Practising third and mixed conditionals

1. Options tree Students tell their partners about big decisions they have made in their life, and then decide with their partner how their life would have branched off from where it went if any of those decisions had gone the other way, drawing them on the page like an upside down tree. To add more […]

1. Options tree
Students tell their partners about big decisions they have made in their life, and then decide with their partner how their life would have branched off from where it went if any of those decisions had gone the other way, drawing them on the page like an upside down tree. To add more fun, at some point they can pass their Options Trees to another group to have their imaginary lives extended, usually to their amusement when they find out what others have decided such as becoming a famous ballet dancer.

2. Decision making stories
Students do one of those making decision stories where you have to turn to a particular page or card depending on what decisions you make (“If you want to enter the dark doorway turn to page 17, if you want to go back to the entrance hall turn back to page 7”), such as the ones available at the back of some of the Headway teachers’ books. When they have finished and found out their fate, they can ask the teacher or anyone else with access to the whole thing what would have happened if they had made different decisions.

3. Third conditional sentence completion guessing game
Students complete interesting third conditional sentence stems such as “If I had been born with webbed feet” or “If I had/ hadn’t been an only child”. They then read out one of their sentence completions without the original sentence stem, and other people guess which sentence stems that was a completion of. To make it more challenging, you can give different students different sentence stems to complete, so that their partners must guess the original sentence stem without being able to see it.

4. Sentence starters completion guessing game
In this variation of the game above, students are given the endings of third conditional sentences such as “I would have been happier” or “I would have been able to date a supermodel”, complete the beginnings of the sentences to make them true for themselves and then read them out for their partners to guessing which endings they match. This can be mixed with the idea above by giving student As sentence stems and student Bs sentence endings to complete.

5. Third conditional sentence guessing game
In this variation on or extension of the activities above, students make up their own third conditional sentences and tell their partner only half of the sentence they have written. Their partner should then try to guess what the half of the sentence they haven’t been told says, getting hints until they get it exactly right.

6. Options tree guessing
You can combine the ideas of an Options Tree and the sentence guessing games above by a student drawing their own Options Tree, telling their partner what the consequences (positive or negative) of making one of the decisions differently would have been without showing them the Options Tree or telling them which decision they are talking about, then their partner tries to guess which decision they mean.

7. Reality guessing
Students write some real things they did in the past (e.g. “I was a spotty teenager”) and some ideas of what could have happened if things had gone differently (e.g. “If I had been born with superpowers I would have used them to pass my university entrance exams”). They then tell their partner a few words from one of those sentences, but with the grammar stripped out (“spotty teenager” or “pass university entrance exams”). Their partner then guesses whether that was a real thing or not and then try to guess the whole sentence.

8. Past consequence chains
Students write the possible consequences of taking a different action in their past, e.g. “If I hadn’t gone to university, I would have stayed on my uncle’s farm”. They then pass that to the next person, and they put a further consequence of that action, e.g. “If you had stayed on your uncle’s farm, you would have been bored”. They then continue passing and writing the consequences until it gets back to the original person for them to read, usually with the predicted consequences causing considerable surprise! You can add to the strangeness and hence amusement of the sentences produced by getting students to fold the paper so they can only see one stage above when they write their consequence.

9. Accusations competition
Students are told they were both involved in something bad such as getting lost on the way to a party, then take turns accusing the other person of being at fault, e.g. “If you had brought the map, we wouldn’t have got lost”, “Well, if you had tidied the room at the weekend as you promised, I would have been able to find the map”, “Well, anyway, if you had bought a satellite navigation  system like I suggested, losing the map wouldn’t have been such a problem” etc.

10. Ease my regrets
Students tell their partners their regrets, and their partners tell them what worse things would have happened if they had done those things, e.g. “I wish I had studied more at school. If I had studied more at school, I could have become a doctor”, “Don’t worry. If you had become a doctor, you would have died of an exotic disease you caught from one of your patients”.

