What If – third conditional activity

Lesson Plans & Activities

What If is an activity to practice the third conditional‏‎ looking at impossible outcomes.


Firstly select a famous historical event and prepare a summary of it in about 200 words (you can often find good summaries online in Wikipedia for example).

Make sure the story is relevant to your students’ interests and age group, and the language you use in your summary matches their level‏‎. This means you may have to simplify it in some cases.


In class you might want to go over the third conditional to make sure your students are all familiar with it. Rather than launch into the grammar you can go over a few basic ideas and examples here.

Warm up the class a little by asking at random a few simple What If questions related to the here and now. Focus on yourself and you are guaranteed to have your students’ attention. Students just love picking on their teacher!

What if I’d been ill today?

What if I’d lost all your homework?

What if I came to school drunk?

What if I started singing?

What if…

Once you have them in the mood you can start to introduce a few ideas about the story you prepared. Then hand it out and allow a few minutes for your students to go over it. Then check their understanding by concept checking‏‎.

Once you are confident everybody is ready, start eliciting the What If questions related to the story. Each student will have to come up with an answer for each scenario. You can make this into a written activity or keep it oral. This will depend on the kind of practice you think your students need most.

Encourage students to use their imagination and to think of various alternative scenarios and the aim here is for each student (or team) to come up with the craziest or most interesting scenario.

A Practical Example

This is a short prepared text on the Titanic.

On April 10th, 1912, the Titanic – the largest ship afloat, left Southampton, England on her maiden voyage to New York City.

A legend even before she sailed, her passengers were a mixture of the world’s wealthiest basking in the elegance of first class accommodations and immigrants packed into steerage.

It was touted as the safest ship ever built, so safe that she carried only 20 lifeboats – enough to provide accommodation for only half her 2,200 passengers and crew.

Four days into her journey, at 11:40 P.M. on the night of April 14, she struck an iceberg. The collision was fatal and the icy water soon poured through the ship.

It became obvious that many would not find safety in a lifeboat. Each passenger was issued a life jacket but life expectancy would be short when exposed to water four degrees below freezing. As the forward portion of the ship sank deeper, passengers scrambled to the stern.

The great ship slowly slid beneath the waters two hours and forty minutes after the collision.

The next morning, the liner Carpathia rescued 705 survivors. One thousand five hundred twenty-two passengers and crew were lost. Subsequent inquiries attributed the high loss of life to an insufficient number of lifeboats and inadequate training in their use.

Now encourage students to come up with What If questions such as:

  • What if the Titanic had sailed to South Africa?
  • What if she had had more life boats?
  • What if it had been summer?
  • What if there had been more liners close by?
  • What if…?

See if you can get the students into more imaginative ideas:

  • What if Mr Bean had been on the Titanic.
  • What if Kate Winslet had not fancied Leonardo di Caprio?
  • What if aliens had appeared just as the ship was sinking.
  • What if…?

And then of course these are developed into discussions. Encourage wild speculation and imagination!

Useful Links

Third Conditional‏‎ – all about the third conditional in English

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