Let’s put our cards on the table, shall we?
Nobody normally gets excited about learning grammar.
It’s not easily visual like vocabulary, and it’s not automatically engaging like speaking and listening.
And when it comes to more advanced grammar topics—like conditionals—then sometimes even we language teachers join the chorus of complaining students.
But what if conditionals could be more than just a skill your students have to learn? What then?
Hard work and keen focus, along with proper guidance, can turn an obligatory skill into magic.
The right approach to conditionals can transform grammatical theory into practice right before your students’ eyes.
My mission today is to dispel the myth that teaching this part of grammar has to be a struggle.
You can easily teach conditionals without coming across as an insufferable English nerd or a joyless grammar tyrant.
What’s more, you can inject humor, wit, history, philosophy and popular culture into fun activities involving conditionals.
You can leave your students entertained, inspired and with a fresh outlook on the language.
It’s not even as hard as pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
Getting Over the “Ugh” Factor with Conditionals
It’s really not that bad
When I first started teaching ESL, I could hardly explain the difference between a preposition and a participle. So I also thought, “Ugh, grammar,” when I saw things like conditionals on the curriculum.
And no wonder: As a native English speaker, I used conditionals all the time, but I had never had to teach them and explain how they worked.
Like many new teachers, I probably fell into the trap of teaching conditionals as dry formulas that students had to regurgitate in exactly the right way. In those days, I’m sure it was boring and tedious for them, since it was boring and tedious for me.
However, these days conditionals are actually among my favorite topics to teach in my ESL classes. So what changed? The first thing was that I had to accept how important conditionals actually are.
If your students don’t learn conditionals, they’ll be missing a crucial piece of the puzzle
I hope you see what I did there. Even if it didn’t have flashing lights around it, you probably noticed that heading is a conditional sentence. If you actually think about it and look around a bit, you’ll see that conditionals are everywhere.
If your students can’t use conditionals, it will be nearly impossible for them to talk about hopes, wishes, consequences, regrets and dreams.
When you start to recognize that conditionals aren’t just mathematical or scientific formulas, but rather natural and critical parts of the language, then you can more easily convey their importance to your students. In fact, if you have been paying attention, then you’ll have seen that this whole paragraph—including this sentence—is written using conditionals.
Know your enemy
Don’t worry, I won’t play any more grammar tricks on you by leaving conditionals lurking throughout this post. I do hope it’s helped convince you of the importance of teaching your students to use conditionals, though.
However, even native English speakers often have a very tenuous grasp of grammatical concepts like conditionals. Most native speakers can use conditionals in natural speech, but they often use them “incorrectly” and would be hard-pressed to explain the grammatical underpinnings of their speech.
If you are one of those native speakers, or if you’re just an ESL teacher who could use a refresher on conditionals, then I’d recommend checking out English Grammar Secrets or Englisch-Hilfen for a general overview about how and when to use them.
The rest of this post will be focused on using conditionals in a fun and interesting way in your classes.
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Easy and Flexible Ideas for Teaching Conditionals in Your ESL Classes
Now you understand how to use conditionals, but you might not know how to make them interesting or fun—for you or for your students. Here’s a mix of different ideas that I’ve used successfully in my classes. I’ve gotten good feedback from my students about most of them, and I’ve personally enjoyed using them.
The best way to convince your students that learning conditionals doesn’t need to be boring is to not teach them in a boring way.
Whether it’s fair or not, many students associate worksheets and writing with “boring,” and speaking with “fun.” So use activities that let them speak more and learn the language naturally through experimentation. The following ideas for activities are versatile, can be modified according to what you think would work best for your class and can all be done in groups or pairs.
Make it strange or different
Conditional chains are a great warm-up exercise, and you can also expand them if you want. Think of weird scenarios to catch your students’ interest from the get-go. Have one student say a condition and a result. Then have the next student take the result from the previous student’s sentence and make a new condition from it, along with a new result.
Teacher: “If pigs could fly…”
Student A: “If pigs could fly, they would make nests in trees.”
Student B: “If pigs made nests in trees, the birds would get angry.”
Student A: “If the birds got angry…”
Make it mysterious
Give students 10 (or more) conditions and have them verbally complete the results for each (or vice-versa), but out of order so their partner doesn’t know the conditional that’s being completed. Again, making strange or funny scenarios helps keep their interest. Then, the students’ partners have to guess which condition the others are completing.
Student A: “If this happened, I would cry like a baby.”
Student B: “Hmm, would you cry like a baby if your favorite team lost?”
Student A: “No.”
Student B: “Would you cry like a baby if you failed English?”
Student A: “Yes.”
