Since the clarity of conditionals largely depends on the use of appropriate verb tenses, it makes sense to teach them as we would verb tenses. That is, we first present conditionals in isolation, one structure at a time, making sure students understand what the components are and what meaning the structure conveys as a whole. Eventually students will be ready to compare and contrast the different structures. Can they readily identify which conditionals express real and unreal possibilities? Do they recall which ones apply to the past, which apply to the future, and which are true all the time? (And don’t forget mixed conditionals!) Just as students must learn to shift from one verb tense to another, they must learn to form conditionals that are appropriate for the context. Consider meaningful activities that force advanced students to use two different conditionals in close proximity. One such activity is outlined below.
STEP 1: Give two slips of paper or index cards to each student. Ask the class to recall events from yesterday (or the weekend if it’s a Monday). On each slip of paper a student should summarize in one sentence one good thing or one bad thing that happened. Ideally, students should share one highlight and one lowlight, but in the end the choice should be theirs. If they’re uncomfortable sharing unpleasant memories, they don’t have to. Share your own examples: (1) I went to the dentist, and he removed a tooth. (2) My friend made me a very good dinner.
STEP 2: Place students in groups of 4-5. Ask them to place all their slips of paper on one desk, and then they will take turns drawing slips. Sentences will be read aloud. If it’s one of the reader’s own memories, he or she can say so. It it’s not, he or she can ask whose it is. The other members can ask 1-2 questions for more details. Then at least two appropriate conditionals must be formed, one about the past and one about the future, i.e., third and first conditionals. Model the process based on your examples from Step 1:
(1) Question: Why did the dentist remove the tooth? >> I had a cavity. >> Conditionals: That’s too bad. If you hadn’t had a cavity, the dentist wouldn’t have had to remove your tooth. / If you don’t get any more cavities, you won’t have to go back to the dentist.
(2) Question: Why did your friend make you dinner? >> Because my mouth hurt after going to the dentist’s. / What did your friend cook? >> Homemade soup. >> Conditionals: See? It wasn’t so bad. If you hadn’t gone to the dentist, your friend might not have taken the time to make you good soup. / If you get sick in the future, your friend might make you soup again.