How To Teach the Unreal Past

By Alex Case
Presenting and practising past tenses for hypothetical situations

Students can really struggle with understanding and producing If only/I wish + Simple Past/Past Perfect, and can also wonder why they are putting in what seems a lot of effort for a tiny point (if one that figures fairly prominently in Cambridge ESOL exams). All of this can be solved with the introduction of the grammatical term Unreal Past, something which seems scary but in fact is just a fancy way of showing them that they’ve already seen the same tense as part of the second and third conditionals. For example, “I wish I had chosen a different university” basically means “If I had chosen a better university, my life would have been better/I would have learnt more.”

Introducing the Unreal Past by name and showing the links to conditional tenses also helps show the difference between “I wish” and “I hope”, with “I hope” being followed by present tenses because it expresses something that could happen, unlike the unlikely/impossible/imaginary meaning of the Unreal Past with “I wish” and “If only”. This makes “I hope” similar to the First Conditional, e.g. with “I hope he comes soon” possibly meaning “If he comes soon, I won’t get angry.” You can also use introducing the Unreal Past to reinforce the differences between the First Conditional and Second Conditional (which they have probably already studied many times). The concept of the Unreal Past can also be used to show really clearly that the if-clause in the Third Conditional has to be something that didn’t actually happen, e.g. using “If I hadn’t gone to university” when I actually did, in the same way as “I wish I hadn’t gone to university” meaning in reality I did.

Presenting The Unreal Past

As I explained above, it is usually best to explicitly show the connection between “I wish/If only” and the second and third conditionals, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be done at the beginning of the presentation stage. The first thing students need to grasp is that “I wish/If only” + Simple Past (e.g. “I wish I didn’t have to go to school”) is talking about the present or future rather than the past. Probably the simplest way of doing this is to show them one or two dialogues in which people are complaining about the present and expressing regrets about the past, and elicit the meanings and structures of the forms used to do both. These dialogues could also include conditional sentences like “If you had taken the route I suggested, we would have arrived three hours earlier” and “If you physically unplugged the internet, you would actually get some work done.”

You can also show the connection to the conditional sentences straightaway, e.g. by asking them to match sentences like “I wish I had four arms” and “If I did, I would be the best basketball player in the world” before they try to explain the grammatical and meaning connections between the structures used in the sentences.

You can also combine the Unreal Past with the other major non-past use of past tenses, which is to be indirect/polite. Give students example sentences of all three uses of past tenses (past time/politeness/Unreal Past) and ask them to label the ones which are not talking about the past. They then analyse the two other uses of the past, splitting the sentences into ones which use past tenses to be polite and ones which use past tenses to talk about things which are unreal. The example sentences should be ones that couldn’t possibly be talking about the past, e.g. “I wish I had legs like yours” for Unreal Past and “Was there anything else?” for politeness.

As well as the meaning and structure of the Unreal Past, you will also probably want to introduce words and expressions that often go together with “I wish/If only” such as the ones that can be found in the sentences “I really wish you wouldn’t snore like a walrus all the time” and “I wish I had done that earlier like my father told me to.”

You’ll also need to do a bit of work on pronunciation, e.g. on how much you stress the word “only” changes the strength of “If only” and how you can do the same if you add “really” or “do” to “I wish” and then stress it strongly.

Classroom Activities For The Unreal Past

It is generally best to get students used to writing the forms first, so I usually start off with a game combining writing and speaking that I call the Sentence Completion Guessing Game. Students complete at least half of the partial sentences you give them (e.g. “I wish __________ at school” or “I really wish they had never __________”) with something that reflects their real feelings about their lives. They then read out just the part they have written (e.g. “I had studied English instead of French” or “thought of Big Brother” for the examples above) and the other students try to guess which sentence it has been written in.

There are also guessing games that they can play without a writing stage. In one, a student chooses from a list of problems that the teacher has prepared such as “It’s raining” and “Your big brother bullied you.” They make possible “I wish/If only” sentences connected to that problem (e.g. “I wish I had an umbrella” and “I wish I had been born first”) until their partner guesses exactly what the problem is.

They can also play a guessing game the other way round. A student chooses a sentence which has “I wish/If only” in it and explains situations in which that thing could be said or thought (e.g. “I can’t find the jack” for “I wish I was stronger”) until their partner guesses the exact Unreal Past sentence.

You can also set up conversations where the Unreal Past should come up, e.g. mutual complaints, assigning blame, and business meetings to examine where a project went wrong. These can be made into more controlled practice by asking students to compete to make their complaints stronger than their partner’s, or by asking them to tell their partner why their complaints and regrets aren’t actually bad things with sentences like “If you hadn’t broken your arm, you never would have met that beautiful nurse you dated last year.”

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet November 2011
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
© Teflnet


  • Mwanangombe Susiku says:

    Thank very much for this presentation my students will enjoy the lesson.

  • Sophia says:


Leave a comment