Couldn’t Be Better: Understanding the Modal Verb ‘Could’

Posted July 28, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar

Tags: , , , , ,

After exploring the forms and uses of could in my previous post, I feel it’s a good time to offer an activity for upper level students who need to strengthen their mastery of this particular modal verb. Please consider my Couldn’t Be Better_handout. The activity tests students’ ability to understand the different meanings of could. Students are not only exposed to this modal verb in meaningful contexts, but they are prompted to respond in a variety of ways to demonstrate their comprehension. Enjoy.

Student Stumper 42: Could do vs. Could have done

Posted July 23, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Student Stumpers

Tags: , , , , , ,

QUESTION: Which question is correct? “How could I have missed that?” or “How could I miss that?”

ANSWER: If only I could easily and confidently answer that! Could we first look at other uses of this modal verb? We could look at a few examples together if you’d like.

That wasn’t actually my initial reply to the question, but the three previous sentences reveal the first source of confusion over the modal verb could: its different uses. We use it for ability, possibility, requests, suggestions, and offers — and the meaning isn’t always clear, at least immediately. For instance, the words “I could help you” don’t indicate a clear intention without more context. The speaker may be stating a possibility or making an offer. The sentence stress would likely differ, too, depending on the meaning: I could help you. / I could help you.

Even with more context, there can be a gray area between ability and possibility. Imagine a business person speaking to her colleagues: “We could build something special together.” Is she referring to their collective ability or the possibility of building something special?

The forms of could also pose a challenge. We use could with a base verb to refer to the past, present, or future. The perfect form could have (done) is more limited; it helps us speculate about the past or express a missed opportunity, which means someone didn’t use their ability or a possibility wasn’t explored:

  • How does Ken know so much about that period of history? I suppose he could have read books or watched documentaries. [speculation about the past, a past possibility]
  • I could have done better if I had had more time. [a hypothetical reference to past ability]
  • I could have enrolled in the evening course if I had known about it. [a hypothetical reference to past possibility]


  • I could stay up late and get by on little sleep when I was in college. [real past ability]
  • Our university offered us a lot of choices. We could take classes at some of the neighboring colleges. [real past possibility]

To return to the original question, “How could I miss that?” may be used to refer to a past situation in which the speaker acted, but failed to achieve a successful outcome. This isn’t hypothetical. Maybe the speaker failed to attend a party or failed to notice a mistake. We may be in the gray area between ability and possibility, but the situation is clearly a real past event. “How could I miss that?” is very much like, “How could I do such a thing?” I’m asking myself why I did something I shouldn’t have done, not why I didn’t do something I should have. Does that make sense?

A real-life example appears on a PGA golfer’s blog. Darren Golsby wrote a post “How Could I Miss That Putt?” Even professional golfers are not perfect, as he points out. They may putt to the best of their ability, but there’s always the possibility that their ball will miss the hole. The question, “How could I miss that putt?” is a common one, according to Golsby. He equates it with, “I shouldn’t have missed that putt!” Note how should is different. To make a past reference, we need the perfect form shouldn’t have missed.

So when would we use “could(n’t) have missed”? Consider these next examples:

  • I knew I couldn’t have missed the exit.  [a past impossibility with “couldn’t have missed” being placed before “knew” on a timeline]
  • I was surprised to see my high score on the test. I thought I had made some mistakes, but the teacher could have missed them when she was grading it. [a past possibility with “could have missed” being placed before “was surprised” on a timeline]

Questions with the perfect form seem more suitable for speculation. “Could we have missed something?” asks a police detective while reviewing the evidence of an unsolved case. In contrast, any kind of “How could you?” question is likely asked out of surprise at someone’s actions. “How could you do that to me?” asks a friend who was betrayed. “How could I be so stupid?” we ask when we wonder at an unwise choice. In short, the key is to match up forms, uses, and time frames.

Did I miss anything in this explanation? Please fill in any gaps if I did. I’ll follow up with a handout for those who’d like to clarify these points with their upper level students.


Biber D. et al. (2002). Longman student grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Golsby, Darren. (2015). How could I miss that putt? Darren Golsby PGA Professional. Retrieved from

An Amazing Vacation Experience: A collaborative writing process to improve paragraph writing

Posted July 17, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Writing

Tags: , , , , , , ,

5760476367_77ce16bf12_qIt’s my second month running a self-paced intermediate writing skills course. Through video tutorials, quizzes, and writing tasks, students develop their ability to construct proper sentences and paragraphs. I enjoy guiding students through the assignments, and the chance to give individual feedback really allows writing to become a process.

