Empty classroom with tables, chairs, and 2 white boards hanging on a brick walll
Teacher's Corner: Modals
In this month’s Teacher’s Corner we explore interactive ways to have your students practice using modals correctly in the classroom.

Modals (can, will, should, etc.), also known as modal auxiliaries, are difficult to learn because they seem to function like a verb but don’t follow the same rules. For example, modals act more like the auxiliary verb do/does when do/does precedes a verb; however, modals are different from do/does in that they do not change for tense or the subject’s number.  We will examine the forms, meaning, and use of modals in more depth.

The forms of modals fall into two categories (Yule, 1998): simple modals and periphrastic, or phrasal, modals. Simple modals are single words such as can, will, could, and would. Each simple modal has a present and past tense form, but these tense forms do not function the way tense functions in other verbs. For example, can is often used for the present tense, and could is used as the past tense of can; however, could can also be used in other contexts to refer to present or future time (Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, 1999). In short, modals do not follow the usual grammar rules for verbs and so fall into their own special category.

The other type of modals is periphrastic modals (Yule, 1998), more commonly known as phrasal modals. Phrasal modals look like phrases: be able to, have got to, be going to, etc. Phrasal modals use the common verbs be or have, which can make these modals easier for students to learn because they follow more familiar grammar rules.

Modals are used to indicate certainty, possibility, necessity, inference, or prediction. For example, the sentence It must be easy to live so close to the store is an inference that expresses a high level of certainty. If the sentence changes to It might be easy to live so close the store, the sentence is still an inference, but the modal might expresses a much lower level of certainty: it might be easy to live near the store, but it might not be easy. Changing the modal in a sentence can also change the degree of certainty that the speaker has about the situation. Therefore, learners must recognize the varying degree of certainty, possibility, or necessity that a modal can express. They also must understand that a modal is used to communicate the speaker’s perspective in any given situation. Again, this can be difficult for learners to grasp given that a modal looks much like a verb but functions differently.

Modal use often depends on context and the degree of formality and politeness that a social situation requires. For example, modals such as could and would are considered more polite than their present tense counterparts can and will. English language learners need instruction and practice to understand these slight differences in use.

In this month’s Teacher’s Corner, we present four activities that focus on the form, meaning, and use of modals in everyday English. The activity offered in Week 1 uses common classroom instructions to help learners differentiate between modals expressing necessity and those expressing possibility. Week 2 gives learners a chance to recognize equivalent simple and phrasal modals. In Week 3 an activity explains how to teach a common speech act. We end the month with a common icebreaker activity adapted to emphasize modals. 


Celce-Murcia, M., & Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999). The grammar book: An ESL/EFL teacher's course

                  (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Yule, G. (1998). Explaining English grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Additional Resources

For additional information about modal verbs, check out this resource and many others available on the American English website:

·      Modal Verbs & Adverb Clauses of Reason: Stranded on the Moon

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Table of Contents

Week 1 - Meanings of Modals: Classroom RulesExpand

Walk into a classroom in the United States, and you’ll see a variety of posters stating different classroom rules and instructions for students. Some of these posters might include phrases such as raise hand to speak or don’t interrupt another student. Even if there are no posters, most teachers have a list of classroom rules and instructions. These rules are usually written as short phrases without modals; however, a modal is still implied.

Some rules in the classroom are obligatory and others range from strong to weak suggestions. For example, some teachers have a rule that says, “Be on time for class.” The intended meaning for some teachers is “You must be on time for class.” The rule is obligatory, and there are consequences for students who are late. Other teachers might intend the rule to mean “You should be on time to class.” Given this meaning, the teacher is making a strong suggestion, but there might not be consequences for not following the rule. Rephrasing rules using modals helps to reveal the intended level of necessity.

In this week’s Teacher’s Corner, you get a chance to review your classroom rules with students and assess their understanding of the rules. Your students will decide the level of necessity implied in each directive and then rewrite each rule using an appropriate modal.


