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The comparison of the 1st and 2nd conditionals for B2 learners.


  1. Introduction


The focus of this assignment is on conditional sentences for B2 (CEFR) learners and I have chosen to limit the scope of my assignment to the comparison of the 1st and 2nd conditionals.

Biber, Conrad and Leech (2002:375-380) point out that the correct usage of conditionals has a high surrender value, and this viewpoint is supported by the prevalence of conditionals in text books, exams, medical diagnosis and conversationally.

It is my experience that when most course books introduce the concept of 1st and 2nd conditionals at A2 level, it is introduced using a prescriptive form.  Therefore learners at B2 continue to have difficulties in identifying conditionals in use which may not follow the form previously taught.  Consequently learners rarely use any conditionals spontaneously, most specifically with regards to the concept of ‘reality/& non-reality’.


Towards the end of B2 learners are expected to be able to autonomously induce meaning/form &/or function by noticing.  However, they frequently lack confidence in their ability to identify a sentence structure, intrinsically understand and formulate an appropriate response instantaneously, in order to communicate appropriately for their level.


  1. Language Analysis



2a. Form


2a.i      General Form

The form of conditionals comprises of two clauses: namely a main clause (the result) and a subordinate clause typically beginning with “if”; an adverbial subordinator.  The subordinate clause specifying a condition or hypothesis, and the result clause or apodosis specifying what follows from that condition, one set of circumstances being dependant upon the other. (QuirkandGreenbaum1973)

The negative is formed by the adding of ‘not’ immediately after the first auxiliary of the verb phrase in either clause.

The question is formed by a change of order between the subject and the first auxiliary.

2a.ii. Comparing the 1st and 2nd conditionals

When the1st and 2nd conditionals are compared the difference lies within the tense of the sentence clauses, the grammatical construct.

Lewis (1986:50) describes a tense as a “morphological change in the base form of the verb” and goes on to say that other than present simple and past simple, linguistically all other verb forms (which require an auxiliary) are not a tense but an aspect. The aspect enables the speaker to indicate the time they are attaching to the sentence. Is it regarding a finite time, time that is over, or time which is ongoing?

Conditional sentences are further complicated as they also require modality (probability, possibility, necessity, etc), here the modal auxiliaries make the aspectual (time) forms whilst introducing modality, referred to by Lewis as the speaker’s mood “…a personal judgement about the non-factual nature…”

2a.iii. 1st conditional form


If + Present simple + modal auxiliary + bare infinitive

+          If I have enough money, I will go to Bali.

–           If you don’t hurry, you’ll miss the bus.

?          What will you do if you are late?


2a.iv. 2nd conditional form


If + Past Simple + modal auxiliary + bare infinitive

+          If I had more money, I would go to Bali

–           If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t buy a Ferrari

?          What would you say if you had lunch with Tom Cruise?



2b. Function and Meaning


1st conditional


2nd conditional


These are things which are possible, in the (near) future and it’s a very high probability, to be almost certain that they will happen. These are things which are in current time, the probability is very low, or they are impossible. An unreal current situation.




1st and 2nd conditionals are the interface between our expression of reality and non-reality. It is the speaker’s perception of likelihood of the event happening which is the determining factor.


2b.ii   Common key uses for 1st conditional include:


Possibilities                                        If we win today, we will be in the final

Superstitions                                       If you break a mirror, it’ll be 7 years bad luck

Future plans                                        If I get the job, I’ll get a new car

Warnings and threats                          If you touch that, it’ll burn you

If you don’t clean your room you won’t go out tonight

Bribing                                                If you’re good, I’ll buy you some sweets

Predicting                                            If he works hard, he’ll pass

Giving directions                                If you turn left, you’ll see the church.

Imperative in the result clause            If you see Simon, tell him I want a lift

Offers and suggestions                       If it’s sunny tomorrow, we might have

(modal in the result clause)                 a barbeque.

Be going to                                         If it’s warm tomorrow, I’m going to mow the lawn



2b.iii. Common key uses for 2nd conditional include:



Unreal situations in the present       If I were the pilot, I would fly to Thailand.

