Basic Abilities: Teaching modal verbs to express ability

The next time you must teach can/ could to lower level students, consider these two activities.

1.) MUSICAL CHALLENGE. “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)” is a duet from the Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun.  You’ll find various versions of Irving Berlin’s song on the Internet, giving you the chance to select the one with the right flavor for your students. The most famous performance is likely from the 1950 screen version. Someone has posted an excerpt on YouTube featuring the popular song, and it’s just over three minutes. (Start at :25). You can ask lower level students to identify only the main challenges posed by each singer. Supply fill-in-the-blank statements, which students must complete as they listen to the song.

a. Anything you can (be) I can (be) greater. I can (be) anything greater than you.

b. Any note you can (reach) I can (go) higher.  I can (sing) any note higher than you.

c. Anything you can (buy) I can (buy) cheaper. I can (buy) anything cheaper than you.

d. Any note you can (sing) I can (sing) softer. I can (sing) any note softer than you.

e. Any note you can (hold) I can (hold) longer. I can (hold) any note longer than you.

f. Anything you can (wear) I can (wear) better. I can (wear) anything better than you.

g. Anything you can (say) I can (say) faster. I can (say) anything faster than you.

Intermediate students could be challenged to identify additional challenges as well as the negative comment “Neither can I.” (Said at 3:00)

As follow-up, you can have students write similar sentences in which they compare themselves to a close friend or relative. Model: Anything I can bake my mother can bake better. My mother can bake anything better than me.


STEP 1 – Gather pictures of famous people known for specific talents. Suggestions: David Copperfield, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Julia Roberts, Celine Dion, Shakespeare, Steven Spielberg, Mikhail Baryshnikov. Post the pictures on the front board.

STEP 2 – Have students work in pairs to indentify each famous person. Provide two model statements with the modal verbs can, can’t, could, or couldn’t.  Be sure to illustrate the need for the past form when speaking about a past ability. Example A (Serena Williams): Serena Williams is a tennis player. She can play tennis very well. Serena’s sister Venus usually can’t beat her. Example B (Elvis Presley): Elvis was a singer and musician. He could sing very well.

STEP 3 – Have volunteers read their statements to the class. Confirm the accuracy of the information and then the use of modal verbs.

STEP 4 – Have students move into small groups to answer these questions:

a. Can you do anything these famous people can or could? (I can sing, but I can’t sing like Celine Dion.)

b. Do you know another famous person who can do something as well as or better than one of the people listed on the board? (I like the magician Criss Angel. I think he can do better magic than David Copperfield.)

If you’re working with intermediate students and wish to contrast ability with possibility, you can pose a third question: If you could have the talent of one of these famous people, whose talent would you like to have? Finish this sentence: “If I could ___________(do what?) like ___________ (whom?), I would be very happy.”

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Céline from France says:

    Hello Jennifer,

    I’m an ESL teacher in France and I’d like to thank you for your good tips! Your website is great!

    1. Dear Céline,
      Thank you for your kind support. Best wishes to you and your students!
      – Jennifer

  2. Lee Elias Tembo says:

    Hello Jennifer,
    Thanks for your valuable information! It really helped my class 9 students to understand the modal verbs “Can” and “Could”!

    1. Very glad to hear this!
      Best regards to you and your students,

  3. Jorge Nicolás Bustamante says:

    How precise! Thank you, Jennifer. I’m working on an ICT’s exam and its aim is to plan a whole class for lower level students in our country (Argentina). One of the topics we could pick to develop the exam was this: expressing ability. So I’m learning how students learn and how teachers teach! It’s quite funny but requires a lot of time.
    Thank you again. So grateful.
    Greetings from Catamarca, Argentina. Wish you all the best!

    1. Hello Jorge. I think you could add in “how teachers learn from teaching”! Yes, I can imagine this topic requiring a good amount of time.
      An interesting point to make is how knowing something isn’t the same as being able to teach it!


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