How to teach the zero conditional

Summary: Teaching tips and fun classroom activities for "If…" with Present Simple, modal verbs and imperatives, including 18 Zero Conditional games.

When we are teaching conditional forms like “If the train is late, I will miss my appointment”, “If I were you, I’d divorce him” and “If I hadn’t brought extra cash, I would have been stranded”, we often forget about the simplest one of all – “If I have a bath, it (always) makes me feel sleepy”. Whoever was naming those tenses obviously also forgot about “If + Present Simple, Present Simple” as well, because this form has the very strange name Zero Conditional, presumably because they named First Conditional, Second Conditional and Third Conditional and then realised that this one is even easier. That neglect is understandable in a way as the Zero Conditional form is so simple that it hardly needs presenting, being just Present Simple in form (“When my husband COMES home late, he IS always drunk”), and in uses and meaning (used to talk about routines, habits and things which are generally true, often used with adverbs of frequency, etc). 

Like other conditional forms, as well as “If…”, Zero Conditional can go with other similar forms like “When…” (“When I’m bored, I usually polish my nails” etc) and “As long as…” (“As long as he doesn’t make too much noise, I don’t really mind him coming home drunk” etc). Also like other conditional forms, the two clauses in Zero Conditional sentences can be reversed (“I don’t mind him coming home drunk as long as he doesn’t make too much noise” etc), with no comma needed when the conditional is written this way round.

The most basic Present Simple form and meaning of Zero Conditional is probably only worth some class time for students who are particularly likely to use it such as engineers and technical manual writers (with sentences like “If you press the button for seven seconds, it resets all settings”), or you could leave it for a general review of conditional forms. However, there are some related forms which might be worth some more class time from around Intermediate level, such as:

  • “If…” with the imperative (“If the light is orange, don’t start crossing”, “If you hear the alarm, instantly evacuate”, etc)
  • “If…” with modal verbs such as “should”, “can”, “may”, “have to” and “could” (“If your child doesn’t like vegetables, you should cook them mixed with other ingredients such as meat” etc)

Note that if you want to teach these extra forms as part of a lesson on Zero Conditional more generally, you’ll need to make sure that the examples and situations you choose match the Present Simple meanings of this form. This is because both of the related forms just mentioned can also have a future meaning that basically makes them examples of the First Conditional, for example in “If I don’t come back within half an hour, call the police” and “If he doesn’t phone tomorrow either, you should forget about him and start dating other guys”. 

Sentences with “in case” such as “I take an umbrella every single day in case it rains” also have a lot in common with Zero Conditional, although again there is a very similar future form which is more similar to the First Conditional (“You should take something to read in case he is late again” etc).

Suitable topics for presenting and practising various versions of Zero Conditional include:

  • Differences between people’s habits, reactions, and so on (by age, gender, personality, nationality, etc, with sentences like “If a late middle-aged man is given a new operating system, they usually panic”)
  • Dos and taboos (“If they offer you more food, you have to accept it” etc)
  • Giving advice (for visitors from foreign countries, people using social media, people self-publishing, people who can’t decide what kinds of job to apply for, etc, with sentences like “If you like working with children, try a few months as an au pair”)
  • Good and bad reactions, ways of coping, etc (“If your boyfriend is jealous about nothing, don’t let that change your behaviour” etc)
  • Interpreting people’s reactions, e.g. what people’s body language means (“If the audience cross their arms, it probably means that they don’t approve”, etc)
  • Interviews (job interviews etc, with questions like “What do you do if your boss doesn’t seem to understand your proposals?”)
  • Manners/ Etiquette (“If you have a runny nose, it’s better to sniff than to use a tissue in public” etc)
  • Reactions to and causes of feelings (“If it is grey and cloudy, that almost always makes me depressed” etc)
  • Responding to difficult situations and problems (with your health, at work, from natural disasters, etc, with sentences like “If the earthquake lasts more than 30 seconds, crouch under a table” etc)
  • Rules and tactics for sports and games (“If you bounce it more than twice, it’s a foul” etc)
  • Scientific explanations (“If the sun goes down, the light has to go through more air to reach you” etc)
  • Using machines and technology (“If your virus protection slows your computer, you can more basic ones for free online” etc)
  • Warnings/ What can go wrong if you don’t do the right thing (“If you ignore your boss’s emails, even the pointless ones, they will become more critical of all your work” etc)

How to go about using such topics to present and practise Zero Conditional is dealt with in the two sections below. 

