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Concourse 2

Teaching 4 basic future forms:


going to vs.
the present progressive vs.
will vs.
the present simple

This deserves a guide to itself because of the deep confusion that arises when people teach the area without thinking things through.

If you are at all unsure about the three main uses of going to, the three main uses of will and the way the present progressive and simple forms are used to talk about the future, you should go to the guide to four future forms and work through that before you do this bit (new tab).


Overlapping uses

The first issue in this area is that, although it is temptingly simple to separate the uses of the three types of future, real life, as always, is more complicated than it seems.

think Task:
Here are some examples of the uses of the three forms.
Separate them by function and then click here.
  1. I'll be at the meeting this afternoon at 4.
  2. We're having a meeting at 4.
  3. I'm going to come to the meeting at 4.
  4. I'm going fishing alone tomorrow.
  5. I'll have my phone with me if you need anything.
  6. He's going to be delighted with the result.
  7. He'll be delighted with the result.
  8. She's having a birthday party in June.
  9. She's having a baby in June.


(For more on the times when the progressive form of the present and the going to structure are not interchangeable, see the guide to talking about the present (new tab).  The discussion appears there because both forms are present tenses relating to future events or states.)

This is not an easy area to understand, is it?
It can be unravelled slightly by considering two sorts of futures rather than a lot of conflicting and overlapping forms.


The future as an external event

When we say something like
    The temperature will drop to zero tonight
    The train arrives at 6
    They are staying for a week
    It's going to rain
we are referring to things outside our current control.  They are extrinsic to us.  For futures of these sorts, the form we choose depends on the nature of the event.  Like this:

  1. If we are talking about a simple fact, we'll select will or the present simple:
        It will be wet on the road because it's been raining.
        She'll be 97 next birthday
        The plane arrives at 7
  2. If we are talking about a prediction based on current or past evidence, we'll often select the going to form:
        I've seen the forecast and the weather's going to turn nasty
        He's going to win because he's the fastest

        You father is going to be very angry about that
  3. If we are talking about something fixed and arranged, we'll often select the progressive form:
        He's studying Latin next year at Oxford
        She's taking the train because her car's in the garage

        I'm taking my annual leave in July

The future as we see it

This is a form of modality because it concerns how the speaker perceives an event.  This is where the going to future is common because it concerns intrinsic matters.  For example:
    I'm spending my holiday in Scotland where I'm renting a cottage
these are my current plans for the future
    While I'm there, I'm going to take lots of long walks and I'm going to try to work on my novel
the events are not arranged because they exist only in my head at the moment
    When I finish school, I'm going to university
my place is assured now
    When I grow up, I'm going to be a train driver
nothing is fixed and arranged but this is what's in my head right now
In all these cases the future is seen through the lens of the present.  This goes a long way to explaining why present forms are selected.

The generally accepted use of the will/shall future to show willingness (or spontaneous decision) also falls into intrinsic meaning because it refers to my perception of the future and my current mood concerning willingness to do something now or in the future.  For example
    I'll come early to help you get ready
is not a determined future of any sort.  At this stage, it's a current offer.  If you accept, it may well become a fixed future and we'll say
    I'm coming early to help you get ready, aren't I?

Summary of types of meaning

It looks like this:

future forms


Teaching the forms and uses


Just about the most popular way of trying to make the concepts of these two future forms clear to learners is to use some form of diary.  Usually, this is set up in such a way that learners have different diary plans and have to negotiate a good time to meet using language such as
    I'm sorry, no, I'm watching the football tomorrow night.  What about Thursday?
and replying with
    Oh, I'm sorry, I'm visiting my mother then
If you don't believe this is popular, try putting "present continuous for the future using diaries" into an internet search engine and see some of the thousands of hits it records.
So what's the problem?
It doesn't work, that's the problem.

This is because the writers of such exercises have usually lost sight of the fact that diaries used in this way (to project forward) are not actually diaries at all – they are planners.  And the problem with plans is that they cover things I am doing and things I am going to do.  In other words, we use planners for both intrinsic futures and extrinsic ones.  The difference can never be made clear this way.

Say, for example, you have a planner entry for Saturday afternoon which states:
Now, you might have written that because you have arranged with your mother to visit or because it is your intention to visit her but no arrangement has yet been made firm.  It may even be the case that you are going to drop in unannounced.  Who can tell?
So the 'correct' response for Saturday afternoon could be:

  1. I'm visiting my mum on Saturday afternoon
    I've arranged this
  2. I'm going to visit my mum on Saturday afternoon
    I intend to do this and may or may not have arranged it
  3. I'll visit my mum on Saturday afternoon
    I have had the intention for some time and I'm only now telling you about it

If you are trying to use the diary to focus on 1. or 2., you will find yourself in the position of rejecting the other responses.  But they are just as 'right'.

Moral: don't use diaries.  They confuse more than they enlighten.

This is not confined to the use of diaries (although that's very common).
The problem with many course materials is that they focus on the time and the event not on the internal processes in speakers.

A better idea

The concept to make clear to learners is:
Is this an event that which is a real fact about the future or does it only exist in my head at the moment?

Here's one way to make it clear:

I feel ill
  • The present situation is the foundation for all future acts.
  • You need to set the context and the person's current feelings.
I’m going to see the doctor
  • This is an intrinsic current event.
  • It goes on inside his head.
call ACT NOW:
I’ll call to make an appointment (for you)
  • will/shall as a modal to show willingness (not futurity) or
  • to signal a decision made now
I’m seeing the doctor at noon.
I see the doctor at noon.
  • Two possible tenses to express currently arranged timetables and events.
  • The first is more common for mutual agreements.
  • The second is more common for external events (like trains)
He told me to take some time off so I'm going to talk to my boss.
I'll talk to my boss.