11. Third conditional bluff
One student says a true third or mixed conditional sentence for them, e.g. “If had had a bigger lunch, I wouldn’t be so hungry now”. Their partner must say that they actually did that thing and tell them what the consequences were, e.g. “I had a big lunch and that’s why I’m so sleepy now”. The person who made the original conditional sentence then has to guess whether the response was true or not, i.e. whether their partner did really do that thing. The game becomes even more fun when students realise they can always guess if their partner has to try and respond to “If I had been born with three eyes…”

12. Annoying instructions
Students try to do something they are likely to fail at first time such as programme a video recorder (maybe with some of the labels on the buttons covered) or do a puzzle. When they have completed their first attempt, the person who knows how to do it or has been given instructions on how to do it tells them where they went wrong, e.g. “If you hadn’t pressed the second button on the right, everything would have worked fine” or “If you had put the square piece in before the circle, then the triangle would have fitted”. All advice given must be in the third conditional, and the person trying to do it cannot ask questions. They can then try to do it again, and receive the same kind of advice if they fail, over and over until they finally succeed.

13. Third conditional Answer Me!
Students are given some very general endings of third conditional sentences such as “I would have felt sad” or “My mother would have been proud of me”. They have to ask third conditional questions to their partner to get exactly those responses from them to discard the card and get one point, e.g. “How would you have felt if our teacher had died just before this class?” or “How would you mother have felt if you had won a medal in the army?”. If they get different responses (e.g. “I would’ve been glad that the test was cancelled”), then they have to wait until their next turn and try again with a different question.

14. Third conditionals with everything
Students must answer every question they are asked with a third or mixed conditional sentence, e.g. “What did you have for dinner?” with “If I had had dinner, I wouldn’t have had time to come to class, so nothing.” or “How often do you go swimming?” with “If I hadn’t been victim of a shark attack, I would probably still go twice a week”. Note that this activity is challenging even for native speakers, and might be better done as a writing task rather than a speaking one and with students working in teams to come up with the responses.

15. Mr Bean
Give them the sentence endings to third conditional sentences connected to places where clumsy or idiotic comedy characters such as Mr Bean or Inspector Clousseau mess up, e.g. “… he wouldn’t have got his head stuck in a turkey”. When students think they have seen enough of the video to be able to make the correct first part of the sentence (often predicting the reasons for it long before they see it happen), they shout “Stop!” and say the whole sentence. Watch up to when that mess up happens, then reward points.

Written by Alex Case for December 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.


  • Rob says:

    Third conditional: Come back, be here’ by Taylor Swift

  • dury says:

    thanks a lot the exercises are really great!!! I agree with Beatriz that you are a very creative teacher and a very generous person.

  • Esther Gonzalez says:

    Excellent ideas that contribute a lot to my students progress

  • Bart says:

    The tip to go to Headway maze stories was excellent for mixed conditionals. Learners were ready to revolt and refused to believe that mixed conditionals would ever have a real world application. After the activity they left smiling. Thank you.

  • Rajni jaimini says:

    very innovative and fun ideas

  • Rajni jaimini says:

    very good and useful ideas

  • Maggie Nolivos says:

    I really liked the activities, they are neither boring to the teacher nor to the students. My students loved it as well as I di. I appreciate your ideas. Thank you!!

  • veronica says:

    useful! thx

  • Carola says:

    I saw the question about third conditional songs (my own, really), and thought someone could eventually benefit from this: I love using “Cut here” by The Cure to teach regret. Mostly Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve and I wish/If Only (which appear in the song). Don’t think it’s too popular, though.

  • Zina says:

    Great tips!
    Does anybody know a good and well-known song to practise the third conditional? Second conditional songs are everywhere but I haven´t been able to find a popular song to practise the third conditional.

  • Denise says:

    The only place I have found some good Third Conditional speaking ideas. Thanks a lot, you are a life saver!

  • Beatriz says:

    Excellent ideas for teaching and practicing third conditional. They are so simple and complex at the same time. Congratulations you are a very creative teacher, and has really contributed greatly to my lesson planning. Thanks.

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