Learner problems with hypothetical meaning in English

Publicado por Julius


I find that many of my upper intermediate learners in Spain have not yet established a solid connection between form and hypothetical meaning. And although these same learners understand the concept of hypothetical meaning, they do not always understand the shades of meaning when it comes to negative truth value. In my experience I have found learners do not grasp the differences between describing what we assume to be untrue in the present and describing something we do not expect to happen in future.  Students often use will to express unreal ideas in the future and say things like *I will spend the money on clothes. 

I have found that the use of the past simple to express hypothetical meaning that does not refer to the past sometimes confuses my upper intermediate learners.  They are not always aware that in sentences like If only I knew the answer!, the speaker does not in fact know the answer and is not referring to the past

My learners often cannot see that She’d only go if it was for free refers to something the speaker does not expect to happen in the future. 


This confusion also creates problems when my learners need to express non-past hypothetical meaning when speaking or writing.  I have observed my upper intermediate learners “regularize” (Parrott 2000:242) tense structures and produce errors like *If Catalonia will be independent, there will be more jobs

This also occurs when my learners hypothesize about the past and create sentences like *Iif I knew about it, I went to the concert. 

In terms of listening comprehension, sometimes my students have difficulties understanding the time speakers refer to.  Parrott says that the weak forms of auxiliaries that “establish the time reference of the sentences” (2000:241) are often difficult for learners to catch.  I find my upper intermediate students cannot often distinguish the difference between I would’ve told him the truth and I’d tell him the truth.


I find that my upper intermediate learners perceive hypothetical meaning as something hard to express and I regularly observe them avoid hypothetical would or sidestep more complex language and say things like *I really want that he tells me instead of I wish he would tell me.  I think my upper intermediate learners have difficulties not so much because they have difficulties understanding the grammatical features of backshifting and hypothetical would, but because  they have not internalized these features “so that they are able to use them accurately in communication.” (Ellis 20006:88)  

Teaching Suggestions

  1. Teaching would, could, and might as a lexical items: Dictogloss

Aim:  To have students notice how would, could, and might are used to express hypothetical meaning

Procedure:  The teacher shares a problem his sister has and hypothesizes about what he would do if he were in her situation and how he might help her.  Students listen again and write down four words they recognize.  Learners first reconstruct the text orally then in writing.  Learners are given the original text to compare with their own.

Commentary:  Using the dictogloss technique to help upper intermediate level learners with hypothetical meaning allows them to ‘notice the gap’ between “their developing linguistic system…and the target language system.” (Thornbury 1997:326)  I use this activity right at the start of an upper intermediate course in order to teach would, could, and might lexically.  I think it is important to give learners the language they need to hypothesize because I frequently ask them to imagine, suppose, and pretend during lessons.  The dictogloss technique allows learners to notice word meanings of would, could, and might in context.  Instead of focusing on structural patterns (Willis 1990:19), learners become aware of meaning and are then able to generate their own ideas.

  1. Teaching from text: Romeo and Juliet

Aim:  To have students identify past hypothetical conditionals in text

Procedure:  After students have discussed what they know about the play Romeo and Juliet they read a synopsis of the story and then highlight examples of the 3rd conditional in the text.  They answer comprehension questions that guide them to discover the rule and use of the 3rd conditional.

Commentary:  This activity uses a rule discovery approach to grammar and uses text to help learners notice the target language.  Having the learners work out the rules themselves keeps them focused and engaged.  It reinforces the learners’ role as active participants and gets them to take responsibility for their own learning.

  1. Controlled practice: focus on form and pronunciation

Aim:  To have students practice form and pronunciation of hypothetical meanings

Procedure:  With the aid of a substitution table that has been previously boarded, students generate sentences in the target language based on mini-situations dictated by the teacher.  Students are nominated in succession to drill the target structures.  The pace should be quite quick.

Commentary:  I use this practice activity to drill form and pronunciation before moving on to freer speaking practice.  Meaning is also tested and my upper intermediate learners find it challenging to transform the dictated prompts into the target structures without changing the meaning of the original idea.  This activity can be used to drill various ways of expressing hypothetical meaning and can get learners to produce utterances such as “I wish I lived in Paris” or “If only I had a car.”  I can reactively teach connected speech, weak forms, and stressed syllables, and board corrective feedback if necessary.

  1. Concept questions: hypothetical meaning

Aim:  To get students to notice the differences in meaning between real and unreal conditionals

Procedure:  Board a pair of conditional sentences (one real and one unreal) in speech bubbles with a picture of the speaker below. 


Jane:  If I saw a UFO, I’d run away.

Tom:  If I see a UFO, I’ll try to communicate with them.


Students discuss each speaker’s point of view and the differences between them.  Learners invent a context for each speaker and contrast the speakers’ situations and points of view.  Check meaning by asking concept questions about each speaker.  Give out more examples for learners to contrast.

Commentary:  I use this activity to highlight backshifting and help learners notice the difference between real and unreal conditionals.  Most importantly, learners come away with the idea that the grammar we use depends on how we see the situation.  This reinforces the students’ awareness of the connection between form and meaning.  I like the way the activity gets learners to negotiate meaning and decide if the speakers see the situations as real or unreal.  I use this activity to compare and contrast hypothetical meaning in the past and present time as well.  This activity helps guide learners towards a better understanding of what course books often refer to as second, third, and mixed conditionals.

  1. Role play: A nightmare holiday (from Cutting Edge Upper intermediate)

Aim:  To give students freer practice using hypothetical language in context

Procedure:  Give students and advert for a holiday in Swamkattar and have them decide if they would go on the holiday or not and why. Divide the class into two groups: holiday makers and travel agents and give out the corresponding role cards.  The holiday makers try to get most of their money back while the travel agents only offer to return some.  Set one holiday maker and one travel agent in pairs.  After doing the role play, learners report what happened in open class.     

Commentary:  My students find this role play engaging and I think it is very “language productive”.  (Thornbury 2005:98)  The holidaymaker’s task of trying to get their money back creates the need to express hypothetical past meaning.  Useful language is presented on the role cards to help less confident learners as they plan what to say before doing the role play.  By creating a situation outside of the everyday classroom, students get to practice the target language in context and focus on form and meaning.  After the learners report back, the teacher can give corrective feedback.

  1. Personalization: No regrets!

Aim:  To give students practice in hypothetical would in the past and present

Procedure:  Students make brief notes on a variety of personal aspects about their lives such as favorite teachers, hobbies, friends, achievements, etc.  Learners then decide which of these they would or would not change if they were to live their lives again and write sentences.  Students compare ideas to see if they have anything in common with their partners.  

Commentary:  This activity allows learners to use grammar in a personal context and focus on form to express their ideas. As the learners write sentences, I can monitor and give personalized corrective feedback.  When students compare ideas, they have the opportunity to interact and negotiate meaning.  This activity creates the need to express wishes and regrets.  I extend this activity by having learners imagine how their lives would be different now if they had not learned English or had not met their best friend.  This gives me the opportunity to test the learners’ ability to hypothesize about the past and express present consequences and I can teach grammar reactively.

I hope you find these teaching suggestions useful.

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