How to Teach Future Predictions

By Alex Case
How to present different language to make forecasts about the future

Forecasts like “I’ll need a new phone soon” and “The population will peak” are in most textbooks, but often with problems like not contrasting well with other future forms and only presenting language that students already know. This article gives a short but thorough review of teaching the full range of such language.

What students need to know about predictions

The main thing students need to know is that predictions are not plans, arrangements, desires, etc. Predictions can be defined as the speaker’s imagination of the future and/ or as future facts, which means they are often about non-personal things such as the economy (unlike plans, etc). Predictions can also be described as just out there in the world, in contrast to desires (in people’s hearts), arrangements (in their diaries), etc.

Textbooks most often teach predictions with “will” and “won’t”. This is the first thing to teach, but other language for predictions, in order of when I would present it, includes:

  • adverbs with will (probably, almost certainly, definitely, etc)
  • other modal verbs (must, might, may, could, can’t)
  • adverbs with other modals (really, well, possibly, conceivably, etc)
  • adjectives (is very likely to, is possible, is unlikely to, etc)
  • “going to” for predictions with present evidence (“Watch out. It’s going to fall!”)
  • verbs (is forecast/ predicted/ expected to, etc)
  • Future Continuous for predictions about a point in time (“My plane will be landing then”)
  • Future Perfect for predictions linking two times (“I’ll start ASAP, but won’t have completed it by Monday”)

Note that many of these also have other meanings, as in will for spontaneous intentions (“Don’t worry. I’ll buy some later”) and Future Continuous for unchangeable arrangements (“I’ll be meeting a client then”).

Most of the language above can be ranked by probability (with approximate percentages):

  • will definitely (100%!)
  • will/ going to (100%, fact)
  • (really) must (100%, speculation)
  • will almost certainly (99%)
  • very likely (85%)
  • will probably/ probably going to/ likely to/ probable (70%)
  • may well/ might well (55%)
  • may/ might/ could/ may not/ might not (50%)
  • could possibly/ probably won’t/ unlikely (30%)
  • could conceivably (5%)
  • almost certainly won’t (1%)
  • can’t (0%, speculation)
  • won’t (0%, fact)
  • definitely won’t (0%!)

Future Continuous and Future Perfect can also be adapted to go in several of those levels (“will probably be arriving”, “may’ve completed”, etc)

Typical student problems with predictions

Common issues include:

  • overusing “will” (for plans, arrangements, etc)
  • overusing “might” (rarely useful, as it also means “might not”)
  • overstressing “will” instead of using contractions (“I’ll” etc)
  • thinking “expect” means “hope” (as it could in contexts “a sense of expectation”)
  • not understanding the difference between “will” and “going to”
  • ranking them in the wrong order of probability

How to present predictions

The list above is too much for most classes, so the first job is to choose what students should learn next, for example adjectives when they already know the adverbs.

Texts presenting predictions often have problems like treating all the forms as the same and no context that makes the meanings clear. They therefore often need to be rewritten or replaced to have context like “but maybe not” and “I’d go further and say that it must happen”, maybe testing that the language couldn’t be swapped around the text to make sure that the context is clear. After an initial comprehension task like matching predictions to photos and discussing if they agree, students can match the language in the text to descriptions like “fifty percent chance” and “prediction linking present and future”.

How to practise predictions

There is another article on this site with a dozen stimulating ideas for classroom communication with predictions.

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet July 2023
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
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