If I were an animal, I would be a cat.

Imagined events                                 If I won the lottery, I would fly first class.

I would exercise more if I had time.

Impossible present situations                        I would come for a meal, if I didn’t have to work.

If I could sing, I would serenade you.

Speculating                                        If the Greens won the next election, we would see different results

Wishing                                              If I were rich, I’d buy my parents a house

Deducing                                            If that was John’s essay, it would be types

Advising                                             If I were you, I would go to the doctors

Advising (nagging)                            If you hung up your trousers, they wouldn’t get creased.


Could for ability in either clause      If I could help him, I would

If I saw him, I could help him

Could for permission                          If he had a permit, he could get the job

Might (main clause)                           If I saw him I might help him

(usually result is possible but unlikely)

Might/could instead of would                       If you tried again, you would succeed

(certain result)

If you tried again, you might succeed

(possible result)

Idiomatic                                            If I were keys, where would I be?

(I’ve lost my keys)


Yule (1998) makes further subdivisions, but such detailed analysis is beyond the range of this limited study.


2c.       Phonology


With both ‘will’ and with ‘would’ learners have a tendency to use the whole word and not the contracted form among some higher level students, repeated usage may have  led to fossilisation.


I will   /ˈaɪ wɪl/

I’ll  /aɪl/

I would / ˈaɪ wʊd /

I’d   / aɪd  /


Additionally, weak forms – particularly with ‘was’ / wəz/ and ‘were’ / wər/ – are something that may need addressing and it would be beneficial to highlight correct pronunciation on the board, with attention drawn to grammatical intonation when used in conditional sentences (rise, fall).





If I live in the Capital , I will have lots to eat.


The auxiliary is either reduced or stressed to show the speaker’s feeling or connotation (annoyance, insistence, surprise, enthusiasm). i.e. If you hung up your trousers, they wouldn’t get creased. The speaker is showing their annoyance by using the stressed form. When reduced it can be so reduced as to be indistinct and learners may fail to identify it.


3 . Learner Problems / Teaching Issues


3a. Problems

In my experience some of the most common problems are often due to modern course books favouring a notional-functional approach. Learners being exposed to a ‘pro-active syllabus’ (Davies2007:51) in which the content and the sequence that learners are exposed to language is pre-determined. As a consequence most syllabi teach the conditionals at a later stage. The majority of learners mistakes are those of form.  Therefore when alternative structures are subsequently presented the learners lack the confidence to deviate from the traditional prescriptive forms they have previously been taught in coursebooks.  Several of my learners have demonstrated problems with comprehending alternatives to the ‘rules’.  It can therefore be argued that exposure at lower levels could be highly useful.



Problems understanding the unreality of 2nd conditional sentences especially that either or both clauses can be contrary to fact



Problems with would for unreality when they have learnt ‘I would like…’ as a polite form of discourse to mean a real statement of want or intention.



Some L1 have clearly defined ‘reality vs unreality’ areas in grammar, and this often involves the use of additional language to denote the tense.  Students often try to use a translation of their L1 structure to give an English conditional form meaning.


If I see a wallet in the street (not real, just imagine) I’ll keep it.



Problems with single clause usage with conditional sentences.  Some students are not sure if I’m being serious, unreal, or even using the 3rd conditional.



Problems with negatives. If the clauses are both unreal then the reality is the opposite to what is stated.


If I didn’t like chocolate so much, then I wouldn’t eat it every day.

(I do like chocolate a lot, and I eat it everyday)


Similarly when only one clause has a negative.


If I was having a good time, I wouldn’t catch the bus home.


(I am not there, I don’t know what kind of time I will have, but if it was good, I would deliberately miss/forget to catch the bus home, or make other arrangements)

Structure – use of a past form yet we are talking about present or future

Problems of placement of the modal auxiliary, students often get confused and place it in the ‘if…’ clause


If I will go to cinema, I’d see film Thor



3b Solutions

Concept checking is an important tool in the teachers’ repertoire, used appropriately it can reduce or negate some of the more common problems (Workman2006).  Learners are required to choose between 1st or 2nd conditional based on their own interpretation of the likelihood of the consequence to the condition happening. The form of the conditional being determined by the speakers aspect and mood. In order to confirm learners comprehend the differences CCQ’s are particularly important as ‘most [learners] are unwilling to admit lack of comprehension’ (Constantinides2010).


