Mixed conditionals are one of the more difficult and confusing grammar points to teach. Those of us who have tried have most certainly encountered bewildered and frustrated students, some of whom look like they’re about ready to give up on English.
I’ll be honest, the very first time I went into a class to teach mixed conditionals, I didn’t even know what they were. I mean, I thought I did; I thought it was just looking at zero, first, second, and third conditionals together. I quickly realized my error after we got deeper into the lesson: mixed conditionals, in fact, are the mixing of tenses within a singular conditional sentence.
Since then, I’ve worked on different strategies for teaching this complicated grammar point and talked to other teachers who have the same struggle. Perhaps you are one of these teachers. After research and practice, here’s the process I use to teach mixed conditionals.
1. Tense ≠ time
This is where I begin. Tense is used to express different things, one of them being time, but that is not its only purpose. Therefore they are not always the same. Repeat and emphasize this throughout class. Someone will still be confused by it.
2. Conditional review and lead-in
Briefly review all conditionals if students need it. Then have them write example sentences using different conditionals.
More than likely, someone will naturally write a sentence as a mixed conditional, or one that should/could be a mixed conditional. Take this sentence (or sentences) to write on the board. If this doesn’t happen, simply make your own; for example: “If Mary had taken that job, she would be in Tokyo right now.”
Now tell them everything about conditionals they learned changes. Take the student’s example sentence (corrected by you if necessary) or your own sentence and have students try to explain what it means/what it is doing/expressing.
3. Lots of color-coding and labeling
This is essential throughout the lesson. It’s very helpful to students, especially visual learners.
Write the following on the board:
Red=past, green=present, blue=future
1. PAST and PRESENT
If Mary had taken that job,
she would be in Tokyo right now.
Break down this sentence with the students. Try to have them explain what it means, what the speaker is expressing. Get them to focus on meaning rather than the grammar right now. Check their comprehension by asking: “Is Mary in Tokyo now?” “Did she take the job?” “Where is the job based?”. Elicit from your students that this sentence imagines how Mary’s present would be different if she had, in the past, taken a different job. But she didn’t. The reality is that Mary took a job in Chicago, and that’s where she is.
All conditionals allow us to imagine/hypothesize about certain actions, but zero-third conditionals stay in one tense. Mixed conditionals, on the other hand, mix tenses; hence, the name.
4. Mixed conditionals at the board
After the sentence has been properly explained, ask for another sentence that expresses a similar idea, and then maybe one more. Continue to focus on the time of the events and how the past can affect the present, etc.
Reiterate that time ≠ tense.
Tell them they have successfully create one kind of mixed conditional!
Try to have them understand that in many ways, mixed conditionals happen naturally, occurring when you have a need to express a particular idea, and that it’s not really practical to learn through a formula. (Do give them the formula, however, if you think they need or want it.)
5. Activity One
Students will match cut-up sentences of three types of mixed conditionals. Have students work in pairs to make sentences from the halves.
Don’t focus on the structure or even on the fact that these are mixed conditionals. Simply have them match the sentences, then check as a class.
Then have them work with their pairs to organize the sentences into three groups (four sentences each). The groups are: Past-Present, Past-Future, Present-Past.
See if students can explain the meaning of the different sentences and categories.
*Note: I think it’s better to have students look at lots of examples and focus on meaning, not on structure.
6. What are mixed conditionals and what do they do?
It is called a mixed conditional because two different times are in the same sentence and are working in relation to one another.
Remind your students that mixed conditionals are all unreal/impossible situations.
We are imagining how if something in past/present/future were different, how that situation would change our lives in another time.
There are six different types. We will be focusing on the three most common for now.
7. Activity Two
Move on to two more types of mixed conditionals as seen in the following activity:
2. PAST and FUTURE
If I had received the scholarship,
I would move/be moving to Chile next year.
3. PRESENT and PAST
If I lived in France,
I would have watched the Tour de France.
Have students complete these sentences with their own ideas of a future or present result:
1. If I had won the race, …
2. If I had worked harder, …
3. If I had gone to China, …
4. If I had been born in a different country, …
5. If I hadn’t slept late, …
Now, complete with a past result:
1. If I lived in Australia, …
2. If I was more organized, …
3. If I was funnier, …
4. If I could play the violin, …
5. If I wasn’t a good writer, …
(This exercise continues here, if you are interested in seeing more.)
8. Choose your own adventure!
I think it’s important to emphasize at this point that wrapping your head around mixed conditionals can be difficult, and students should not expect to completely understand them at this point. Some confusion is normal. The goal at an intermediate level is to understand and recognize – more than produce – mixed conditional sentences. This is also the goal for advanced students, with the added goal of production, though it depends on the student.