Teaching Conditionals to ESL students

if onlyIntroduction

Conditional sentences are challenging for lower-level students of English.  Students can learn conditionals at a pre-intermediate level of learning. Students will need to be familiar with tenses in the English language, at least the past, present and future tenses. There are four conditional statements:

  • Zero conditional
  • First conditional
  • Second conditional
  • Third conditional

When teaching conditional statements, it is best to start with the easiest to understand, the first conditional form.

Teach the structural similarities of conditionals, for example ‘If ‘condition’ then ‘result’  or ‘When ‘something’ then ‘something else’.

First conditional forms are real conditions (something that regularly happens).

Zero conditional forms are unreal conditions (something that never happens or always happens).

Second conditional forms are unreal conditional (something that you imagine could happen).

Third conditional forms are past unreal conditional (something that you wish would have happened).

First Conditional

First conditional statements are ‘real conditions’ that may happen in the future.  Examples of first conditionals are:

If I have free time, I will visit you.

I will hang out with my friends if the weather is nice this weekend.

The format for a conditional statement is:

If + subject + present simple, subject + will + infinitive


Subject + will + infinitive + if + subject + present simple

Zero Conditional

We should teach zero conditional after first conditional forms.  Zero conditional forms are conditions that never happen or always happen as a routine or a law of nature.  For example, a kettle will always boil at 100 degrees Celcius. They are conditions that routinely happen. Examples of zero conditional statements are:

  • When the water reaches 100 degrees, the kettle boils.  (It always happens)
  • We always send our repairman when the system breaks. (a routine that always happens when a condition is met)
  • If you are in over your head, don’t panic, relax and slowly swim back to shore (something that does not routinely happen, resulting in a condition that should always be followed).

The format for a conditional statement is:

If + subject + present simple, subject + present simple


Subject + + present simple + if + subject + present simple

Second Conditional

Use the Second Conditional to image that things ‘were different, an unreal situation.’

The construction of the second conditional is If + past simple, (then) would + base form of a verb.  The two clauses can be switched.  For example:

  • If I had a million dollars, I would buy a house by the beach.
  • I would have lots of friends if my breath didn’t smell so bad.

Third Conditional

Use the Third Conditional to image how something would be different if something had happened in the past.

If + past perfect, (then) would have + (past participle)

For example:

  • If I had sold my house before the market crashed, I would be a millionaire
  • I wish I had married Mary when I had the chance, I would be happy.

Test your knowledge of Conditionals

I ___ call you if he comes.
If it ___ on your wedding day, what will you do?
Which conditional is this sentence?
"What will he do if he misses the bus?"
I ___  sick if I eat banana's
If you _____  the exam, what would you do?
If it rains, ___  you still go on holiday?
If they had  ___ drunk, I would have driven you.
Which conditional is this?
"He would have gone with you if you had asked him."
What conditional is this?
"If I won the lottery, I would buy my own house".
What conditional is this?
"Peter gets really upset if I forget his birthday."

English Grammar in Use by Ramond Murphy is an excellent resource for learning conditionals and English Grammar.

Aaron Skudder


  1. This is really educational and is worth every bit of time spent reading it. Personally i must confess I can’t really distinguish between the various types of conditions we have until after I just finished reading through this post. Such post should be put up regularly to help educate people more. I’ll show this post to my kids so they can learn as well. Thanks for sharing

  2. I have to read this over and over again because it’s really confusing for me to identify conditions and the pattern or sentence formula. What confuses me is the part where I have to think which condition must be applied in the sentence. I did enjoy the test but only got half of the score. It’s important to tackle this lesson for ESL students to better understand correct use of verb tense accordingly. Thank you for sharing another worthy lesson. Will keep this in mind and hopefully, I can master this. 

    • It helps to draw a time-line of past-present-future and understand if it is something that might have happened, might happen, or will happen.

  3. This is a good explanation and breakdown of how to use conditionals in the English language.  I can see it clearing up any confusion a foreign student might have about the four types of conditional statements.  Giving exercises to work with will help them understand and think in Conditional statements.  It is just not completely clear to me if the submit button means someone will check their answers once they are done answering them.

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