Teaching Modals: What Can and Can’t Be Done

Is it possible to teach modals separately, one by one? Of course, you could, but why? Their uses and meanings tend to overlap, so it makes sense to teach modals together in small sets, for example, may and might for possibilities. However, it’s very likely that at least one student will ask a question such as, “What about can or could? Don’t they show possibilities?” Then as you begin to address the overlap and subtle differences, the scope of the lesson broadens. I almost always end up focusing on certainty or necessity and look at a few different modal verbs. I guide students to understand varying degrees of strength, noting important changes in meaning, like may vs. may not.

Semi-modals and related verbs are hard to avoid in these lessons. In my most recent grammar lesson on YouTube, I address similarities and differences between need to, have to, and must. I steer clear of certainty and focus solely on necessity. I briefly review structures, setting must apart from the other two verbs that conjugate. But the majority of the lesson explores and illustrates the uses and possible contexts for these three verbs. I acknowledge plenty of overlap and highlight distinctions when possible. In the end, a few dozen examples is still not enough for mastery. Students need the opportunity to put the grammar into use and gain teacher feedback, which I’ve been able to provide for those who complete my tasks on social media. You can offer practice as well with either my suggested tasks (see previous post with PDF handout) or your own.

The one exception for teaching modals in isolation is exploring a very specific difference, such as could do vs. could have done. (See the follow-up post on that topic.) This kind of discussion takes time. Yet even then, a learner might be curious about similar patterns with other modals: would do vs. would have done, etc. How do you approach modal verbs? Feel free to share ideas.

Looking towards January, I hope to explore modal verbs more with my online learners and offer meaningful practice. I’m already gathering my thoughts on the topic of ability. At first glance, this seems easy to teach.  We use can for the present and could for the past, right? “I can play this song on the piano now because I’ve practiced. I couldn’t play it a few months ago.” Simple. Right? But what I anticipate is an overlap in meaning between ability and possibility.

Once we start thinking about requests and expressions of annoyance, it’s not longer so easy to distinguish between ability and possibility.

– Could you help me with my homework later tonight?
Does that mean could is used for the future? – Yes, for requests.

– How can you think that? How could you do such a thing?
Do both can and could question someone’s ability to act a certain way? – Yes.
And do can and could also question how something is possible? – Yes.

– I haven’t been able to finish that project. 
Does be able to also refer to ability or possibility? – I’d argue it can refer to both.

When more than one verb allows us to express the same meaning, students want to know if it makes a difference which one they choose.  Compared to be able to, the modal can has broader use. I have yet to find confirmation, but one feeling I have is that be able to helps us express greater effort expended. For example, in a particularly challenging situation, like reaching the summit of a tall mountain, I’d use be able toWe were able to make the climb in four hours. In the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online, it’s interesting to read the examples from the corpus and consider when substitution is possible. When is either could or be able to possible? Perhaps general ability allows for either, but a single concerted effort calls for be able to. Would you agree?

What distinctions do you make between can, could, and be able to?

Photo credit:
Sport, Fitness, Training, Sporty by 5132824. Retrieved from the Public Domain at https://pixabay.com/en/sport-fitness-training-sporty-2262083/.


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