Of all the sentence structures in English, some of the most complex and often-confused are conditionals. These useful but tricky structures rely on the use of ‘if’ and specific clauses to communicate the reason-result relationship between two ideas. So what defines conditional sentences, and how can we teach them in a memorable way?
What is a conditional sentence?
A conditional sentence contains two clauses: a condition (clause 1) which results in another event (clause 2) if and only if the clause 1 condition is met, as in the structures:
If (clause 1), (clause 2). Or…. (Clause 2) if (clause 1).
If it rains, I’ll stay inside. Or…. I’ll stay inside if it rains
Conditional sentences rely on the ‘if’ - a similar structure is used with the conjunction ‘when’, though strictly speaking this is not conditional, as there are other implications which mean that ‘when’ does not communicate the same kind of condition in clause 1.
Why are conditionals tricky? A meaning / form view
Conditionals are often confused because their form differs significantly from their meaning. In a conditional sentence, a past form can mean a present condition, as in:
If I were Prime Minister, I’d make a lot of changes to the country.
In this sentence, the past simple ‘I were’ is used to communicate a present condition, albeit an unreal one.
This separation of meaning and form is used to convey hypothetical or unreal, imagined conditions, so is a really elegant function of conditionals. However, learners can find this tricky, so it is worth focusing on meaning and form equally carefully when teaching them. The meaning/form distinction in conditionals works as follows:
If + present simple, present simple
Facts and scientific truths
If + present simple, S + will + Vinf
Real, possible present condition + real, possible future effect
Predictions, warnings, superstitions, threats
If + past simple, S + would + Vinf
Unreal, imaginary present condition + unreal, imagined present / future effect
Dreams, wishes, speculation, hypothesis about the present
If + past perfect, S + would have + Vpp
Unreal, imaginary past condition + unreal, imagined past effect
Regrets, imagined pasts
As you can see, there is a ‘backshift’ in tenses to communicate distance from reality, by stepping back from the real situation: the past simple communicates the unreal present, and the past perfect (the ‘past of the past’) communicates the unreal past. This is a tricky concept for students to grasp, but can be taught through series of checking questions about the form and. Meaning of example sentences. Make sure, however, that you contextualise conditional examples well, so that their true meanings can be understood, and the focus on tense use is not the limit of students’ work.
Teaching idea: stepping back from reality (3rd conditional)
Ask your learners to draw a timeline of their lives until now, marking the three most important events in their past and labelling them (they should use past simple tense for this).
Now, tell your learners to imagine a different past, where these things did not happen. Instead, the lifeline branches off from their experience before that event happened. What would they label this branch? What would have happened in that alternate past?
Check that students understand that the main life line is real, and that the alternate branch is unreal - what can they say to describe this idea? Prompt them with “If…”.
Gather some sentences from the class, and keep prompting the unreal concept for sentences with past simple - after all, they used the past simple to talk about their real lives, didn’t they? So they need a different way of talking about the unreal past - the past perfect.
Focus on functions
In the table above, you can see that conditionals are used to perform a range of different functions. This makes a good starting point for learners to work with them in practice. Warnings, dreams, wishes are common, everyday experiences which are communicated between people all the time. These functions will be familiar to learners, and can work to contextualise conditional forms well.
Teaching idea: Conditional functions (1st conditional)
Find images of some causes and effects related to the functions you want to teach (here, the 1st conditional): superstitions and warnings. For example, ‘cause’ images of someone walking under a ladder, a broken mirror, a lucky clover, someone walking up to a hole in the ground, crossing the road while using their phone, etc. and ‘effect’ images of someone getting injured, 7 years and an unhappy person, piles of money, etc, relating to the ‘cause’ images.
Ask students to match the causes and effects and to explain the relationship between them (some of these are very culturally-bound, so it’s best to say it’s OK if they don’t know).
Ask the learners for sentences starting with ‘If…’ to show the relationship, and check that there is a time period between the cause and effect - from the present to the future.
A nice extension to this is to ask for superstitions from the learners’ home culture - can they build sentences to explain these using 1st conditional?
Conditional grammar can be tricky, but with practice, the form - meaning - function relationships come clear, and learners can access them quickly and accurately. The most important aspect of teaching conditionals is the focus on context and checking of meaning, in terms of the time of the clause actions and whether they are real or not.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.