  • going to is often used as a way of saying how you react to something now
  • will/shall implies an immediate, unconsidered, action: a promise to yourself (technically a commissive use)
in bed ARRANGE:
I’m taking a few days off work and ...
... I'm going to stay in bed.
  • the first is an arrangement
  • the second is intention against the background of the arrangement
  • this is a common way of combining the tense uses

Here's a similar idea with a different focus:

exhausted SITUATION NOW:
I'm exhausted.
  • The present situation is the foundation for all future acts.
  • You need to set the context and the person's current feelings.
I’m going to book a holiday
  • This is an intrinsic current event.
  • It goes on inside my head now.
I'm taking a holiday in Scotland and I'm staying in a hotel by a lake.
  • We are talking about something which is booked.
  • It is now an external fact, not an internal intention.
I'm going to do lots of walking.
I'm going to read a lot.
I'm going to do nothing at all.
  • These are not arrangements.
  • They exist only in the current internal world.

Introducing the forms

The ideas above focus on contrasting the forms and that makes good sense because, when we are talking about the future, what will happen and what we are going to do about it occur naturally together.  In natural communication, therefore, we might get something like:

A: On the TV, they said it'll be wet and windy tomorrow, you know.
B: Well, if it is, I won't play golf.
A: Golf?  I thought you were taking the kids to the park tomorrow.
B: No, I'm taking them on Monday.  That's what we talked about yesterday.
A: We did?  OK but what are you going to do, then?
B: I don't know. I guess I'll take the kids to the cinema.  I'll phone the guys and tell them I won't be free till Monday for the golf.

In that short exchange, we have three future forms being used in different ways to express different ideas. It sounds reasonably natural because the topic stays firmly on the future seen in different ways.
The problem, of course, is to introduce the forms rather than contrast them, especially for lower-level learners.

Keep it focused

At the beginning, try not to have a context where more than one form is possible.  For example, don't mix planning and intentionality.  It's fine to use planning a trip and booking things to set the idea of the present progressive but if you mix in intentionality people will either get confused or use the wrong form for their meaning.
If you have something like a focus on the idea of booking something, the concept of present progressive for the future becomes clearer.
For example, planning a holiday or a journey requires things to be booked in advance and once that’s done, we can naturally use the tense form for arrangements.  E.g.
    We are holidaying in the Scottish Highlands, staying in a cottage and spending our time walking and fishing
etc.  The idea to get across is one of extrinsic meaning.  These things refer to a fixed future, not to someone's view of it.
It is fatal, however, to mix in speculation about what will happen once you get there, because that will usually involve going to as in
    When we get to the cottage, the first thing I'm going to do is find out where the nearest pub is.
That is what happens when you try to use diaries for the contrast.

The going to form should be carefully split between the use for prediction based on evidence / experience and use for intentions.  The first is extrinsic, the second is intrinsic.

For the prediction use, images are good because we can actually see the evidence:

pregnant She's going to have a baby
cloud It's going to rain
bookshop Is he going to buy the book?
Is he going to steal the book?
Is he going to read the book in the shop?
winning No. 3's going to win
crossing She's going to step into the road 

For the intention use, you need to set the context of what the situation is now and then people's intentions based on the present become clear.

dry I'm thirsty so ...  I'm going to get a drink 
hungry I'm hungry so ...   
tired She's tired so ...   
massage Her back aches so ...  

The idea of volition is central.  In all of these, it's possible to use want to instead of going to so it's a short step to the idea.
Teaching the verb intend is quite a useful thing to do in this context.  Then you can say how it differs from arrange

The present simple is easily presented using timetables but they don't have to be transport timetables.  School timetables work well, too, and are often a bit more interesting and familiar, especially to younger learners.

will/shall for willingness can also be set in a present context of situation > problem > offer / suggestion
    Situation: People planning a dinner party.
    Problem: There's no beer in the fridge!
    Solution: Don't worry, I'll get some on my way home.

will/shall for prediction can often be effectively taught within the conditional but it doesn't have to be.  We can extend the little dinner-party problem to
    But it won't be cold.
    Yes it will, I'll get it from the place with a fridge.
    It doesn't matter, anyway, because we'll have two hours to let it cool before they come.

Using these ideas

Keeping the context very tight and being very controlled will help you get the various concepts and uses of the forms across but remember that it is only possible fully to grasp the ideas when used in contrast to other forms and uses.  Sooner, rather than later, you will have to present and practise the forms together.

There's no rule.  Use them as you will, or not.
A simple approach is to take one scenario and present it, practising the language as you go along, and then get the learners to reconstruct the things said and the reasons for the use of each form with a second set of picture prompts.
It is critical that:

  1. You have a clear, memorable context and that's where the picture prompts come in.
  2. You have a way or ways to alert your learners to whether the future is an internally imagined one or an external reality.

If you have taught successful lessons introducing or contrasting the various futures, why not send the ideas to ELT Concourse?

Related guides
four future forms for the overview of the basic forms and meanings
four more future forms for an analysis of the less frequent and more complex forms
tense and aspect for a link to four guides to analysing tense and aspect beginning with a consideration of meaning