Presenting Zero Conditional

With students who already know Present Simple and/ or other conditional forms, it is often possible to get students producing (attempts at) Zero Conditional simply by setting up a suitable communicative activity on a topic from the list above. For example, after brainstorming some useful advice for foreign visitors, you can ask students to talk about what difficulties the tourists might experience and what the tourists can do in such situations. This should hopefully lead naturally to sentences like “If you get lost, (you should) ask for help at a local police station”, and if not it should at least prepare them for your presentation of that form.

This eliciting the Zero Conditional straight from communication is more difficult with the basic, purely Present Simple Zero Conditional (without modals or imperative), but can be done if one of the topics mentioned above is set up carefully. For example, you can ask students to talk about their routines generally, move onto discussion of what problems they encounter, and then talk about how they generally respond to those issues.  

Perhaps a more typical way of presenting Zero Conditional is through some kind of listening or reading text on topics like those listed above. This could be combined with the eliciting first approach by getting students to brainstorm their own ideas on the topic, listen or read to see if any of their ideas are mentioned, then do a noticing activity on what language is used in the text to talk about those things.

An easier approach is to give students some Zero Conditional sentences that they initially use just to prompt their speaking, e.g. giving their opinions on statements like “If you eat too many vegetables, it still makes you fat” or “If you get a stitch when you run, you should worry about your heart”. After they finish the speaking activity, get them to analyse the language in the sentences that they were just discussing.

Another example of that kind of presenting through conversation prompts, but this time with other useful language, is giving them some true sentences about social reactions in English in different situations and asking them to come up with a reason why. For example, if you give them the sentence “English speakers say ‘Bless you’ if someone sneezes”, they might come up with “English speakers say ‘Bless you’ if someone sneezes because they think they are sick and so need good luck to help them recover”. After discussing what the best explanations might be, you can then ask them what tenses were used in the original Zero Conditional sentences and why.

An even simpler task that you can ask them to do before looking at the grammar is completing or matching up sentence-halves to make logical Zero Conditional phrases, e.g. “If we don’t revise new vocabulary that we come across” + “we quickly forget it”. Alternatively, they could match whole Zero Conditional phrases to descriptions such as putting personality words next to sentences such as “impatient” for “If the bus is five minutes late, he always gets a taxi”. 

Practice activities for Zero Conditional

Guess the word from the Zero Conditional

One student chooses a word and makes Zero Conditional sentences about that thing without saying what it is, continuing with hint sentences until their partners guess what they are speaking about. For example, they can make sentences like “If I feel this way, I start sweating”, “If people feel like this, their hearts beat faster” and “If I know I’m going to see my cousins, I feel this way” until their partner guesses that the word that they chose was “excited”. As well as feelings vocabulary, this game works for vocabulary of personality (e.g. “If you ask these kinds of people to change their mind, they never do” for “stubborn”), names of particular groups of people (e.g. “If they have a difficult job, they often just quit” for “people in their early twenties”), nationality words (e.g. “If you speak to them in English, they often reply in their own language or even just ignore you, even if they can speak English” for “French”), names of machines and technology (e.g. “If you make a mistake, you can just use the other end to get rid of it” for “erasable pen”) and names of sports (e.g. “If your hand touches the ground when you catch the ball, the batter is not out” for “cricket”).

A trickier guessing game is for students to describe the effects of one action on many things until their partner guesses what the action is, e.g. “If you do it to a jam jar, it keeps the jam fresh” and “If you do it to a bolt too much, it can damage it and make it impossible to take off” for the verb “tighten”.

Zero conditional personalised sentence completion guessing game

Students are given gapped sentences that they can fill in to make personalised Zero Conditional sentences like “________________, he gets angry” and “If you talk to me early in the morning, ___________________”. After filling in at least half the sentences to make true statements about themselves, they read out just the part that they have written (e.g. “If you ask my dad why he never shaves” or “I usually just grunt”) for their partners to guess the whole sentence from. They can then move onto making their own sentences with no help and reading out just half for their partners to guess the whole thing from, this time probably giving hints if their partner can’t guess the other half of the sentence correctly.