High Beginning and higher (Some awareness of modal forms required)

Language Focus



During this activity, students will be able to do the following:

  • Define classroom rules according to degree of necessity
  • Rewrite classroom rules into complete sentences using the appropriate modal


  • Chalkboard/white board and chalk/markers
  • Paper and pencils/pens
  • List of classroom rules
    Note: You can use the list of classroom rules in Appendix A, use or make your own list, or use posters from your classroom.


  • Post the list of classroom rules where all students can see it.
  • Write the following rule on the board to use as a model: Raise your hand before speaking.
  • Write following chart on the board:

Degree of Necessity

Corresponding Modal



















1.     Begin class by telling students: “Today we are going to review some classroom rules and rewrite them so that each rule’s meaning is clear. In order to do that, we must talk about modals and how they are used in English to show whether a rule is necessary or optional.”

2.     Turn students’ attention to the model on the board: Raise your hand before speaking.

  • Ask students to explain the rule.
  • Follow up with the question “Do you always need to raise your hand before speaking in our class, or only sometimes?”
  • Once students answer this question, turn their attention to the chart written on the board. Explain that using different modals can change how necessary a rule is.
  • Ask students which modal they would use with the rule Raise your hand before speaking.
  • After students choose a modal, ask them how they would describe the meaning of the modal. Write their definitions on the chart.

3.     Group students into small groups of three.

  • One quick and easy option is to group them by their seating arrangement.

4.     Tell students that they will work together in their groups to define the other four modals listed on the chart.

5.     Once each group has come up with a definition for the other modals, have each group share a definition for one of the words. Ask the class what they think of the group’s definition and, if everyone approves of the definition, write that definition on the board.

6.     Return to the example rule: Raise your hand before speaking. Ask the class how they would write the rule using a modal.

  • Remind learners that modals do not change for tense or subject and that they precede the main verb.
  • Write their examples on the board. For example, students might say, You must raise your hand before speaking.

7.     Ask learners to look at the classroom rules posted at the front of the classroom. Assign each group one or two rules, depending on how many groups there are, and ask them to do the following:

  • First, decide the degree of necessity implied in the rule.
  • Then, choose an appropriate modal to use with the rule.
  • Finally, write the rule in a complete sentence using a modal. Most of the rules listed will need a subject and a modal added to the rule.

8.     Once groups finish rewriting the rules assigned to them, ask them to write their rules on the board or share them with the whole class.

9.     Review all of the rules with the students so that they know how obligatory each rule is.


An alternative to this activity is to have students work together to come up with a list of classroom rules rather than providing the list for them. Students could work as a whole class to brainstorm what they believe the rules of the classroom are, and they could then write those rules on the board at the beginning of the activity.


The activity could be extended for students by asking them to create new posters for the rule they developed with the group. The poster could contain a shortened version of the rule and the longer version with the modal included. These posters could be hung around the classroom as a reminder of the class rules.

Appendix A

Classroom Rules

Raise your hand before speaking.

Wait until someone finishes talking to begin speaking.

Go to the bathroom as needed.

Bring paper and pencil or pens to class.

Turn in your homework on time.

Be on time for class.

Put your books on the shelf.

Keep your backpacks out of the aisle.

Look at your paper during tests.

Put cell phones on silent during class.

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Week 2 - Simple and Phrasal ModalsExpand

Modals can be divided into two categories: simple and phrasal. Simple modals are the most familiar—can, would, must—while phrasal modals (also known as periphrastic modals) are phrases formed with the verbs be or have. Some examples of phrasal modals are have (got) to or be allowed to. While simple modals and phrasal modals share similar meanings and are used in similar ways, they are not exact equivalents. As a result, it is important to teach the two forms and help learners distinguish between them.

In this week’s Teacher’s Corner, students work together to rewrite sentences that use either simple or phrasal modals. This activity is a great way to draw attention to modals, to their different forms, and to how those different forms can create slight differences in meanings.


Intermediate and up (some awareness of modal forms required)

Language Focus



During this activity, students will be able to:

  • Distinguish between simple modals and phrasal modals
  • Identify a phrasal modal that is similar in meaning to a simple modal
  • Rewrite sentences using a simple modal or a phrasal modal while keeping a similar meaning


  • Paper and pencils/pens
  • Two sets of sentences (see Appendix A and Appendix B)


  • Make enough copies of each sentence set (Appendix A and Appendix B) for half of your students.
  • Pair students according to level; assign a more advanced student to work with a less advanced student.
  • Write the following lists on the board:

     Simple Modals                   

     Can, May, Must, Should, Will                                                                                               

     Phrasal Modals

     Have (got) to, Be able to, Be supposed to, Be allowed to, Be going to                       

Note: In the phrase “has got to,” the word “got” can be included or omitted, i.e., “She has to wash dishes” or “She has got to wash dishes.”

Activity Part One: Defining and Matching Modals

1.     Start class by arranging students into the pairs you organized before class.

2.     Turn their attention to the modals written on the board. Point to the two types of modals. Explain that simple modals are single words while phrasal modals are phrases using the verbs be or have. Tell learners that the simple modals on the board can be matched to a phrasal modal. The two modals do not mean exactly the same thing, but they can be used in similar ways.

3.     After you explain the modal categories, tell students that with their partners they will identify the meanings of the simple modals listed and match them with phrasal modals that have the closest meanings.

  • Have students write down the lists of modals from the board, using pencil and paper.
  • Tell students to first review the list of simple modals and discuss with their partner the meaning of each simple modal.
  • As they discuss the meaning of a simple modal, tell them to notice what words they use to define the simple modal. These words can give clues to which phrasal modal might be the best match.
  • The students then use their definitions to match each simple modal to a phrasal modal.

4.     After students define and match all simple modals to phrasal modals, assign each pair of students to compare their answers with another pair of students.

5.     Check in with the whole class to ensure that everyone has the same answers or to give them a chance to ensure that their answers are correct. The matching pairs are can/be able to; may/be allowed to; must/have (got) to; shall/be supposed to; will/be going to.

Activity Part Two: Using Modals in Sentences

1.     Have students return to working with their original partners.

2.     Hand out the first sentence set (Appendix A) to half of the pairs and the second sentence set (Appendix B) to the other pairs.

3.     Tell the students to work with their partners to complete the sentences with the correct modal from the list of modals on the sheet.

Note: The students should only fill in the sentences at the top of the sheet. The bottom half of the sheet will be filled in later.

4.     Once the pairs finish, tell them to trade their sentence set with the group they worked with earlier.

5.     Explain that they must rewrite the sentences using the modal from their sheet that most closely matches. For example, the pair that worked on the worksheet with simple modals will rewrite the other group’s sentences using the appropriate simple modal.

6.     When the pairs finish, have them return the worksheets to the original group. Ask them to compare their original sentences with the rewrites.

7.     When everyone has reviewed their answers, ask each pair to choose one of their rewritten sentences and write it on the board. When this is done, all of the sentences from the worksheets should be on the board. The students can double-check their work and use this time to ask questions.


One way to vary this activity is to utilize a reading that you have previously used in class. Modify half of the reading to use simple modals and the other half of the reading to use only phrasal modals. Students will be familiar with the material and vocabulary, making it easier for them to focus on examining the differences in meaning between the two types of modals.


An extension to this activity could have students writing their own sentences using simple or phrasal modals as they choose. Giving learners an opportunity to create new sentences gives them a greater stake in the meanings that they want to communicate, and they may find it easier to understand the differences in how each modal is used.

Appendix A

Sentence Set One

Simple Modals

Can                         May                         Must                        Should                    Will

  1. We ____________________ go to the party if we have enough time.
  2. Zahra and Fatima  _____________________ arrive early if they want to ride to the party with us.
  3. You _____________________ have two cookies now, but no more. You’ll eat cake and sweets at the party.
  4. They ___________________ come home by ten, but they might come home a little later.
  5. Don ___________________ be at the party tonight. We can talk about it then.

