Today we did the 2nd conditional.. pff


March 31, 2013 by Willy Cardoso

Questions for teachers of English as a Foreign Language.

How long does it take to teach the 2nd conditional?

I’ve had ‘one lesson’ (1.5 hours) and ‘one week’ (7.5 hours) for answers – also, it depends on: how many pages the book offers on this grammar point, how many lessons whoever designed the syllabus allocated for this, how many copies of English Grammar in Use there are available in the staff room, and whether the director of studies still allow teachers to base the whole lesson on them.

A more important question:

 How long does it take to learn the 2nd conditional?

No one I’ve asked knows. Do you know?

Teacher A: Today we did the 1st conditional.

Teacher B: And how is it exactly that you ‘do’ the 1st conditional??

hypothesis: A grammar-based syllabus is the most contrived, status-quo-oriented, and economically driven but empirically unfounded way to structure a course.

What comes after the 1st conditional?

– The 2nd conditional.

– And why?

– I don’t know


Let’s write a book.

What is a good topic to present the 1st conditional?

– Abortion.

– Nice, this will be the topic of unit 3.

– And what is a good topic to present the 2nd conditional?

– Celebrities.

– Nice, this will be the topic of unit 4.

Classroom conversations emerging from books around topics are subordinate to grammar points. Conversations are created not spontaneously, and not because they are interesting, they are created to achieve grammatical accuracy. Conversations are a byproduct of practicing the grammar of the day.

Let’s write a book.

– What’s a good topic?

– The environment.

– Nice, this will be the topic of unit 3.

– What grammar will be ‘in’ this topic?

– We can’t know before there is an actual conversation about this topic.

What would be the damage if there was an inversion in which Unit 3 presented the 2nd conditional and Unit 4 the 1st conditional? Would it really confuse students?

Any more than it already does?

Should these grammatical forms even be seen one right after the other?

If the sequence makes sense though, why do we need to go over them again and again, from pre-intermediate to advanced levels?

Isn’t this hierarchy of conditionals ridiculous?

If this hierarchy doesn’t make sense, why would others do?

(e.g. present perfect simple before present perfect continuous – when it is much easier to understand when to use the continuous)

Ask your students all these questions next time you ‘do’ the first conditional.


11 thoughts on “Today we did the 2nd conditional.. pff

  1. Leo Gomes says:

    I’ve taught the 3rd conditional before the 2nd to my pre-intermediate students. That happened because of their immediate need to use the 3rd conditional. When we went back to the 2nd conditional, it was much easier for them. I normally don’t follow a grammar syllabus. The syllabus emerges from the students and from the language they need to use at the time. Teaching at the point of need, I’d say.

    • ‘teaching at the point of need’ – totally! That’s basically how we learn stuff outside school, isn’t it?
      Do your students feel alright with having an emergent syllabus? Don’t they ask you for a scope & sequence or something like that? Do you give tests? If so, how what’s the focus if not grammar?

      • One of the challenges I found teaching high school is that EVERYTHING is test focused. The so called zero and first are easy, and the second and third are never used naturally in conversation. By improvising blame/excuse dialogue, we could fill a need and show meaning for the so called third and practice it in small groups. But, anecdotally, in following classes I found the third conditional is not used in excuses unless students are cattle prodded to do so… although the meaning of the excuse certainly gets across.

        But I suspect that working through giving commands in imperative, like in interactive fiction, (a great source of authentic present tense) then focusing on ways to be less bossy, it would lead to modal verbs which would start producing pieces that would attach to if clauses in second conditional, which would then be low lying fruit.

        I think there are a lot of correlating edges that would be neat to map out to help predict zones of proximal development. I keep thinking back to Luke’s idea from the tesol france in paris of a map for language, what it would look like, and how one could get built. I suspect that network analysis graphing and natural language processing might be interesting tools to build those maps. This could also test against student maps to find gaps in language that a grammar syllabus wouldn’t even suspect existed, as well as a route to get there.

