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An Easy Way to Teach Conditionals

March 14, 2013

Updated January 2016

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.

Conditionals Chart

Conditionals Chart – Grammar & Usage Resources


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.

  • This is 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.

  • This is 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.

  • This is 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.

  • This is 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.

Quick Review

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

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

For more practice, check out ESL Library’s lesson plans and flashcards on conditionals! We also have a First Conditional video on YouTube and on our site, with videos for the second conditional and third conditional coming soon! 

If you try this method in your class, I will be very happy!


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Comments (110)

navdeep kaur(Guest)

really it's an excellent way to learn all the conditionals together.thanx tanya for such an awesome job.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks, Navdeep!

Luis Henrique(Guest)

hey tania, thanks for such job, I usedit in my class... really worked out!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

So glad to hear that, Luis!

Amanda (Guest)

Hi Tanya, great resource! I used it in my class this week (we were doing Business English - negotiations) and it worked really well. Any chance you could do similar resources for, say, all of English grammar? :)

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Amanda,

I'm working on it! ;)

I checked out your blog post---it was great to see how you used this method in your class! Fantastic blog, by the way! I'd love to share the URL with our readers. Can you let me know if that's okay with you?


Maria F.(Teacher)

thank you it was a great help

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

You're welcome, Maria! Thanks for taking the time to comment!

Salah (Guest)

Hi Tanya,
Thank you very very much Tanya for this easy, short and clear explanation of Conditionals.

Thanks millions and wish you all the best.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Happy to hear it, Salah! All the best to you too.

Youssef Eldeheby(Guest)

I got more confused as my teacher taught it to me in a different way! Anyways thanks :D

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Youssef,

If you tell me which part is confusing you, I might be able to help. But I know that there are many ways to teach and learn something, and everyone learns differently. :)

Nancy Gonzalez(Guest)

Great! Thanks a bunch!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

You're welcome, Nancy! Thanks for commenting. :)

Jayati (Guest)

This was an awesome explanation! I can finally understand conditionals! Thank you!! :)

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Happy to hear it, Jayati! :)

karima (Guest)

oh ! I still remember the bad luck !the day my inspector came to class, I had to teach third type conditional!!hhh! it is difficult to make students grasp meanings when they have to imagine unreal actions! I see you do not teach it deductively! not really encouraged by experts, though I do it !!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Karima,

Wow, that's a tough class to be evaluated for! I hope you did well though. And don't forget that you can use this explanation after you have introduced the grammar in a more communicative way. In my case, I always find that my students do benefit from an explanation at some point. :)

ms.han (Guest)

I've searched and read many different webpages on conditionals and yours is the best for my students. Thanks for taking your time to make this! This is awesome!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

That's so nice to hear. Thank you! :)

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