Rewritten sentences

  1. ____________________________________________________________________
  2. ____________________________________________________________________
  3. ____________________________________________________________________
  4. ____________________________________________________________________
  5. ____________________________________________________________________


Appendix B

Sentence Set Two

Phrasal Modals

Be able to           Be allowed to     Have (got) to       Be supposed to        Be going to   

  1. They ___________________________ go to the swimming pool on Saturday.
  2. Niu ____________________________ swim. He learned while studying in Australia.
  3. David and Michelle ___________________________ be at the pool by 10:00 am.
  4. Since we know the lifeguard, we ________________________ go into the pool early.
  5. Everyone ________________________ wear water shoes while swimming at the public pool.

Rewritten sentences

  1. _____________________________________________________________________
  2. _____________________________________________________________________
  3. _____________________________________________________________________
  4. _____________________________________________________________________
  5. _____________________________________________________________________

Answer Key (for teachers)

Appendix A:

  1. can
  2. must
  3. may
  4. should
  5. will

Appendix B:

  1. are going to
  2. is able to
  3. are supposed to
  4. are allowed to
  5. has (got) to
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Week 3 - Making Requests with ModalsExpand

The speech act of making requests is quite complex in English. A speaker has to consider several factors before making a request that would be well received. First the speaker must consider the size of the request and the person who he or she is talking to. Then, the speaker must choose an appropriate modal based on these factors.

In English, the more polite the request, the longer and more buried the actual request is; a shorter, more direct request, however, is considered less polite. Look at the two examples here: Give me your pen versus Would you be able to give me a pen, please? In the first request, which is short and direct, no modal is present, but the request is quite clear. In the second request, two modals are used, making the request much longer and indirect—but also more formal and polite.

Knowing how to use modals when making requests is important for social interactions. For example, if a student makes a very short, direct request of a teacher, the teacher may see this request as impolite. Even if the student did not intend to be impolite, such a request may lower the teacher’s opinion of the student. Like the student in this scenario, some students may find it difficult to know the rules of speech acts without explicit instruction. As a result, it is essential that teachers discuss the complexities of making requests.

In this week’s Teacher’s Corner, students engage in a fun and interactive activity in order to practice making appropriate requests. First, teachers will review the rules of making requests in English and then students will try making appropriate requests in a series of realistic scenarios.


High intermediate and above (some awareness of modal forms required)

Language Focus

  • Speaking
  • Listening


During this activity, students will be able to:

  • Recognize the variables to consider when making context-appropriate requests in English
  • Apply the rules of making requests to a set of scenarios to make appropriate requests


  • Paper and pencils/pens
  • Set of scenarios (Appendix A)
  • Set of respondents (Appendix B)


  • Prepare for students to work in teams of 8-10. (If the class has 10 or fewer students, have them work as a single group.)
  • Put the following figure on the board:

Modals of Requests

Less direct                                More direct


More polite                               Less polite

Activity Part One: Directness-Politeness Continuum

1.     Start class by telling students that today they are going to learn about making polite requests in English.

  • Explain that requests in English require a modal to be considered polite.
  • Ask students to give some examples of modals in English.
  • Write their responses on the board.

2.     Ask students to turn to a neighbor and ask to borrow a pen. After they talk, have students share their requests with the class. Write their responses on the board.

  • If students are slow to respond, you can share some of the following examples: Can I borrow a pen? Do you have a pen I can use? Give me a pen please. Would you lend me a pen?

3.     Explain to the class that in English, the more polite the request the less direct the request. Show them the figure on the board and explain that the continuum shown in the figure is one way to think about making polite requests.

4.     Use one of the students’ examples for demonstration. For example, point to the request: Give me a pen, please. Ask students if this request is direct or indirect. Then ask the students to describe the politeness of the request. If they had to choose, where would they put the request “Give me a pen, please” on the figure? Explain that the request is very direct, but not considered very polite in English.

5.     Have students turn to their neighbor again. Tell students that they need to work together to organize the requests on the board along the continuum shown in the figure. Which request is the most polite, but least direct? Which is the most direct, but least polite? Where would you put the modals along this continuum?