When it comes to producing the final paragraph, I usually ask for several revisions. I’ve seen how each student has his or her own area to concentrate on: identifying the main focus, choosing the right amount of support, maintaining the focus, or sequencing the supporting points. As we move toward the final revision, I also encourage them to be concise and avoid repetition.

How do you guide the writing process at the paragraph level? Here’s an idea: collaborating with a partner to encourage discussion. Please view my An Amazing Vacation_handout. The tasks take intermediate students through the process of identifying a topic and controlling idea, writing a topic sentence and concluding sentence, and deciding how to organize and present support. The handout could be tailored for solo writing, too. Some previous paragraph writing experience is assumed. Enjoy!

Photo credit:

“Typing” by Kiran Foster. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

10 Summer Learning Tasks

Posted July 10, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Conversation, Writing

Tags: , , ,

What do you do with your summer vacation? Do you actually get free time? I have what you might call a quasi vacation. I may head out to the pool with my kids, but I often sit at a table working on my laptop. Of course, I do make time to enjoy the water,  and I like to take short walks in the evening. We all need downtime to rest our minds. How else can we draw out new ideas or be in tune with our learners’ needs?

Vacations also offer opportunities for unhurried work and exploration. Teachers can take on certain tasks that we had trouble making time for in previous months. For example, we might organize a pile of papers that has become quite high. A quiet hour might allow us the chance to read some new blog posts or check out a new educational app. Click here for more ideas.

As for students, there are fun tasks they could take on as part of their independent learning. If you have a way to connect with new and old students on social media, you might suggest one of these ideas for summer fun. Most tasks are for those studying/living in the U.S., but the types of outings may inspire your own suggestions.

9223899743_ebb311b65d_m1. Go to a farmer’s market. If you don’t know what something is or you don’t see a price, ask. If you don’t see a certain fruit or vegetable, ask if the vendors if they grow it. The point is to have a short exchange…and get fresh produce!

2. Go to two or three different farmer’s markets. Write a short review online comparing the markets. Share it with friends.

2835293583_edf728b822_m3. Go to a flea market or antique store. Ask questions about interesting pieces. Ask about the age and origin of an item.

4. Go to a yard sale. Take only a small amount of money with you, for example, five dollars. Try bargaining and see how much you can get for five dollars.

19482279706_2dac8dcd7b_m5. Go to an outdoor concert in your area. Write a short review online.

6. Visit the local library. Most public libraries have a summer schedule of events. Encourage students to attend free presentations. My town has invited a range of experts, from a bee keeper to masters of Reniassance and Medieval swordsmanship.

7. Watch a box office hit. Find out what entertainment sources are listing as the best movies of the summer. Invite a friend and check one out.

8. Go hiking. Find out online what hiking trails are in your area. Don’t go alone. Do the right preparation with your trail partners and read tips (in English!) for safety and survival. The Washington Trails Association has posted information on Hiking Basics.

9. Stick to city tours. If hiking in nature isn’t your thing, check online for walking tours. Some historic trails are well marked, and they’re free. Take the time to read posted information.

2753828425_6543f57280_m10. Make a wish list and start fulfilling each wish. Ask those who know the local culture well what they associate with summer. It can be a food, a place, or an event. Keep track of the most interesting answers, and try to experience everything firsthand! One student might have a list of foods to try: homemade ice cream, lemonade from a lemonade stand, cotton candy, and fried dough. Another student might have a list of actions to try: a cannon ball dive into a pool, a ride on a boogie board at the beach, and a water balloon toss.

Photo credits:

“Farmer’s Market” by Robert Couse-Baker. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

“Pea Pickin’ Flea Market” by Brian Dunnette. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

“New Bee Keeper” by OakelyOriginals. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

“Boogie” by Lisa Padilla. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

July Fourth: Fireworks, Flags, and Other Fun Topics

Posted June 30, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Vocabulary

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

9239648638_ae2178c33d_mNot everyone is on vacation during July. If you’re teaching during the week of July 4th, there are a number of ways to tie the U.S. Independence Day into a language lesson.

1) The latest lesson in my vocabulary playlist focuses on idioms based on the colors red, white, and blue. A short interactive quiz is available to test comprehension.

2) Word forms of “free” would be another appropriate topic and more academic in nature.

3) Ask your students if they know what sound fireworks make. If they’re not familiar with boom, hiss, whoosh, or whizz, you might want to have them take a look at onomatopoeia.