        Then you could test and grade on LEARNING, rather than what was not learned. You could map competence and show avoided areas on the map. You could encourage exploration.

        Does anybody know anybody trying to make maps, or will this be a source of third conditional practice for me for a long time?

  2. Oh it’s an extraordinary mentality, isn’t it? Quite a few teachers are afraid of upsetting that holy sequence. It’s based on so many wrong assumptions about language and learning.

    I’ve noticed that with my own lad (nearly four) that absolutely nothing like that happens. As you engage kids in conversation, everything is context-driven. He picks up the phrases that strike him as funny or cool-sounding, whatever their lexical or grammatical content.

    Our students CLEARLY process content based on pertinence or interest. If they are not brainwashed otherwise.

    Yet in state education, there seems to be a Hindu approach: You start off as a lowly worm doing colours and numbers. After your repeated death in June and reincarnation in September you get to the Nirvana of Third Conditional. If you are suitably devoted.

    Jai guru dev a ommmmmmm.

    PS: I looked at the title of the post and misread “Third conditional… pdf.”

    I thought you had sold out 🙂

    • I had sold out for a moment, but reincarnated in a grammarless body.

      Common sense apart, it is quite joyful for a teacher to TEACH the grammar, it gives a sense of ‘I know something really difficult that you don’t, allow me to instruct you’; a great power high.

  3. davedodgson says:

    Hi Willy,

    Love the way you’ve made your point here. In my workplace, there has been a lot of discussion recently about chnages we can make for the next academic year but most of it has seemed to centre on coursebooks and the grammar points they contain – lots of ‘the topics look appealing to kids but Unit 2 has past simple and that’s too soon for this age group’ type-comments and very little dscussion of actual positive changes we can make. You should have seen the raised eyebrows when it was noted that one book teaches present continuous before present simple!

    I think this is the biggest challenge to be faced in ELT – not the intergration of technology or the increasingly global nature of the language but getting over this ingrained idea that as teachers we have to follow some pre-ordained order sticking to the given topics just because…. well, just because.

    • Thanks, Dave.
      If they have children themselves, ask them, ‘Did you have a list of verb forms you allowed your child to use when s/he was learning to speak?’ – or ‘Did you skip the ‘past simple’ verbs when reading bedtime stories if your child was not yet fluent in the present simple?’

      In your case, teaching young learners, the idea of a structural syllabus sounds even more unnecessary.

      • davedodgson says:

        I think there are key differences between children learning a first and a second language (such as level of exposure/input and setting) that mean some form of ‘condensation’ is required. However, I agree with your point about the past simple especially. The ‘adapted readers’ that retell classic stories in whatever tense the kids are working on (usually present simple or continuous) really bug me – I think it is pretty much universally true for all languages that narratives are told using past tenses so why not in the ELT classroom as well?

  4. […] English teacher Willy C. Cardoso has a question: Why do we teach the 1st conditional before the 2nd? […]

  5. jonnylewington says:

    Good post. It virtually blows my mind that in everything anyone ever learns about course planning, grammar based syllabuses are seen as outdated, unworkable models. And yet I’ve yet to see a coursebook which doesn’t reek of being a grammar based syllabus, albeit often in the cunning disguise being something more modern. As you say, topics are chosen because they produce a certain grammar point, texts are poorly doctored so that they contain the grammar point umpteen times over, and conversation topics are poorly contrived so that students will ‘have to’ use the grammar point in question.

    The protocols for starting learners on the the present simple and building them up step by step has basically been around since the ice age, and despite all the changes in theories of language teaching and learning, coursebook authors have yet to have the imagination to deviate from this one-size-fits-all grammar based approach.

  6. […] So, I don’t select grammatical items when planning a lesson. Apart from the situations mentioned above, which are not the majority, I never walk into a lesson thinking “today I’ll teach the second conditional”. […]

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