Activities · Lessons

My Life Story: Expressing the Hypothetical with Cuisenaire Rods

This post was inspired by an ELTJam post I recently came across and is also an excuse to…

a. make my FIRST EVER GIF!!! and…

b. revive cuisenaire rods. Poor little things deserted in the back of staffroom cupboards around the world. While avoiding the term l***ning sty*e here, I absolutely love the visceral handling of these little colourful blocks, a visual mnemonic for language. They inspire instant curiosity when I get them out, so I’m sure students like them too.

First, a quick side-note. The reason I say ‘hypothetical language’? I’m referring to what  course books traditionally cordon off as the second,

If I had wings like noah’s dove, I’d (would) fly up the river to the one I love 


If I’d (had) known you were single, I wouldn’t have told you what happened last weekend

and mixed conditionals…

If I‘d (had) used a poker to stir the fire, I’d (would) still have my hand

All express ‘unreal’ or ‘hypothetical’ scenarios and their hypothetical consequences, past or present/future. I resist labelling them”conditionals” with students as in the course of my DELTA module 2 research I discovered that, according to corpus studies, the hypothetical would is 6 times more likely to appear in isolated clauses or ‘fragments’ than the ‘full conditional structures’ from which they formally derive, as above. You’re obviously more likely to say…

“I wouldn’t touch that with a bargepole”


“If you asked me to (touch that), I wouldn’t touch that with a bargepole”

‘The conditionals’ as traditionally taught are a perfect example of what Scott Thornbury refers to as a Grammar McNugget, digestible, conveniently packaged, artificial. What seems useful for learners though is to make them aware of WHY these structures, through the use of ‘backshift’ and past modals would/could/might, are so tricky. That is, that the complexity relates to the extent of distance, both from reality and present time, they express, with a ‘3rd conditional’ being the most grammatically complex (temporal distance x distance from reality) and therefore furthest away from the real present. This distance can be expressed both in complete conditional structures but also in ‘fragments’ and variations, just as we often express social distance with would.

But anyway, this lesson is built around around a lovely dictation activity passed on by a colleague at BC Tokyo. It’s particularly useful for learners like the Japanese, who don’t have an analogous structure in their own language to express the hypothetical (unlike Spanish, for example), and so may have issues conceptualising it. I’ve also discovered form doing it various times that culturally some groups of learners seem more familiar/comfortable with ‘looking back’ than others, but we often use this structure to express both regret and relief in English so I reckon it’s worth teaching. There’s probably some sort of socio/ethnolinguistic study on this floating round but if not anyone fancy doing it for me?

Cuisenaire GIF
My first ever GIF, ta da.


1.Gathered round a central table, I explain I’m going to tell them my life story, using the rods.

2.Grading language as appropriate, I begin by using the smallest blocks to represent myself and my two brothers (I’m the shortest).

“This is me (hold up block), I’m the eldest, and I was born on a tiny island in the Caribbean where my dad was working…, two years later we moved back to the UK and my brother, Laurence, was born (hold up second block)… two years after that Simon came along (hold up third block)

3. I continue by telling an abbreviated version of my life story, using blocks of different lengths and colours to represent important life stages, laid out in a straight line. You can also use smaller blocks to identify important decisions or events, grading language to level appropriately.

4. At points in my narrative I skip back, holding up a block and eliciting what it represents and any important details.

Me:”Who’s this?”


Me: “What happened here?”

Sts:”You moved to Japan”

Me: “How long was I there?”…

5. Once the story is complete, I get learners to reconstruct the life story orally while looking at the blocks, in pairs.

6. Continuing with the dictation, I choose 4 or 5 key events in my life, and lay a block/blocks branching off to represent the hypothetical alternatives that would have occurred (prepared in advance for easy recall).

“I often wonder how my life might be different if I’d made different choices. For example,(holding up brown block and placing it branching off from the timeline at the apporpriate point) If I hadn’t dropped out of my physics A-level, I could have studied medicine at Uni etc

Depending on the level of the group, I try to include complete conditionals and fragments, positive and negatives, continuous forms, and a mix of remote modals in the main clause (might/would/could), and “mixed conditional” structures,

In fact, I’d probably be a doctor now, and living in the UK” (present hypothetical outcome)

 You can also encourage learners to ask YOU questions about parts of your life once they cotton on, avoiding correction at this stage. I concept check as I go along (Did I study medicine? etc)

7. Again, I ask learners to reconstruct what I said orally, focusing on the exact language I used relating to each new block (i.e. hypothetical), getting them to board it collaboratively, or in notebooks in larger groups, as a form of dictogloss.

8. We then compare them to my version, noticing any differences. This is a good point at which to draw their attention to inaccuracies and get students to ask themselves why. Often they were difficult to hear/remember (complex auxiliary constructions, reduced forms like wouldn’t have /wυdn∂v/ and If I’d known /faIdn∂υn/). This leads in to focus on form by concept checking which express past or present hypotheticals, and how they’re constructed. Without drowning them in linguistics, I touch on the idea of grammatical distancing (as discussed above) and try to avoid labelling them ‘conditionals’.

9. I tend to follow this with a correction activity/race of typical errors and a disappearing drill using the language from my dictation, or simplified examples, rubbing off the grammatical bits leaving key words to focus learners on automatising the tricky auxiliary chunks so they’ll trip off the tongue more readily, moving them away from thinking about the grammar.

10. Next I elicit question forms,  and learners ask me further questions about other life choices.

“What would you have done if you hadn’t…?”           “I’d have…”

“Where would you be living if you hadn’t…?”          “I  might’ve moved to…”.

Draw their attention to the fact the if clause in my answer is missing (It’s elipted as unnecessary from the context). Now comes the fun bit…

11. Learners grab the rods and construct their own life stories. Bear in mind teenagers have less life experience to draw on, but I encourage them to include things like joining sports teams, new hobbies, summer holidays, making a new friend etc. In pairs, get them to tell their life stories using the rods, then have their partner tell it back.

11. Allowing them time to think and formulate, writing them down if necessary, they then lay out 4-5 of their own hypothetical alternatives, then tell their partners. To help them, and make the task more lexical than grammatical, I often give them partial structures on the board too, particularly at lower levels. (If I had/hadn’t… I’d have/wouldn’t have…) Ask students to check they understand by asking questions. Circulate and error correct as necessary.

12. Learners can then probe further by using the above question forms boarded earlier in step 9.

13. If time, I get learners to repeat the task with a new partner/partners, or switch roles so Ls have to tell another student about their partner’s life story.

14. To round the class off, group students and ask them to discuss who had the most interesting/unusual/surprising life story.

There are more great ideas and links to using cuisenaire rods and lego on Sandy Millin’s blog here, and I’m looking forward to messing about with models and toys and other hands on activities this summer as I’m off to Vietnam for 2 months of summer camp with British Council HCMC.

I’d love to hear of other ways to them, please let me know if you have your own favourite!






6 thoughts on “My Life Story: Expressing the Hypothetical with Cuisenaire Rods

  1. Hi Jessica,
    Thanks for linking to my post about Cuisenaire rods and helping me to discover your excellent blog. This activity looks really good, and thanks for including the gif to show how the rods build up.
    Looking forward to reading more!


  2. Cheers Sandy!! I’ve been taking your top fro innovate and only blogging when I feel like it…. I’ve mostly felt liking eating lots of Vietnamese food recently haha, no more excuses though 😉


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