How to Teach the First Conditional to ESL Students

In this post we’ll talk about when and how to teach the first conditional to ESL students — a tricky tense for both teachers and students. Here’s Sandra to introduce some first conditional lessons in our latest content release for the Step-by-Step Curriculum:

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Making sure you know the first conditional

I’ll never forget my first encounter with conditionals because a lack of knowledge almost cost me my first teaching job.

The ink was barely dry on my TEFL certificate and my understanding of grammar was still shaky. I was in a Skype interview for a teaching company when suddenly the interviewer asked me: How would you teach the first conditional?

My mind was blank. I had no idea what the first conditional even was.

Panicked, I tried to stall answering the question and maintain my gaze at the camera. Meanwhile, I frantically Googled “English first conditional.” Thankfully I found something that triggered my memory and I was able to answer the question somewhat intelligently (or at least enough to get the job).

After that I promised myself I’d never forget the first conditional ever again!

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teach the first conditional

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When to introduce ESL students to the first conditional

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Before you consider the question of how to teach the first conditional, you have to first ask the question of when to start teaching it.

A lot of teachers make the mistake of starting the conditionals too late. Don’t be afraid of teaching the first conditional to your low intermediate students! Because the conditionals are so complex (especially once we start mixing them), it makes sense to introduce your students to the tenses early on so that they can start to look for the patterns. You can start with the basic forms of the first conditional now.

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teach the first conditional

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How to teach the first conditional

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Most importantly, the goal is to keep it simple. Don’t plan on teaching anything more than the first conditional at this level. It might help to start with a basic discussion of what conditionals actually are: A way for us to connect two separate but related events. For example:

If it’s sunny tomorrow, I’ll go to the beach.

The result clause of “I’ll go to the beach”, is dependent on the condition clause of “if it’s sunny tomorrow.”

Stick to the first conditional, and don’t introduce too many auxiliaries in the result clause. Limit yourself to will, won’t, might, could, and going to (and their negative counterparts). This will allow the student to understand the concept of the first conditional without feeling overwhelmed.

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teach the first conditional

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Materials for teaching the first conditional

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The slides in this post and referenced by Sandra in the video come from the Step-by-Step curriculum of Off2Class, the ESL teacher toolkit. We have have nearly 800 ready to teach lessons in our library, along with a student management platform and comprehensive placement test.

We know there’s a whole lot more to teaching the first conditional. However, we hope that this post presents a few things worth thinking about before you teach the grammar and language in these units.

Did you find this post helpful? Let us know by leaving a comment! Tell us your thoughts about the Off2Class online ESL curriculum – we love feedback.


21 Comments

  • maryam legall says:

    May 25, 2019 at 9:21 am

    Extremely helpful. Thanks so much

    • Chris says:

      May 27, 2019 at 11:35 am

      You’re welcome, glad you enjoyed it!

      • Eliane May says:

        April 25, 2020 at 3:04 pm

        Very helpful thank you so much! How would you try to elicit the first condition? I don’t want to give them the grammar structure straight away so how would you start?

        • Chris says:

          April 28, 2020 at 11:31 am

          All of the Off2Class lessons have warm ups and previews so the student can see it in action first!

  • Katlego says:

    September 1, 2019 at 11:55 am

    This was great intro! Thank you

    • Chris says:

      September 3, 2019 at 10:26 am

      You’re welcome, and happy to help!

  • Maria N. says:

    October 16, 2019 at 4:32 am

    Very helpful. Thanks.

    • Chris says:

      October 17, 2019 at 1:38 pm

      you’re very welcome!

  • Lindsay says:

    October 31, 2019 at 11:58 pm

    You have presented this topic very well and your use of images has made it so easy to grasp the concept.

    • Chris says:

      November 5, 2019 at 6:25 pm

      Thanks Lindsay!

  • Gaynor says:

    November 3, 2019 at 1:09 pm

    Looks amazing! About to do a TEFL assignment and will definitely use your input, thank you!

    • Chris says:

      November 5, 2019 at 6:26 pm

      You’re very welcome, Gaynor!

  • Chesney Paterson says:

    November 12, 2019 at 2:30 am

    hi there
    im currently busy with my TEFL assignment B
    what are the anticipated problems when teaching ‘the first conditional’?

    • Chris says:

      November 12, 2019 at 8:59 am

      Conditionals are tough for 2 reasons: Number one, every conditional has 2 rules a student needs to memorize, one rule for the if-clause and another for the result clause. Number two, there are 4 different conditionals to choose from (not to mention mixed conditionals), so it’s a lot of rules for a lot of situations!

  • Caren says:

    February 4, 2020 at 3:50 am

    Excellent, Thank you Chris, I am also doing my TEFL assignment B and have a mental block!

    • Chris says:

      February 4, 2020 at 1:01 pm

      Glad you enjoyed the resource!

  • Amanda says:

    February 4, 2020 at 7:12 pm

    Great examples. I too am working through my TEFL Certificate. Sometimes putting the First Conditional into question form can be a bit hard too.

    • Chris says:

      February 6, 2020 at 12:20 pm

      Yes, that’s true. Good luck with your TEFL course!

  • Amanda says:

    February 7, 2020 at 7:08 pm

    At what level would you expand on the first conditional by pointing out the following. ..First conditional used for: promising, warning, predicting, negotiating, drawing a logical conclusion, conclusion and requesting eg: If you bring the salad, I will bring the dessert. (Negotiating). I think maybe it would be good to do it in a matching exersisee (which is how I saw it) in lessons to follow once the students have a good grasp on it…?

  • danielle says:

    March 25, 2020 at 6:28 am

    This was extremely helpful! Thanks so much

    • Chris says:

      March 25, 2020 at 2:10 pm

      You’re welcome!

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