It is also possible to give students less than half a sentence as the prompt, e.g. just feelings words to use, making this more like the guessing games described above.

Zero conditional discuss and agree

Students try to agree on and write down ways to complete sentences stems like “If you promise voters more spending and less tax,…”and “If you blow your nose in public,…”, with endings like “…., it only helps rich people” and “…, it doesn’t matter nowadays”. As with these examples, politics and cultural dos and taboos are good topics for this, as is language learning.

Zero conditional things in common

Ask students to work together to make as many Zero Conditional sentences as they can that are true about the people in their group, e.g. “If we feel depressed, we both/ all eat chocolate”. It would probably help to give them some ideas such as half sentences or key words such as feelings vocabulary. 

Writing guides with Zero Conditional competition

Students work together to write the best guides that they can to topics like how to act in presentations, how not to offend people in other countries, and how to use the internet well (and not badly). Other groups can then read those guides and ask for more information, offer advice on improving their descriptions, and/ or vote on the best one in the class. This activity can also be done with wackier topics such as a user manual for a dog or even a human being (“If you want to ask me a favour, buy me some imported beer first” etc). You can also bring more language into this task by asking the students to write rules on what you should say in English in particular situations such as “If you say ‘How are you?’, the British tend to say something mild like ‘Not bad’”. Talking about etiquette and cultural differences is also a good way of dealing with a useful topic at the same time as practising this grammar, with sentences like “If you need to blow your nose, you probably shouldn’t do it while facing the dinner table” and “If no one asks questions in a presentation, the presenter usually feels disappointed and/ or embarrassed.”

Zero conditional rules and instructions bluff

Students change three rules of a game or sport, then explain a mix of those three made up ones and seven real ones to another group for them to guess which are false. The same thing can also work for instructions on how to use a tool, piece of technology, etc. This will obviously have to be done with games, sports, machines etc which students don’t know too well, and is probably best done with students doing research on the real rules themselves on the internet before writing their bluff versions.

Zero Conditional criteria

Students rank and/ or write the most important criteria for someone to be a good boss, a good mother-in-law, etc, with sentences like “If they come from another industry, they research their new industry very thoroughly” and “If the couple have an argument, she doesn’t always take her child’s side”. The other groups can then compare ideas, vote on the best lists, etc.

Zero Conditional analysis questions

People ask each other questions about how they typically respond to situations such as difficulties and then make some recommendations for that person which should suit them, based on what they learnt about them from their usual responses. For example, they can ask questions like “If you are given more freedom in your job, do you like it?” and “What do you do if you strongly disagree with your colleagues?” and then recommend the most suitable job for that person, perhaps choosing from a list of jobs that you have given them. This activity could also work for recommending holidays, ways of tackling stress, technology to buy that would have the most positive impact on your life, etc.

Zero Conditional interview questions

Make roleplay cards that have one problem on each, with all of them written as a Zero Conditional sentences such as “If you don’t agree with your boss, you always go over his or her head” and “When you get stressed, you usually take a week or two off work”. Give each student at least one of those cards and ask them to interview each other to try and find out what is wrong with their partners with questions like “What do you do if you don’t understand some of your duties at work?” and “If you get lost, are you too proud to ask people for directions?” In answer to any questions which are not related to their cards, students can give their own real answers or made-up ones as they like, but they can’t say anything that contradicts what is written on their cards. Each person should interview at least two people about the same thing (e.g. for the same job) and then say which of the people who they interviewed they would choose and why. The people who they interviewed then reveal their problems and the interviewer says if they would change their mind, or if they still think they chose the right person.

As well as job interviews, this game could be played with the topics of choosing flatmates, people in a speed dating event to go on a second date with, etc.

Guess the instructions

Students look at a real object or photo of something and work together to write what they imagine are instructions on how to use it such as “If you press the red button, it turns the whole thing on and off”. They can then try out the real object, read the instructions and/ or watch a video of someone using it to check how well they guessed. 

