Modal Verbs

By Anthony Hemmens


I love the idea of moody verbs. It sounds like something my daughter would watch on children’s TV – “In today’s program of ‘Moody Verbs’ the auxiliary verb to be gets rather upset”.

In grammar, mood indicates the attitude of the speaker towards what they are saying. In English there are three moods – my daughter has many more than this.

•The indicative is a simple statement of fact as opposed to something imaged or desired; It’s Tuesday.

•The imperative is a command (very useful for the parade ground but do we really need to teach it to our elementary students); Stand up. Sit down.

•The subjunctive, often used in subordinate clauses, refers to situations that don’t actually exist, showing different states such as necessity, judgment, emotion and possibility.

Mood is a language feature not commonly found in the EFL classroom. In fact, I’ve never come across a course or textbook which includes the concept. If you have please let me know, I’d like to see it.

Closely linked to mood, but far more important to us in the EFL classroom and useful to our students generally, is modality. As with mood, modality is about the speaker and the intention of their utterance; there is a functional meaning to what is being said.

Modality is mainly expressed using modal verbs and, depending on how you categorize them, there are 11 in English –

•can / could / may / might / must / will / would / shall / should / ought / need

It’s a versatile collection of verbs, readily adapted to many different functions and uses. Each modal verb has at least two meanings. With them we’re able to talk about –

•obligation / deduction / ability / possibility / permission / requests / orders / suggestions / predictions / criticisms / intentions / habits / advice / imaginary situations / future / conditionals

So, what do our students need to know?

Modal verbs work differently to other verbs and they have several points in common.

1. There’s no –s on the 3rd person singular. There are also no –ed or –ing endings.

2. There are no past forms, hence no –ed endings. Although could and would have past meanings in some cases. All modals, except for shall, are used with the perfect infinitive to talk about past.

3. Questions and negatives are made without the verb to do.

4. There are no infinitives.

5. They are followed by the infinitive without to (except for ought).

6. They all have contracted negative forms – can’t / mustn’t / won’t. (will / shall / would / should have contracted forms – I’ll / I’d)

7. They are not used to talk about things which are actually happening or have happened. Instead we use they to talk about events which are possible, necessary, improbable or impossible.

So, how to go about teaching this complex group of verbs?

The simple answer to this is gradually. You can’t swamp elementary students with all the details described above.

Textbooks following a structural approach to grammar introduce modal verbs, with their various usages and meanings, in stages. Typically it starts at elementary level with can and could to talk about ability, and gets progressively more complex as students move through the levels – should and ought to for advice, must for obligation, might and could for probability, and so on. Advanced students study modal perfects and the more subtle nuances of meaning.

Some lesson ideas and exercises –

Level: Elementary
Learning Objective: Controlled oral and written practice of can and can’t for personal ability

1. write the following words pairs on the whiteboard (even more effective if you can find pictures for the activities)

a. swim / skate
b. drive car / sail boat
c. play guitar / sing
d. play tennis / ski
e. dance / cook

2. Controlled writing practice – students construct sentences about themselves using can and can’t, e.g.

‘I can’t swim but I can’t skate.’
‘I can drive a car but I can’t sail a boat.’
‘I can play the guitar and I can sing.’

Monitor students while they are writing. When students have finished elicit sentences and conduct oral drills of selected sentences with the whole class for extra oral practice.

3. Controlled speaking practice. This could be done as a class survey. Students use the word prompts to interview each other about their personal abilities, e.g.

‘Can you swim?’ – Yes, I can.
‘Can you skate?’ – No, I can’t.

4. Extension exercise or homework – controlled writing practice. Students write sentences about the classmates they have interviewed and what they can and can’t do.

Level: Upper-intermediate
Learning Objective: Review of modality – controlled oral and written practice

1. Controlled writing practice. Students complete the gaps in the following sentences with correct or appropriate modal verbs

a. “What’s that noise at the front door?”
That ________________ be the postman. He always comes at this time of day.

b. Your cold is bad. You _________________ go home and stay in bed. If you stay at work you _________________ give it to everyone.

c. You _______________ smoke in public buildings. If you want to smoke you _________________ to go outside.

d. The phone stopped ringing before I ___________________ answer it. I wonder who it have been?

e. I _____________________ answer the phone. It _________________ be Paul. He said he _____________________ call this afternoon.

When students have finished elicit answers.

2. Students decide on the function of the modal verb in each sentence. Discuss the answers together as a whole class.

If you have any great ideas for activities that present and practice modal verbs why not share them with the ESL Library community and post a comment.


Leave a Comment ↓

  1. ESL Library Staff says:

    Sep 07, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    Thanks Michael! Sorry, it was supposed to be a blank line there.

  2. Michael Jones says:

    Sep 07, 2011 at 10:06 am

    I liked your article, but i think there was a typo in the sentence. B/if you stay at work you (WILL) give it to everyone. I believe you need to add “will” after you.

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