Teaching tips and ideas from Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clandfield on teaching modals.

Tip: When explaining structural rules of modals, point out that they are auxiliary verbs. They thus conform to many of the same rules as other auxiliary verbs (like do, have, be), i.e. negative is with not, inversion for the question etc. This is helpful as it gives you a chance to review those areas of auxiliary verbs that many students find difficult in English.

Below you will find some great activities for teaching modals.

Activity: Different abilities

The use of the modal verb can for ability lends itself well to any kind of personalised questionnaire about different abilities. Many coursebook materials have a 'mixed bag' questionnaire of abilities, for instance:

  • Can you ski?
  • Can you bake a cake?

You can always adapt or extend this kind of activity by having a themed questionnaire. So, for example,

  • Art and music
    Can you paint?
    Can you draw?
    Can you read music?
    Can you play an instrument?
  • Sport and health
    Can you play a sport? Which sport?
    Can you ski?
    What sports can’t you do?
    Can you touch your toes?

Here’s a simple drill to practise the different uses of can/could/would for asking for permission. Write the following on the board and do it with a student to demonstrate.

  • A Can I use your pen?
  • B Yes, of course you can.
  • A Could I use your pen?
  • B Yes, of course you can.
  • A Would you mind if I used your pen?
  • B Yes, of course you can.

Note the use of the past tense form in the last question. Drill this chorally, then ask students to do it in pairs. Once they get the hang of it, write the following phrases on the board and tell them to repeat the drill with the new phrases.

borrow your phone ... open the window ... go to the toilet ... take a picture, etc.

You could adapt this drill so that the B student says No, I’m sorry you can’t each time, or alternates between the two responses.

One feature of many modern European coursebooks is self-evaluation. This has been inspired by the The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) and a series of published 'Can do' statements that indicate at what level a student is. You can make your own 'Can do' self-evaluations sheets and set students up to interview each other. Prepare a list of statements. The students put a tick or a cross next to each one. They then turn the statements into questions and interview a partner. This could take different forms:

  1. As revision of material studied in class. Your statements here would cover things you’ve done in class. For example:

I can remember the difference between past simple and present perfect.

I can understand how to make questions in English.

I can now talk about my family in English.

As a diagnostic for future needs/uses of English. Your statements here would not necessarily be what you’ve done in English but rather what you think your students need or areas they’ve told you they want to work on.

Activity: How your English has changed: Can vs could

This activity is suitable for students of an elementary level or intermediate level. Ask students to think about their level of English when they first started learning. What could they do? What couldn’t they do? Tell them to complete the following sentences:

When I started learning English I couldn’t … but now I can.

I could … and now I can do it better.

I couldn’t … and I still can’t.

Once they have finished, tell them to compare in pairs. This activity is good for building self-esteem. A variation on this would be to ask students to find someone with a higher level of English and interview them about things they couldn’t do in English before but can now.

Because modals help convey the speaker’s or writer’s impression of an event they are a rich area to look at in texts. A simple way of doing this is to ask students to take modals out of a text and compare the new text with the original. For example, take this short text written by President George Bush to his Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice during a UN meeting:

I think I may need a bathroom break. Is this possible?

Many reporters laughed at this note because it made him sound like a child. Part of this was because of the use of the modal verb may. By deleting the modal verb, or changing it, the shade of meaning changes. Students could be encouraged to do this with other texts.

The use of will to make offers is a very common one. This lends itself well to short role-plays. The role-play could take place in a restaurant, with the following incidents. Students work in pairs. A is the customer and B is the waiter. They should go through each situation briefly.

A: You are sitting in the non-smoking section and someone is smoking. Tell the waiter.
B: Offer to tell the other person to put out their cigarette.

A: You don't have a soup spoon.
B: Offer to bring a soup spoon.

A: Your food is not hot enough.
B: Offer to take it back and change it.

Other role-plays in stages like the one above could take place in a hotel (offer to take the bags, offer to change the room etc).

The classic exercise for teaching will for future predictions is some variation on the fortune teller. Here are some examples:

  • Get students to write different predictions on small pieces of paper (e.g. you will meet a tall dark stranger) Tell them to fold the predictions. Circulate with a hat, or box, or bag and ask students to throw their predictions in there. Then get students to pull out new predictions and read them aloud.
  • Have students role play a conversation in pairs. One person is the fortune teller and the other plays himself/herself.
  • A variation on the above would be to assign different students the roles of the fortune teller and tell them to choose their method of fortune telling (palm reading, tea leaves, etc). They 'set up shop' at the front of the class. Other students take turns going and visiting the different fortune tellers. At the end do some feedback – who was the best fortune teller.