The lesser of two evils

***WARNING: People of a sensitive nature should look away now!  The following article contains an account of some (admittedly) silly and immature teaching practices, as well as some rather rude language!***

by @sandymillin for #eltpics

The other day I overheard the question “got any good ideas for teaching ‘would rather’ and ‘had better’ to upper-ints?” posed to the staffroom at large.  At that particular moment I was preparing a lesson for my intermediate class to revise the second conditional.  I’d never really thought of it before but this seemed like a great opportunity to introduce “would rather”, which many students might not normally meet until upper-intermediate.  And even then, I think they often find it confusing (although I tend to think this is because “would rather” is often paired with “had better”, and I’ve never really liked the way those two are linked in some teaching materials).

The first idea that popped into my head was the “Would you rather…?” game, which most young people I know are familiar with if they go to the pub occasionally.*  So, I decided to try this out as an extended warmer for the second conditionals lesson.  I don’t normally start classes with brand new language, but my students are really enthusiastic and I knew they’d jump into the game – whether in the pub or not! – once context was established and they realised what fun they could have inventing uninviting hypothetical choices for their classmates.  Here’s how it went (I’ve avoided naming certain famous people who featured in the lesson to spare their feelings, should they ever happen across this blog!):

The lesson (leading up to practice)

1. I wrote on the whiteboard:

    A choice
[popularly-believed-to-be-unattractive male celebrity 1]
    [popularly-believed-to-be-unattractive male celebrity 2]2. I elicited that neither option was very appealing, but that there was no third option.  The students talked to their partner briefly (amidst much giggling) then a quick ‘hands up’ poll of the class revealed their general preference.3. The male students requested a choice between two women, so it would be easier to decide.  The female students immediately jumped in with two (arguably) unattractive female celebrities (I forget who- honestly!), the boys all groaned, the girls all laughed, and the pairs had to make their choices again.  Another quick poll of the class revealed their general preference (!) and engendered much debate over the attractiveness of these celebrities.

*I’d like to pause at this point to just acknowledge that, yes, I’m quite aware of how very silly/immature and potentially offensive all this was – but humour and strong reactions are both excellent memory aids.  I found this was a great way to learn “I’d rather” and start using it naturally.  My students are also all young, good-natured (and occasionally cheeky!), and we have a good class atmosphere and rapport, so I thought this would appeal to their senses of humour and tendency to giddiness.  As it turned out, I was right!

The lesson (the studying & practice bit)

4. The students then had to come up with more examples of two things that are difficult to choose between, with neither option being particularly appealing.

5. I elicited, wrote on the whiteboard and drilled:
If you had to choose, would you rather [infinitive without ‘to’]… ?
Which would you rather [infinitive without ‘to’], … or …?
(I’d rather… [infinitive without ‘to’]) … .

6. The students went back to the examples they’d just written, rewrote them as questions, then asked each other.

7. Moments later, I heard screeches of disgust and howls of laughter.  To the other students’ mingled shock/horror/amazement, one of the quietest, politest, most pleasant students in the class had just gleefully offered them the following choice: “Would you rather eat vomit or sh*t?”

8. Amidst the laughter and indignation, I could heard students producing, without being prompted and without much hesitation, wonderfully natural and expressive reactions to the choices they were being faced with, like “I’d rather die!” and, “Not an option!  You have to choose!”

9. Mercifully, most of the other students had chosen (slightly) less disgusting options, like “Which would you rather drink, sour milk or out-of-date juice?” and “Would you rather live in a world with no other people but with all your clothes, or with plenty of other people but where you (and only you) are completely naked?”

The aftermath

What started as a whimsical idea to try and make a lesson revising second conditional structures a bit more interesting and develop the students’ vocabulary a bit, turned into one of the most memorable lessons of our course.  “If you had to choose…”, complete with appropriately rising and ‘trailing off’ intonation while thinking of two things to choose from, has become one of the students’ favourite catchphrases, and I quite often catch them asking each other questions with this even weeks later, both in and out of lesson time.

Personally, if I had to choose, I’d rather my students got a bit silly and giddy but remembered the language point being studied and used it naturally, than that they studied and practised it in a dull “I’d rather go to the cinema”-style context then forgot it, along with all the other grammar they’ve tried to learn twenty times already.

That’s not to say there’s no place for a less outrageous, more straightforward kind of second conditional/”I’d prefer”/”I’d rather” lesson, which I also often use and enjoy; but my students and I had fun trying something different, and I hope this took them a bit further towards really understanding and remembering the structures we studied that day.

*If you’ve got no idea what I’m talking about, here’s how it works: usually after a few drinks, the level of conversation descends to people thinking up two unappealing alternatives for a particular situation and offering the choice to the other people round the table.  For example, would you rather kiss… Margaret Thatcher or Gordon Brown?  –Thanks to my colleague Emily for this suggestion!–Everyone round the table groans, somebody asks feebly if there’s a secret third option (of course there isn’t), eventually chooses one, tries to justify that choice over the cacophony of disgusted outbursts from everyone else, then proceeds to try and out-do this with an even more difficult “would you rather…?” question of their own.


About Laura Patsko

Teacher trainer, language learner, language teacher, linguist, researcher. Not necessarily in that order.


  1. Hi Laura, I like this idea, and I see it being a memorable class for the students. Don't think I could get away with it with my students here in Qatar, though.Any plans on playing "Never have I ever…" to practice the present perfect?John

  2. Hi John,Yeah, I'm very aware that a lesson like this wouldn't work with all students! Haven't tried "Never have I ever…" with students before, no… and don't plan to!I have played "21" with students, though, as it's a great game for vocab revision. Replaced the drinking part with a different forfeit, though, like standing in a silly position for the rest of the round (teenage classes) to tongue twisters/short songs/spelling tests (adults).Would love to hear any more ideas for adapting pub/drinking games to language lessons!Laura

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