An Easy Way to Teach Conditionals

IF I REMEMBER ALL THE CONDITIONAL PATTERNS, I WILL PASS THE TEST!

Let’s talk about conditionals. I find that the usual textbook method of presenting one conditional pattern in isolation means that students will only remember and be able to use that one type. When another pattern is introduced weeks or months later, they often won’t remember the previous pattern well enough to keep them both straight, and confusion is the result.

I started laying out all four patterns at once in my TOEIC classes, where students needed to be able to distinguish between all types of conditional sentences in the grammar section of the test. After a lot of positive feedback from students, I started using this method in all my classes whenever one conditional pattern came up in the textbook (or just came up in conversation).

I really found that all my students, even the low-intermediate ones, understood conditionals so much better when all four patterns were clearly laid out for them. The following chart is how I prefer to present conditionals in my classes. Write out this chart on the board, or download and print it out. You’ll also find some useful tips below the chart.

1. IF + PRESENT, PRESENT

  • Example: If he takes vitamins every day, he doesn’t get sick. / He doesn’t get sick if he takes vitamins every day.
  • Also called the zero conditional.
  • Use this conditional to show an outcome that happens if a specific repeated condition is met.
  • The verbs in the if clause and in the main clause will both be simple present verbs (remind students that third person singular verbs end in -s).
  • Make sure that students realize, for all the conditional patterns, that the if clause and the main clause order doesn’t matter—the meaning is the same. I like to write out both versions of my example, as I’ve done above, so that this point hits home. Also note that a comma is needed when the if clause comes before the main clause.

2. IF + PRESENT, WILL + VERB

  • Example: If she studies for the test, she will get a good grade. / She will get a good grade if she studies for the test.
  • Also called the first conditional or the real conditional.
  • Use this conditional to show a likely or possible outcome that will probably happen if a specific condition is met.
  • The verb in the if clause is a simple present verb, and the verb in the main clause is will + base form of the verb.
  • Make sure to point out that the verb in the if clause will end in -s if the subject is third person singular.

3. IF + PAST, WOULD + VERB

  • Example (of an unlikely situation): If he won the lottery, he would quit his job. / He would quit his job if he won the lottery.
  • Example (of an impossible situation): If I had wings, I would fly to Antarctica. / I would fly to Antarctica if I had wings.
  • Also called the second conditional or the unreal conditional.
  • Use this conditional to show an unlikely or impossible outcome that probably wouldn’t happen (unless a specific condition were met).
  • The verb in the if clause is a simple past verb, and the verb in the main clause is would + base form of the verb.
  • Make sure to point out that this is one case where it’s correct to use a past tense verb for a future situation.
  • Note: The verb to be is always were with this conditional, even in the first and third person singular. I usually give an example to ensure that students understand this strange exception: If I were rich, I would buy you a car. / I would buy you a car if I were rich.

4. IF + HAD + P.P., WOULD + HAVE + P.P.

  • Example: If I had remembered to call my friend last night, she wouldn’t have sent me an angry text message. / My friend wouldn’t have sent me an angry text message if I had remembered to call her last night.
  • Also called the third conditional.
  • Use this conditional to show a past regret or different outcome that would have happened if a specific condition had been met.
  • The verb in the if clause is a past perfect verb (had + past participle form of the verb), and the verb in the main clause is a past modal pattern (would + have + past participle form of the verb).
  • Make sure to tell students that this conditional isn’t very common. We don’t often speculate about what might have happened in the past, because we already know what actually happened.

As a review the next day, write this chart on the board to reiterate the four conditional patterns:

1. Present: If + Present, Present
2. Future (Likely/Possible/Real): If + Present, Will + Verb
3. Future (Unlikely/Impossible/Unreal): If + Past, Would + Verb
4. Past: If + Had + P.P., Would + Have + P.P.

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