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

Tips: Noticing

If modal verbs are an area you haven’t thought much about, start looking out for them yourself in different English texts. Examining modality can give a lot of background information about the speaker or writer’s impression of the event. For example, what impression does the previous sentence give if you replace the word can with will? What does it give if you delete can altogether?

With your students, this could simply mean underlining different modal verbs in a text and discussing their meaning. More advanced students could also rewrite a text using different modal verbs (in order to sound more confident, or less confident).

Many students tend to avoid modals, especially if they don’t have them in their own language. When monitoring speaking activities, you could choose to focus only on modal verbs. Listen out for examples of English that could be better replaced by a modal verb, e.g.

It is possible that he went to the dentist.

Write these on the board at the end of the activity and ask students to reformulate them using a modal verb.

You could also do this with samples of students’ writing.

One of the most popular and common activities to practise the modal verb should (and sometimes ought to) are situations in which people ask for advice. Many newspapers have ‘agony aunt’ columns (sometimes called ‘Dear Abby’ columns in North America). There are two ways you can use these in class.

  1. Find some original letters and their answers on the internet. You can do this by entering ‘agony aunt’ or ‘Dear Abby’ in a search engine. Select some questions and the answers given (better if they are short). Mix up the questions and the answers and distribute them to the students, who have to match them. When they have finished, ask them to go through and find any modal verbs in the text. As a follow-up, ask students to write their own advice to those people.

  2. Ask students to each write about a problem they have (real or imaginary) that they would like advice on. They should write these on a slip of paper, but not write their name. Collect all the slips of paper and put the students into groups of four. Give each group four ‘problems’ at random. Tell them to select two and give advice to the writer about their problem (including modal verbs such as should, ought to, shouldn’t, etc). When groups have finished, ask them to read out the problem and the advice.

To practise should have you could ask students to think about regrets they’ve had in the past. To get them started, give a few examples of your own, e.g.

  • I should have visited my grandparents more.
  • I shouldn’t have started smoking.
  • I really should have learnt another language when I was young.

Write on the board the sentence stems:

  • I should have
  • I shouldn’t have
  • I really should have

Ask students to complete the sentences for themselves. Tell them that these should be regrets that they don’t mind sharing with others. When they have finished, ask them to work in pairs and compare their sentences.

As a follow-up, you can make this into an instant role-play. Tell students to work with a new partner and explain the following situation:

You are the presidential candidate for your country. You have just lost the election. You are speaking to one of your aides. Ask students to think of ways of completing the sentence stems above.

To focus on form and meaning, you can set up a drill like the following. Write on the board the words:

  • possible
  • impossible
  • certain

Say different phrases and show how the sentence changes depending on if it’s possible, impossible or certain, e.g.

We go out. (point to certain) We’ll go out.

We stay at home. (point to impossible) We can’t stay at home.

We go to the cinema. (point to possible) We might go to the cinema.

Continue, giving other cues. These cues could be spoken, or written on cards, which you can show the students, e.g.

I have a drink. (certain)

I have coffee. (impossible)

I have tea. (possible)

We work tonight. (possible)

You work tonight. (impossible)

I work tonight. (certain)

Prepare six to twelve more examples.

Tell the students you are going to describe a situation that is open to interpretation (see example below). When you finish, ask them to work in pairs and make as many sentences as possible as to what may have happened. For this, they should use modal verb + have + past participle, e.g.

When I arrived at school today, there were papers all over the floor in the hall and the director’s office.

Possible conclusions:

  • There may have been a break-in.
  • The director might have gone crazy and thrown the papers around.
  • Some students may have played a joke.
  • The director must have been furious.

Other possible situations:

  • You were stuck in traffic for two hours.
  • You heard loud dance music coming from the staff room.
  • No students came to class.
  • When you walked in, all the students started laughing.
  • Student X was fifteen minutes late.

One activity to get students to practise modal verbs of obligation is to ask them to make rules. Here are some ways of doing it:

  1. Ask students to work in groups. Give each group the name of a place (e.g. library, swimming pool, jail, school, bus, amusement park) and ask them to write rules for this place (using must, mustn’t, have to and don’t have to). When they finish, groups read out their rules and the others guess the place.

  2. Ask students to work in small groups or pairs. Ask them to imagine that they are in charge of designing the rules for a perfect language school. They should include what the students and teacher should do, mustn’t do and can do. At the end of the activity, ask different groups to read out their rules (or post them on the wall). Who has the best school?

  3. Prepare a series of sentences about typical rules in society (see below for examples) and ask students to complete them with a modal verb so that they are true for their country, e.g.

You ____________ vote in elections.
You ____________ drink alcohol at the age of 18.
You ____________ get married at the age of 15.
You ____________ drive a car at the age of 14.
You ____________ do military service when you are 18.