Make or use a game
If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, then by all means, you can make your own games. But if you’re pressed for time, BusyTeacher.org has literally hundreds of games, and many of them are specifically made for practicing conditionals, including this one for first and second conditionals, and this one for third conditionals.
Make your students famous
Hand out pieces of paper with names of famous people, and have students do presentations about what their lives would be like if they were the people.
Make them wise
Have your students give each other advice in some way. One nice activity is to set up the class like a talk show, and have them give possible solutions to a problem, starting with “If I were you…”
Make them use their imaginations
Think of more scenarios and ask questions in a “What would you do if…?” format. They can interview partners, or write answers on papers and guess who would do what.
Make a wish
Show pictures of people in different situations. Have students imagine what the people wish or hope. You can also expand this by having them make full conditional sentences based on those wishes or hopes.
Make them choose
Ask them “Would you rather…?” questions, and then imagine the results if they chose either option. For question ideas, rrrather.com has some scenarios with pictures. (Just be warned that some will not be appropriate for classes and a few may even make you question humanity in general.)
Using Videos and Movies to Teach Conditionals in ESL Classrooms
I’m dating myself here, but back when I was in school, the best days were the days when we walked into a classroom and saw the cart with the TV and VCR on it. We can keep that spirit alive when teaching conditionals. The main question becomes whether you want to find sources that already have conditionals or make your own.
Finding sources that already have conditionals
This is sometimes a bit trickier, since you have to depend on material that you find “as is.” It may not always have exactly what you’re looking for. Still, here are two good general tips:
- Use music videos. (I’ll include song suggestions in the section below.) There are a ton of options here, and you can incorporate conditionals into your ESL classes in a way that’s fun and interesting, especially if you use a type of music that your students already like.
- Use movies. This might seem a bit daunting, at least if you think you need to show the whole movie. But generally you can just highlight a part of a movie for a specific purpose. For example, there’s a sequence about five minutes into “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in which Brad Pitt’s character uses the third conditional constantly. It’s basically the holy grail of movie clips for English teachers. If you’re pressed for time, there are also sites that are dedicated to highlighting these types of grammar points in movies. One useful site is Movie Segments to Assess Grammar Goals.
Making your own conditionals
- Pause to add conditionals. Pause movies or videos to ask things like “What might happen next if she goes into the room?” or “What would you do if you were her?”
- Watch news reports to predict the future. There are countless news clips online, ranging from international conflicts to weather reports to fluff pieces about cute puppies. Have your students predict what will or might happen in the future, or talk about how things would be different if something had happened differently before.
No matter which route you take, you can always find plenty of great content to hold your students’ interest on FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Great English Songs with Conditionals, and How to Use Them
You can’t please all the people all the time, especially when it comes to music. You’ll likely never find a song that every student in your class loves, but most of my students have at the very least tolerated all the songs below, and some students have even commented that they really liked some of them.
You can combine these songs with any of the techniques or activities mentioned above, depending on your needs. I’ll divide the list into the type of conditional highlighted in each song. Then, after the list, I’ll include a few more activity ideas specifically for songs.
(Note: Many ESL curricula don’t even include zero conditional, and supposedly it’s hard to find songs that use it. Nevertheless, here are a few that I like.)
- “When the Angels Sing” by Social Distortion
- “If I Can’t Have You” by Yvonne Elliman
- “If I Like It, I Do It” by Jamiroquai
Between zero conditional and first conditional
- “Count on Me” by Bruno Mars
- “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper
- “(If You Don’t Love Me) I’ll Kill Myself” by Pete Droge
Between first conditional and second conditional
- “If Tomorrow Never Comes” by Garth Brooks
- “If I Were a Boy” by Beyonce
- “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” by The Beach Boys
- “If I Had a Million Dollars” by Barenaked Ladies
Between second conditional and third conditional
- “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference” by Todd Rundgren
Ideas to incorporate songs into class
- Put yourself in the singer’s shoes. Have your students use conditionals to talk about what the singer was feeling, what he/she might do or what might have happened to him/her.
- Put yourself in the listener’s shoes. Same as above, but have your students do it from the perspective of the person the singer is singing to.
- Complete the conditions or results. After identifying the conditions or results in the song, have your students complete their own responses or conditions.
ESL Classroom Activities with Quotes Using Conditionals
I really like using quotes in my classes, and I’ve noticed that many contain conditionals. Due to the nature of conditionals, the English level in such quotes tends to be higher.
For example, although I’m sure the original language was French, there’s a quote by Gustave Flaubert that demonstrates how English conditionals can be weird and flexible. It goes:
Oh, if I had been loved at the age of seventeen, what an idiot I would be today. Happiness is like smallpox: if you catch it too soon, it can completely ruin your constitution.
In that single quote, he starts with a third (past) conditional condition, moves on to a second conditional result and then has a first conditional explanation. It’s a great illustration of how, in authentic language, everything doesn’t follow the structure you learn in a book.
It can also lead to discussions about vocabulary (for example, how “idiot” isn’t terribly insulting in English, but it is in other languages like Spanish), or can be used as a starting point for students to reflect on their past and how it affected their present.
I think the fact that ESL students may find these types of quotes a bit challenging or need more time to work them out is actually a good thing.
These kinds of activities can be very rewarding, since they can lead the class in new directions, including discussions about the people who said the quotes, interpretations and debates about the quotes, viewpoints regarding philosophy and many other discussions that lower-level topics aren’t conducive to.
Here are some activities that I like to do to incorporate quotations with conditionals into my classes.
Print a large number of quotations—between 20 and 30 quotes seems to work best—and cut them into two parts each, dividing the conditions and the results. You can also mix different conditional tenses to make it more or less challenging. Have students match the two halves of the quotes.
You can also expand the activity by having them find information about the person who said it, argue for or against the quote or do a different activity to increase participation. BrainyQuote.com has hundreds of quotes that use conditionals, but here are a few I like to include:
- (First half A): Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, …
- (Second half A): …I would still plant my apple tree. – Martin Luther
- (First half B): If you have no critics, …
- (Second half B): …you’ll likely have no success. – Malcolm X
- (First half C): I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, …
- (Second half C): …there can be no more hurt, only more love. – Mother Teresa
Print and cut a quote into pieces, and have students arrange it in the correct order. You can have each word on a separate bit of paper, or have phrases of a few words on every piece. For lower levels, you can also cut it up like a puzzle.
One of my favorite quotes is by Pablo Picasso and uses the first conditional in a way that’s clear and repetitive, which helps reinforce the structure:
My mother said to me, “If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.” Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.
Have students work in pairs or groups of three. Give a quote to one student, who has to tell it to the second student. The second student then has to run across the room and tell the quote to the third student, who writes it down piece by piece. You can also have them do a dictation back-to-back or, if you’re daring and feel like riding a wave of barely-controlled chaos, have them say/shout the quote across the room to their partners.
A good example here is a quote by Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, which is partially fun just because her name is challenging to spell:
What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.
Perhaps you remember the game Mad Libs. In that game, you had a story with multiple blanks, and you only knew what part of speech was missing (e.g., you’d need to say an adverb, and the person taking notes would write the adverb you said into the story). The result was often bizarre or nearly incomprehensible, but every now and then, it was hilarious.
How about an example? Here and here are two longer quotes that you can convert for this game, but really any quote can work. I’ll give you one that you can try right now.
OK, I’ll need:
- (1): An action in a daily routine.
- (2), (5), (8), (11) and (14): Five sensations/emotions.
- (3), (4), (6), (7), (9), (10) and (12): Seven body parts.
- (13): A gerund (-ing) action verb.
- (15): A person.
Now, plug them into the following quote:
If I could have just one wish, I would wish to (1) every day to the (2) of your (3) on my (4), the (5) of your (6) on my (7), the (8) of your (9) on my (10), and the (11) of your (12) (13) with mine…knowing that I could never find that (14) with anyone other than (15).
– Courtney Kuchta
If you want to use that quote, the original is:
If I could have just one wish, I would wish to wake up every day to the sound of your breath on my neck, the warmth of your lips on my cheek, the touch of your fingers on my skin, and the feel of your heart beating with mine…knowing that I could never find that feeling with anyone other than you.
If You’ve Made It This Far, You Will Probably Be OK
As you can probably tell, I really get into conditionals. If you still think you don’t like them or let out that old familiar groan when you have to teach them to your students, I understand.
I used to be in your shoes. And I don’t imagine that this article will replace the mutterings of “Ugh, Grammar” with “Yeah, Grammar!”
But I do hope that it will be useful and help you with your lesson plans.
And remember: If you make it fun and interesting for your students, it will be fun and interesting for you, too!
And One More Thing...
If you're looking for creative ways to teach English, then you'll love using FluentU in your classroom!
It's got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch regularly. There are tons of great choices there when you're looking for songs for in-class activities.
You'll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids' singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.
On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students.
Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
For example, if a student taps on the word "searching," they'll see this:
Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like "fill in the blank."
It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it's guaranteed to get your students excited about learning English!
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Ryan Sitzman teaches English and sometimes German in Costa Rica. He is passionate about learning, coffee, traveling, languages, writing, photography, books and movies, but not necessarily in that order. You can learn more or connect with him through his website Sitzman ABC.
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