The second conditional, used to talk about unreal situations, has two clauses, in either order, one with if and the past simple tense, the other with would plus the infinitive. Clear, right? My students, nevertheless, often use would in both clauses, which seems downright obtuse. My own difficulties with the conditional in Spanish, however, make me sympathetic. So when reviewing this grammar point for my upper-intermediate high schoolers, I followed the suggestion in the teacher’s book on how to introduce the structure: ask what they would do if they won the lottery. Starter was the word used for this preliminary activity, suggesting the beginning of a feast. Other books use the term warm up, as if learning a language is like doing sport. For me, welcoming students and then circulating among pairs of them engaged in talk, it seems a cocktail party metaphor might be the most apt, and I neither the chef of a meal nor the coach training athletes but the host, checking on my guests, keeping them from getting bored. I had high hopes for the lesson. Who could be bored while talking about money?
The idea was for the students to quickly decide on their first act. Then we could talk about what they could do. A whole range of possibilities! Their eyes would light up. Finally we would list the things they might do, realizing that the items on this list made a select subset of the could list, more likely than the other possibilities on that list but less likely than on the would list.
Had the textbook authors envisioned a classroom of considerate teens, remembering the items their parents lacked, or the vacation their grandparents had always wanted? Their sister’s crooked teeth and the expensive procedure for straightening them that was beyond the family’s means? A big new apartment with a baby grand for an aunt who had no room in her home for a piano? That was what I was waiting for. Instead, the first student said he’d buy a car. “Ah,” I said. Buy a car I wrote on the whiteboard. “How old are you?” He was 16, he said, so he’d keep the car in a garage, he supposed, until he got his license at 18. “You could let a friend or family member use it in the meantime,” I suggested.
“No,” he said, “it’s mine.”
The next student I called on raised his brows and said he’d buy a house. I wrote that too. For your parents or for yourself? For me, he said, but he admitted he didn’t want to live alone. He was 15. The third said he’d buy a boat. Buy a boat went on the board. This boy was 14. “Do you like the ocean? Do you know how to sail?” I asked. Not particularly, and no. Do you know about renting a berth in a harbor or insuring the boat? No. About boat maintenance? He shook his head. Well, it’s a lot of work, I said. He could pay someone, another student suggested. True. We continued around the room, and I was pleased when a student said she’d go to New York. For how long? I asked. A week. Visit New York. The final student said she couldn’t think of anything. “Well, you could put it in the bank,” I said, ready to transition into the modals could and might. “What else could you do with a lot of money that you don’t need?”
For exactly 60 seconds, the class sat in silence. I was determined to wait them out, but I broke before they did. “You could throw it out the window,” I suggested, “and then watch what happens in the street when bundles of money come raining down.” The students didn’t react as I started a new list under the heading Could.
“You could bury it, like a pirate.” They snickered.
“You could give it away.” The students shook their heads. “Well, part of it,” I suggested. They shook their heads again. “You wouldn’t give it away? Not to charity? Not to save starving children?” The incredulous no became an abashed no. “Would anyone give any of the money away?”
Despite noting their earlier avowal to keep all the money, I was surprised that not one student would give away any portion. “You could share it with your brother,” I said to one. He laughed. “No, no!”
“Maybe you wouldn’t, but you could,” I said, and added Give away to the list.
“You could burn it,” said a student. It was the student who’d said she’d go to New York. She was pretty and very quiet, always knew the answer but almost never volunteered to give it. Yes, I said, you could, and wrote that on the whiteboard. I looked at the list, satisfied. We’d gobbled the starter, then chewed it thoroughly, but now we were almost ready to move on. One last bite though: I asked them all to choose one option from the could list of actions that they might do.
That was hard. Buying a house they had no need for and no desire to live in had come easily to mind, but the choices in the second list were unappealing. I specifically asked again if they might give it away. Was that a remote possibility? No, was the answer from all six students. They might as well burn it, I thought. Given the options, they thought so too.
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