Number one for English language teachers

Teenagers: Grammar: Can/able to

Type: Reference material

Francesca Rossi from Italy contacted us and asked how best to teach can/can’t/is able to. Here are some suggestions.

Can means is able to, as well as is permitted to.

e.g. I can speak Japanese. / You can smoke in the café.

Meaning: make sure you focus on one meaning and don’t muddle them up.

Context: choose a clear context to introduce the meaning.


Pictures are very good for presenting grammar. For can/able to find a picture like this (draw one on the board, or find an appropriate picture in a magazine):

Say: This is Mighty Mike. He can pick up an elephant.

Find a second picture – a weedy man struggling to lift a chair:

Say: This is Weedy Will. He can’t pick up a chair.

Elicit other sentences from the students. Give them prompts if they do not have enough language to think of their own sentences like:

  • pick up a table
  • fight a crocodile
  • break a door

Students make sentences like:

Mike can break a door. Will can’t fight a crocodile.

To ensure meaning is clear make examples about the students from facts you know:

Miguel can play football. Anna can’t speak Chinese.

Ask questions that require only yes or no answers, so students can concentrate on meaning:

  • Can I pick up an elephant?
  • Can Johnny speak Japanese?
  • Can Maria cook paella? etc.

Using real examples from the class will ensure that they are meaningful for students. If you add some very silly ones, you will get the attention of students and they may be motivated to add their own examples.

Concentrate on allowing students to hear the target language. Later they can see the written form, but now they should be digesting the meaning through the context and teacher's questions.

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Hi Shahla,

    Thanks for your feedback. As you rightly point out, 'be able to' is not really covered in this article so here's a short explanation.

    In basic terms, can is a full modal verb which means it is followed by the bare infinitive form of the verb (the verb without 'to') and it does not have a past or future form. In contrast 'be able' is a semi-modal verb and is followed by the full infinitive (the verb with 'to) and also has a past and future form (was able/will be able).

    You can find a lesson on the past and future forms of 'be able' by clicking on the following link:

    Hope that helps.

    Best wishes,

    The onestopenglish team

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  • and what about 'to be able to'?

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  • It'd have been better if u had shared more pics. However, the tips and all the information are great

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