6.     As students finish, tell each pair to write a request along the continuum on the board.

7.     As a class, review how the students organized the requests. Ask each pair to explain why they put their request in a particular spot.

  • As you work through each request, encourage students to challenge other students’ choices.
  • If necessary, explain that in English the order of politeness for modals is as follows, with the most polite listed first: would, could, will, can. Ensure that what is listed on the board follows this order.

Activity Part Two: Variables Affecting Requests

1.     Put students into the teams of 10 prepared before class. Have each team organize themselves into two rows of five facing each other so that each group member is facing another group member. Give each team a set of scenario cards (Appendix A) and pass them out so that each person has one.

2.     Tell students they are going to practice making requests based on the scenarios in their hands.

3.     Have the students read the scenarios aloud to the students sitting across from them. Then each student must prepare a request based on the scenario and make the request to the person across from him or her.

4.     Tell the students they will have 1 minute to complete the task. When they hear the teacher clap, they must trade scenario cards, and students in one row must move one spot to the right while the students in the other row stay in the same spot.

  • Students will rotate through this game a minimum of five times in order to practice making requests.
  • While the students go through this activity, circulate and make note of some examples of requests.

5.     After the time is up, ask students to return to their seats. Review some of the requests you heard students make, and ask students which requests are polite and which are direct.

6.     Explain that you are now going to talk about some other considerations to make when making requests.

7.     Return to the example, “Give me a pen, please,” and ask students to describe the size of the request. Is asking for a pen a big request or a small request? In English, request size is based on how much the respondent has to do in order to fulfill the request.

  • Ask students what would happen if they changed the word pen for the word car. Would they ask the same way, or would they try to ask more politely? Which request phrase on the board would they choose if they were asking to borrow a car?

8.     To bring in another variable, ask students how they would change the request “Give me a pen, please” if they were asking a teacher. What about a sibling or a close friend?

  • Explain that in making requests in English, the speaker also considers who the respondent is.
  • Again, change the word pen for the word car and tell students they are making the request to a grandparent. How would they make the request?

9.     Ask students to return to their teams and to organize themselves again into rows of five facing each other. They will now do the same game again; however, this time they will consider a new variable: the respondent.

10.  Hand out the second set of cards (Appendix B). Each person should get one respondent card in addition to his or her scenario card.

11.  Tell students that the new card has a person listed. When they read their scenario card they must also read the person listed on the card.

12.  Students must then make the request as if they are talking to the person listed on the card. For example, a student has a scenario card from the first game and now has a respondent card that says teacher. The student reading the scenario must then figure out how to make the request as though he or she is asking a teacher.

  • Remind students that the size of the request is important to consider as well.

13.  Again, students will have 1 minute with their partners. At the end of the minute, students will switch cards with their partners. One row will move one spot to the right while the other row stays in the same place.

14.  While the students continue this activity, teachers should circulate and make note of some examples of requests.

15.  When the game is complete, have students return to their seats.

16.  Point out some of the examples you heard. Ask students if the examples are appropriate requests based on the size of the request and the person being asked.

17.  Give students time to ask questions and clear up any issues they still have about making requests in English.


Vary this activity by having students work through the activities in pairs rather than setting up the game with teams. In pairs, students can work through the scenarios, first through speaking and then by writing the requests they made. The written requests would give the teacher a chance to assess students’ comprehension on an individual level.


This activity can be extended to offer a homework opportunity. Have students record three requests they make outside of class. Students must write down the scenario, who the respondent is, and how they would make the request in English. Students must then bring these examples to share in class. For example, a student goes home and needs to ask a friend for a ride to the market. The student would then write down and bring to class something like the following: I needed to ask my friend for a ride to the market. I know this friend pretty well. In English I would say, “Would you give me a ride to the market? I need to get some things for my mother.”

Appendix A

Scenarios for Making Requests

You need a ride to a concert 45 minutes from your city.

You need to borrow a nice dress for a wedding you are going to in a week.

You need to borrow a cup of sugar for a recipe you are making.

You need help moving a heavy table from one room to another room in your house.

You want to borrow a little money to buy some new art supplies.

