“If” Bombs: Promoting Proficiency of Spoken If-Clauses

Davey Young,  Rikkyo University

Quick Guide

  • Keywords: speaking, if-clauses, pair work, group work
  • Learner English level: Low intermediate to advanced
  • Learner maturity: Junior high school to adult
  • Preparation time: 5-20 minutes
  • Activity time: 10-15 minutes
  • Materials: Laminated “If” Bomb cards, timer

The use of subordinate if-clauses to express or ask about conditionals in spoken discourse is a challenging aspect of English grammar for language learners to master, and one that remains associated with higher speaking proficiency when used fluently and accurately (Basterrechea & Weinert, 2017). This “If” Bomb activity is a version of the children’s party game “hot potato” developed to scaffold if-clause use in accordance with communicative principles. The design promotes proficient use of if-clauses in spoken discourse by being genuinely communicative, psychologically authentic, focused, formulaic, and inherently repetitive (Gatbonton & Segalowitz, 1988).


Step 1: Print and laminate one “If” Bomb card per pair or group (see Appendix).

Step 2: Prepare prompts around which students can generate novel if-questions. These can be single words or phrases (e.g., “school”, “superpowers”) or ideas expressed as statements or questions, (e.g., “Everyone should study at university”, “What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a superpower?”). Consider students’ proficiency level when creating prompts. 

Step 3: Pre-teach whatever conditional forms you wish for students to improve when speaking. These may include the zero, first, second, and/or third conditionals in positive and/or negative form, but must include at least one if-question form. As when creating prompts, consider students’ proficiency level when selecting target forms.


Step 1: Pair or group students and distribute one “If” Bomb card to each pair/group.

Step 2: Explain the following rules: 1) Each round is timed. (Two minutes is suggested.) At the end of each round, the “If” Bomb will explode. 2) The person who is holding the “If” Bomb when it explodes loses the round. 3) To pass the “If” Bomb, you must ask an if-question, (e.g., “If you could have one superpower, what superpower would you choose?”) 4) You must answer the if-question with an if-clause before you can ask an if-question of your own. (e.g., “If I could have a superpower, I would choose invisibility.”) 5) You cannot ask an if-question that has already been asked.

Step 3: Provide the first prompt and model a round with a student. 

Step 4: Set a time limit and start the timer. Students play by following the rules in Step 2. Begin with the modelled prompt to reduce cognitive load.

Step 5: After the “If” Bomb “explodes,” reset the timer and repeat Step 5 as desired. Provide a new prompt each round.


Consider adjusting the time limit based on proficiency level or number of students, changing pairs/groups between rounds, or keeping score across multiple rounds to incentivize frequent use of the target forms. Also consider giving form-focused feedback between rounds, or using this activity to prepare students for an extended free production phase in which they can consolidate target language use.


The “If” Bomb activity is a fun and quick method for ensuring repetitious use of conditional forms in a way that is both meaning- and form-focused. As this activity can be modified to scaffold use of virtually any syntactical structure or lexical cluster, its variations are limited only by teachers’ creativity.


Basterrechea, M., & Weinert, R. (2017). Examining the concept of subordination in spoken L1 and L2 English: The case of if-clauses. TESOL Quarterly, 51(4), 897-919.

Gatbonton, E., & Segalowitz, N. (1988). Creative automatization: Principles of promoting fluency within a communicative framework. TESOL Quarterly, 22(3), 473-492.


The appendix is available below.