4) Flags in general offer a springboard for vocabulary. For example, in my new video, I teach that blue represents perseverance. Could students find synonyms? How about determination, strength, or endurance? You could also see if students are able to find a more conversational equivalent: not giving up. In a class of international students, each could explain the key colors of their national flag and explain any new words using synonyms or more everyday wording.

5) Songs offer vocabulary, listening, and pronunciation practice.  There are two directions you could go in, in terms of song choice. Traditional patriotic songs and patriotic rock songs engage students of different ages, and by no means do students have to be gearing up for the Citizenship Test to benefit from exposure to popular patriotic music.

6) A holiday word search could help bring in U.S. history, which would be particularly helpful background information for those new to the country. If this kind of activity seems suitable for your students, you might also check out the word scramble and cryptogram offered on Puzzles to Print.

To those celebrating, Happy Fourth of July!

Photo credit: Fourth of July Fireworks – Avalon, New Jersey by Brian Holland. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

Confusion over ‘U’

Posted June 25, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Pronunciation

Tags: , , , ,

During a private lesson I was asked about the different ways we pronounce the letter ‘U.’ There are a number of resources that shed light on the different pronunciations. One I found helpful was It can serve as a reference when you need to offer an explanation, create a lesson plan, or design an activity.

Context is always key in language practice. I like to isolate a problematic sound, contrast it with others, and then have the student use the target sound in words, phrases, and sentences. An interesting context keeps an exercise from growing dull. In my Funny Truths _handout, I suggest having students read sentences aloud, sort key words according the pronunciation of ‘U,’ and then create their own sentences. All statements are surprising facts, and listeners must identify each one as true or false. By the time students are creating their own sentences, they should have greater awareness of the different pronunciations of ‘U.’ The activity has upper level students in mind. Enjoy!

Summer Listening Practice

Posted June 17, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Listening

Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve made suggestions for summer reading, so why not summer listening? I can’t take all the credit for this idea. A private student asked that I put together a study guide for the two months we won’t be meeting. The request is specifically for listening practice.

I’m trying to compromise on who should set the tasks. I believe the student should assume some responsibility even in the planning stage. However, I know it is my role to establish guidelines. My study guide begins with two bullet points:

  • Set a schedule. Choose a realistic number of days and minutes you can hold to from week to week.
  • Choose your resources. Your resources will match your goals. If you seek to understand more conversational English, your choices will differ from those of a student who wishes to master more vocabulary. You can work with more than one resource at a time, but you should be consistent in the manner of practice.

My student is very diligent, and I know she can find 10+ minutes a day, 6-7 days a week. I created a model for two weeks, showing suggestions for each day. It will be up to her to create a specific plan for the remaining weeks of the summer. I’m also deliberately listing a number of appropriate resources because I’d like her to make selections. Taking ownership of one’s self-study is key.

Practices I recommend:

  1. Dictations can be done 1-2 times a week. I’ve encouraged a number of students to work with my Oral Reading Fluency texts for listening practice. They can listen, write down what they hear, check their work, and then listen again. This sequence can be repeated with online stories from sites like Speakaboos or very short excerpts from any number of films. The YT channel Move Clips already nicely breaks up longer films. One clip could offer enough content for a couple days of study. I’ve been able to find screen plays online for some films, so students can check their work.
  2. Direct study of speech patterns is helpful. Within the past year, I worked with two different students on linking. Knowledge of connected speech boosts listening comprehension. For self-study, I’ve recommended some of the videos posted by Stacy Hagen on EnglishwithStacy. In addition to linking, she addresses stress and reduction.
  3. Extended listening practice is slotted for one day a week on my model. (Hopefully, the student will decide to do more.) Not surprisingly, I listed some ESL listening practice sites (audio with interactive exercises), but I feel it’s just as important to simply immerse oneself in the language and see how much can be soaked up. No pressure. Just listen as long as you’d like. The more enjoyable, the better. This is where I feel there can be variation from week to week. Songs, poetry, films, TED Talks, discussion on NPR (All Things Considered), or documentaries. They’re all possible choices. This is where we might also list materials we wouldn’t dare include in a regular lesson. For instance, I personally enjoyed War World Z as an audiobook because it was read very well by different actors. However, I admit there’s so much violence and vulgarity, it would be offensive to some. As part of summer listening, though, an adult student might enjoy the dramatic reading and the different accents. If you’re looking for resources that are more appropriate for a general audience, here are two I highlighted for my student:

There are plenty of famous speeches and biographies posted online as well. What resources do you like to recommend for listening practice?


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