You need someone to take your grandmother to a doctor’s appointment because you are unavailable.

You need someone to watch your pets while you’re on vacation.

You need a copy of the math book for school because you lost yours.

You need someone to hand you the salt at dinner.

You need a tissue to blow your nose.

Appendix B

Respondents for Requests Scenarios






Close friend



Family friend of parents



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Week 4 - Breaking the Ice With ModalsExpand

Icebreaker activities are great ways to get students talking.  Icebreakers are even better when students are both talking and practicing a specific language skill or component. “Find Someone Who...” is a common icebreaker in which students get a list of characteristics and they must find classmates who meet the characteristics on the list. For example, the worksheet might say, “Find someone who has traveled to Japan.” Students must then walk around the room asking classmates about their travels. Once they find a student who has traveled to Japan, they get that student’s signature and move onto the next item on the list.

In this week’s Teacher’s Corner, we modify the “Find Someone Who...” game to include modals. The goal is for students to ask questions and give answers using modals. The game is a lot of fun and can be adapted to fit the level, needs, and experiences of your students.



Intermediate and above (knowledge of question formation and modals necessary)

Language Focus

  • Speaking
  • Listening


During this activity, students will be able to do the following:

  • Practice using modals in situations related to possibility, ability, and predictability
  • Form questions and answers using modals


  • Paper and pencils/pens
  • Worksheet: Find Someone Who...  (Appendix A)


  • Make enough copies of Worksheet: Find Someone Who...  (Appendix A) for all students in the class.


1.     Warm up the class by asking some questions to get students thinking about modals and questions. Here are some examples to use:

  • Would you like to climb a mountain?
  • Are you going to be wealthy in the future?
  • Can you swim?

2.     Tell students they are going to play a game called “Find Someone Who...” and explain the directions.

  • Each student will get a copy of a worksheet with phrases.
  • To play the game, the student will pick one phrase to turn into a question using a modal.
  • Then the student will go around the room and ask the question to classmates to find someone who answers “yes.”
  • When the student finds a classmate who answers “yes” to a particular question, the student must get the classmate to sign next to that item. The student can have their classmates sign only once on the worksheet.
  • After finding a classmate to sign for one item, the student then forms a question for another item and repeats asking the question to classmates. 
  • The first student to get a signature for every item on the list wins.

3.     Hand out copies of the “Find Someone Who...” worksheet. Give students time to review the items on the list and to ask questions about anything that they don’t understand.

4.     Have students stand up. Tell them they have 10 minutes to talk to classmates and to try to get every item on the list signed.

  • Tell students “Go,” when you are ready to start the clock.

5.     As students circulate, take time to listen and ensure that students are asking questions accurately.

6.     When the first person finishes, review his or her worksheet.  Ask the student to read his or her answers in complete sentences.

7.     Finish the activity by having all students make complete sentences using the answers they have. If you want, you can collect and check the sentences each student writes.



There are a number of possible variations and adaptations for this activity. One variation starts the activity by asking students to write the questions they will ask before the activity starts. Each student gets a worksheet and spends time turning each phrase listed into a complete question. Students then have the questions ready before they start the game.

Another alternative is to have students create their own worksheet. Each student must come up with a single item to use in the game. Post all the items on the board. The students then copy the phrases into their notebooks before starting the game. Students now have a worksheet that is better tailored to their experiences.

Finally, teachers can rewrite the items listed on the worksheet to match the language level and the experiences and background of the students.


Appendix A


Find someone who...

1.     would like to travel around the world.                                    ________________________________________

2.     is going to a university.                                                                      ________________________________________

3.     can bake desserts.                                                              ________________________________________

4.     would eat bugs for money.                                            ________________________________________

5.     is going to watch a movie this weekend.             ________________________________________

6.     will have children.                                                               ________________________________________

7.     can speak multiple languages.                                                     ________________________________________

8.     will be famous.                                                                      ________________________________________

9.     would go camping for 30 days.                                                      ________________________________________

10.  can play an instrument.                                                  ________________________________________



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