Use of a time line to determine the time appropriate to the content helps establish the tenses – this is useful for problems 3a(i) & (vi).


Provision of an accurate model, both written and aural is necessary to introduce and then reinforce form.  Highlighting through the use of the model sentence addresses problems with form, function and phonology through showing, telling or eliciting (Workman2006). This would be appropriate for all problems, particularly 3a(ii) & (vi).


Use of truth lines to establish the modality (probability e.g. could be, can’t be, must be, might be) – this is useful for problems 3a(i), (iii), (iv), (v) (Lewis1973).


Contrastive analysis is useful for mono-lingual classes but not for multi-lingual mixed L1 backgrounds.  An alternative could be to just teach those structures that are different (if they are known). Where the concept does not exist in the L1, CCQ’s can be part of the initial teaching process.


Extension tasks provide learners with the opportunity to work with the TL, to consolidate their learning and it is argued that classroom interaction aids SLA. (StoopsVerplatse&KellyHall2014).



  1. Suggestions for Teaching


“PPP works through the progression of three sequential stages” (Doff 1988).


  • Presentation: The teacher presents the new grammar structure.
  • Practice: Learners practice using new structures using guided practices e.g. making sentences from prompts, asking and answering questions or making a storyline based on a picture. Practice can be written or spoken.
  • Production: Freer practice where learners try to use the structures they have learnt to express themselves freely. Production can be written or spoken.


In general, a deductive approach for lower level adult learners works best.  They appreciate this model because they can learn easily through guided practice. It is a learning model with which learners are familiar, within which they work, daring to take responsibility and initiative.


Drilling is a technique used extensively in EFL. Dialogue building is good for learners at all levels using a picture to create the scene and elicit a dialogue. Disappearing texts are another alternative.  The teacher creates a text on the board which is then drilled, with the text being erased from the end/back, the aim being to get the learners students to say the whole text from memory. Gap activities are often used for controlled practice.


Role-plays, discussions, language games, collaborative writing give learners the chance to use the grammar structure more freely and to focus on fluency


Task-based learning (TBL) offers an alternative to PPP, playing a game, solving a problem or the sharing of learners’ experiences, can all be considered as appropriate tasks.  Learners who are used to a more traditional grammatical syllabus may find this approach difficult to come to terms with. Littlewood(1999) notes that one of the features of TBL that worries teachers is that it seems to have no place for the teaching of grammar.


The Test-Teach-Test approach (TTT) uses the aspects of PPP and usually incorporates TBL. The TTT approach is “useful when the teacher does not know if the learners are familiar with a particular language item” (Lindsay&Knight2006:22).

TTT is more frequently used at intermediate levels and above as a suitable alternative to PPP where learners may have specific problems with language they have already been introduced to.  Problems with a TTT approach may arise where the learners are field dependant, not very autonomous, not analytical. These learners are more interested in being shown the TL within a situational concept so they can go on to the practise stages.  Using more of a PPP approach supports their style of learning and the TL becomes means more psychologically real to them (Lantoff&Appel1994)


The Engage, Study, Activate (ESA) model of Jeremy Harmer also emerged from the criticism of the PPP model


  1. Conclusion



if a teacher caters to a student’s particular LS then said student’s learning will be enhanced. (Thornbury 2006)  Therefore a teacher should prepare a variety of approaches when introducing material in order to cater for these disparate needs.


Harmer, ‘[we] advise against pedagogical intervention based solely on any of the learning style instruments’ (Coffield et al 2004:140)


As Harmer (2001) says, using coursebooks appropriately is an art which becomes clearer with experience.  As a result of my research, I have found that, while there are differences in how coursebooks present this structure, the basic form still needs to be provided first, to give the students a scaffold, then a guided discovery approach for higher levels, as and when the more advanced forms occur, preferably through authentic texts

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