Guess the rules

Students guess the rules of a game or sport from looking at the equipment and/ or photos of people playing. They could then watch a video, read something or do some research online to check how right they are, perhaps scoring one point for each time that they were correct.

Zero Conditional matching pairwork dictation

This is a more interactive version of the matching halves of Zero Conditional sentences mentioned in the presentation section above. The teacher should prepare maybe 14 to 18 Zero Conditional sentences on one topic, e.g. good and bad reactions to different health problems. Split the phrases into halves and make sure that each starter can only be logically matched with one of the endings. Split the halves between a Student A worksheet and a Student B one. Put students into Student A and Student B pairs, give them copies of the two different worksheets, and ask them to work together to put the halves together without showing their worksheets to each other. When they have checked their answers, they can then do another activity with the same sentences such as ranking the tips from the most to the least useful.

Zero conditionals change the rules

Students choose a well-known game or sport and work together to try to come up with interesting, challenging or just plain bizarre changes to the rules, e.g. “If you take two pieces in a row, you can take back one of the pieces that your opponent has taken” for chess or “If the batter smiles, they are out” for baseball. The rest of the class reads the new rules, comments on which rules are best, and maybe votes on which group has made the best list.

Zero conditional sentence completion challenge

Students try to think up starters of Zero Conditional sentences that their partners can’t complete (well) such as “If your boyfriend often cheats on you but you really love him”, “If a bear attacks you”, “If you sometimes wonder what the point of it all is” or “If your virus protection slows your computer down”. If you want to have points in the game, you could give them one point for each challenge that can’t be met (well).

Create Zero Conditional reactions

Students imagine a robot, vending machine, super-elevator, trap etc and work together to come up with a mix of actions that you can do to it that have good consequences and ones which have bad consequences, such as “If you shake it, it produces gold coins” and “If you press this button, all the air in the room that you are in disappears”. They should write an equal number of statements about the positive effects and sentences about the negative effects. They then give a picture of that thing to another group (or perhaps something with a 3D element to make it easier to imagine such as drawing it on a cornflake box covered with white paper). The other team do things to that object such as pressing buttons or moving it around, and get one point for each thing they try which has a good consequence or no effect at all (probably because the other team didn’t think of that action). They lose one point for each bad thing that occurs because of something that they did, e.g. if they turn it upside down and the other group wrote “If you turn it upside down, it has to be recharged”. 

With more active and imaginative classes, you can also play the game with one of the members of the first team being the thing that is interacted with, e.g. by one student in each group pretending to be a robot whose arms are moved, nose is pressed etc by the other group(s).

Zero conditional random pelmanism

Students take turns choosing two from a random selection of words (e.g. a list of 40 useful English verbs for engineers), and trying to make sensible Zero Conditional sentences from them, e.g. saying “If you SCREW this anticlockwise, it WIDENs the gap between the two pieces of wood ” if they picked the words “screw” and “widen”. Those words can then be crossed off the list. To make this game more fun, pelmanism is usually played with students turning over cards which are face down on the table. However, in this case it is probably challenging enough just matching up pairs of words and making sentences. 

Guess the Zero Conditional communication instructions

Students are given instructions on how they should change the way that they communicate such as “If your partner asks a question, ask a question back without answering it”, “If your partner asks a question, always turn it back to them after answering it” and “If your partner makes eye contact, instantly look away”. Students chat about various topics or take part in roleplays that you have given them until they work out what their partner is doing strangely. They can then discuss how good or bad those things are, plus any cultural differences related to those things.

Secret Zero Conditional rules

Students make up secret rules for a speaking activity or other game, only revealing them as the people in another group are doing the activity later on. For example, if the other team are playing with a pack of cards and they have written “If you place down a two, all the other people have to take two cards”, they reveal that rule whenever that happens during the game. Probably the best way of organising this is for groups of two to four students to write one rule on each piece of ten or so pieces of paper that you have given them. One person from that team then joins another group and reveals each card as that rule becomes relevant. As well as playing cards, you can play with a chess board, Chinese checkers, a speaking game, Scrabble, Monopoly, etc.

Copyright © 2015

Written by Alex Case for

Enjoyed this article?

Please help us spread the word: