Teaching Modal Verbs: Function, Strength, and Formality

Have you developed an approach to teaching modal verbs? I’ve found it most effective to focus on these three aspects:

  • Function. What purpose(s) do these modal verbs serve? What do they express? Students will learn and retain grammar if they understand how it functions in communication. I strongly recommend presenting these auxiliary verbs in groups according to their communicative functions, the most basic ones being: necessity, certainty, and ability.

Consider the following as a guide:

(Note: I’ve included modal-like expressions.)

NECESSITY: must, have (got) to, cannot, be supposed to, had better, should, ought to, could, might, may

CERTAINTY: must, cannot, may, might, could, should, ought to, will, would

ABILITY: can, could, be able to

Other useful guides:

The Guide to Grammar and Writing by Capital Community College

Bob Wilson’s Grammar Aquarium                                   

Once you’ve grouped the modal verbs according to their functions, you can then divide them further according to time frames. For example, we express a present ability with CAN and a past ability with COULD.

  • Strength. Grammar books differ on the number of functions modal verbs have, but when you consider the aspect of strength, my three basic groupings hold true:

NECESSITY: must, have to (necessary)/ cannot (prohibited) > be supposed to (expected) > had better, should, ought to (advisable, with had better being very strong) > could, might (suggested) / may (permissible)

CERTAINTY: must , cannot, will ( nearly certain) > should, ought to, would (likely) > may, might, could (possible)

ABILITY: can, could, be able to (No difference in strength.)

  • Formality. When teaching any language form, be sure to tell students about appropriacy. This applies to use of contractions (e.g., CANNOT v. CAN’T) and changes in pronunciation (/ʃʊd hæv/ v. /ʃʊd ə/). Explain that the level of formality can dictate a choice between two equivalent expressions. For example, when expressing certainty, HAVE TO is preferred in informal (spoken) English and MUST is generally used in formal speech. Furthermore, the degree of necessity or certainty may be weakened depending on how formal a relationship is. For instance, you may have a strong argument against your boss’s plan, but voicing it with certainty is disrespectful. Consider the difference: “That won’t work.” v. “That may not work.”

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Lucy says:

    Yes, these are the basic functions of modals; I would also include ‘possibility’ to your list. Thanks once again for a great post.

  2. Emma says:

    I liked your analysis, but I really want to know the appropriate learner group for ESL/EFL classrooms and why; becuase I need it for my report. I think it is more appropriate for intermediate and advanced levels.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      Are you asking about the appropriacy of modal verbs as a lesson topic for the various levels, beginner through advanced?
      It’s certainly debatable. Some more complex structures, such as passive and past forms, are commonly reserved for advanced students. That’s logical. We often build upwards from simple to complex grammar. But who’s to say that modals for ability (e.g., can) must be taught before modals for necessity (e.g., must)? I don’t believe there’s any sequence that’s been proven to be most effective? Also, I think it’s acceptable, practical, and logical to present a limited amount of modal verbs to high beginners. One lesson may be on can/ cannot/ can’t. Simple sentences can be constructed: subject + modal + main verb. “I can sing. I cannot dance. Etc.” Another lesson can be on modals expressing necessity. “We must eat. We must sleep. We must exercise. Etc.” As more modals are learned, it then becomes appropriate to talk in depth about degree and appropriacy.

      Does that help? Please ask more questions if didn’t fully understand your question. 🙂

      1. Emma says:

        Thank you very much. You really helped me to figure out the appropriate level for teach this grammatical function.

  3. Aqli says:

    hello there…
    I’m really happy to see this site,,
    O,yeah.. I’m Aqli from Indonesia, I just need a confirmation, could I share about this article in my facebook?
    O,yeah.. I’m really eager to have a vidio call with you Mrs. Jennifer. a couple days ago I’d downloaded one of your vidio on youtube.
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    1. Yes, please feel free to share this on Facebook.
      Best wishes!

      1. aqliae says:

        thanks for your agreement Jennifer, I’ve posted it on my facebook.. here my account name Oji Ae Jare

      2. Thank you for sharing the post!

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