How to Teach Predictions with Will and Going to

By Alex Case
Teaching the contrast between future forecasts with will and future forecasts with going to

Future forms can be one of the most useful points to cover in class, with simple explanations like “going to for plans, meaning things you decided” and “will for predictions, meaning your imagination of the future” often undoing years of bad teaching. However, such nice simple explanations can get a bit messed up when the teacher has to admit that “going to” is also used for predictions, with a bad explanation of how that works possibly messing up that whole lesson. This article gives hints on how to distinguish going to for predictions from will for predictions at both the presentation and practice stages.

What students need to know about will and going to predictions

“Going to” in sentences like “That’s going to fall” is used for predictions with present evidence, meaning based on something that the speaker can see, hear, smell, etc. In contrast, predictions with “will” like “That will fall” are based on more logical analysis, for example knowledge that lots of people walk past that place, so its fall is inevitable. This makes “will” more like “bound to”.

A similar contrasting pair is:

“It’s going to rain” – based on black clouds in the sky, an air pressure headache, etc
“It’ll rain” – based on the season, the superstitious belief that having a picnic brings on rain, etc
However, this pair shows the biggest complication of this grammar explanation, which is that someone seeing the picnic basket could take that as present evidence and just as correctly say “It’s going to rain!” Similarly, someone looking at a graph of data up to the present such as a stock market index could say “It will fall” based on their past experience or “It’s going to fall” based on the shape of the graph. This means that it is almost impossible to make gapfill tasks that can only be filled with only going to or only will (although gaps where one or the other is more common is possible).

To deal with this complication, students need to know that “two speakers can see the same future event in different ways and so use different future forms”, which is also useful to know more generally. However, the practice activities below seek to make the distinction clear by using the two future forms together with a clear contrast between their uses.

How to present will and going to predictions

As seen in many textbooks, the best way to present the difference is with pictures e.g. matching a picture of a tottering vase to “Watch out! It’s going to fall” and pictures showing a vase on a table and lots of people walking down the corridor to “According to my calculations, it’ll definitely fall by the end of the day”. It’s also good to present will predictions as consequences of going to predictions, as in “It’s going to fall. Your mother will be so angry if it breaks!”

How to practise will and going to predictions

As shown with the last example above, the best way of showing the contrast between the two forms in communication is for students to make a going to prediction based on evidence and then using will to predict the consequences of that predicted event.

I most often do this by pausing a video when something is clearly about to happen, e.g. a character is about to take something, then asking students to first predict that action and then forecast what leads on from it, e.g. “He’s going to take the wrong card. The other man won’t notice”.

Without a video, you can just have one student making any prediction with going to (“I’m not going to catch that ball”) and their partner(s) trying to think of consequences (“He’ll reach third base”, then maybe “I’ll lose my bet”, “You’ll lose your wife and home”, etc).

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet October 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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