How to Teach WILL for Spontaneous Intentions

By Alex Case
“I’ll” and “We’ll” for deciding and speaking at the same time teaching ideas

Although it is more common to teach “will” in predictions like “It will be warm this afternoon”, in normal communication “will” is much more common in sentences explaining decisions made while speaking like “Just a moment, I’ll check if he’s available”. This article gives some teaching tips for this important and sometimes undertaught point.

What students need to know about will for spontaneous intentions

Most students studying “will” in “In that case, I’ll cancel my holiday” have already studied “going to” for plans like “I’m going to book three weeks in Spain”. The difference is that “going to” is used for plans made before the moment of speaking, similar to “I’m planning to book three weeks in Spain”. In contrast, “will” in “Okay, I’ll pass your message onto him” is used for things that the speaker couldn’t have known about before the conversation started. This contrast can be seen in replying to “We need some milk” with “Don’t worry, I’m going to buy some” or “Don’t worry, I’ll buy some”, with the former meaning I had already planned to do so before you told me, and the latter being my new idea.

Will for spontaneous intentions is often the same as will for offers like “I’ll carry that for you”. It also sometimes overlaps with promises in sentences like “I’ll make sure he gets your message”.

Strangely, this meaning of “will” has nothing in common with predictions like “I think inflation will keep rising”, which is used for things that the speaker just imagines about the future, usually meaning things that they can’t affect like national sports results. Perhaps the only thing that those two uses of “will” shares is being different from “going to”.

In common with other uses of “will”, students also need to know how to recognise and pronounce contractions like “I’ll” and “We’ll”. This is important for speaking too, as “I will buy some” sounds too emphatic for most spontaneous decisions, being something stronger like a promise or contradiction of their doubts that you really will. As it’s rare to talk about other people’s spontaneous intentions, just “I’ll” and “We’ll” are usually enough for this point (without the need for others like “He’ll”). Similar negative phrases like “I won’t forget” are much less commonly spontaneous intentions, but can be used in situations like “I’m pretty sure it’s closed” “I won’t bother, then”.

Language that often goes with will for spontaneous intentions include “in that case”, “as soon as I can”, “right away”, “I wasn’t aware of that”, “Thanks for letting me know”, and “That’s news to me”.

Spontaneous intentions phrases often get responses to offers like “Thanks, that’s a great help” and “Actually, I’d prefer to do that for myself”, so you might want to give students a list of such responses to use in communication and/ or include some in the presentation stage text.

How to present will for spontaneous intentions

If you can find or make a dialogue with enough examples of will for spontaneous intentions, this dialogue can be used with an initial comprehension task where students write down what will be done after the conversation. Unless you want to contrast with other uses of “will”, I’d make sure that it doesn’t include predictions, strong promises, etc. However, I usually make sure that the dialogue includes “going to” in order to it contrast with “will”. In that case, the second listening task can be listening out for which things were and weren’t decided before the conversation, using spoken clues like “It’s already decided” and “Okay. I didn’t know about that. In that case,…” to help. You can then elicit what tense was used for decisions made during the conversation, and which for decisions made before.

I’ve also sometimes taken a more bottom-up approach, with students listening for how many times the speakers say “I’ll”, listening again for how those sentences continue, then trying to work out what the sentences have in common.

As can be seen in some of the example sentences above, telephoning has lots of phrases with this grammar like “Just a moment, I’ll just a pen and some paper”. Other situations with lots of suitable use of will include people volunteering to help with something like a new project or a party, and someone introducing new information that the other person has to cope with (such as a supplier going bankrupt).

How to practise will for spontaneous intentions

The situations explained above can also be good for roleplays, perhaps with points for each time students use “I’ll”, or with cards with “I’ll” on to discard as they use that word in different sentences during the roleplay.

The “I’ll” cards can also be used in a mingling activity. Each person decides something that they need help with like moving house or writing a school newspaper. They stand up, find a partner, tell each other about their projects, and try to volunteer for something useful for the other person that no one else has offered to do so far, in which case they can discard one “I’ll” card. However, if everything that they say they’ll do is already being done by someone else, they can’t discard any cards and have to think of something else or change partner and try again. The first person to successfully discard all their cards can sit down and is the winner.

Another way of turning this into something competitive is for people to say what they will do to help in that situation until everyone runs out of ideas. The best of those offers then gets a point.

It can also be fun to get students to use more unusual sentences like “Don’t worry, I’ll drive your dog to the countryside and let him go there”. This can be practised with a game of Answer Me, in which students choose or write reactions that they expect like “Thanks for the offer, but…” and “Actually, I already…”, explain their spontaneous intention, see what reaction they get, then compare it to what they expected.

For more of a range of language, roleplays and other activities can be done with words on a worksheet or cards that students should try to use like “give you a lift”, “later today” and “for you”.

Language that students have to use can also be made into Will for Spontaneous Intentions Strangers on a Train, in which they are told to use the phrase with “will” on their roleplay card and to try to spot what phrase everyone else was trying to sneak into the conversation.

Roleplays can also be made more challenging with cards adding complications like “Only make very vague statements like ‘I’ll work on it’” and “Argue with people’s ideas on what should be done”.

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet July 2024
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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