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…

The Need to Learn by Doing

A student recently asked about the differences between need to, have to, and must. Sometimes an explanation clarifies such doubts, but often one learns much better through practice with some feedback. If you’d like short sets of tasks to study differences in structure and meaning, check out my Need to.Have to.Must_handout. Key points include: – Need to expresses what…

Student Stumper 47: Can’t Have and Couldn’t Have

How could I have thought there wouldn’t be another tricky question about perfect modal verbs? Modals and their many meanings stump us teachers from time to time. It’s easy enough to explain the basics, but part of the challenge is understanding where there’s overlap and where there isn’t. I addressed one question regarding perfect modals…

Student Stumper 33: Is “would” more polite than “could”?

QUESTION: What’s the difference between would and could? ANSWER: This question was posted on my forum, and it began a discussion on modals. I first explored differences in meaning. I listed uses of would, including future in the past (You promised you would tell me!) and habitual past (When I was a child, I would ask…

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…

Magic, Mysteries, and Modals

Upon my return from my vacation, a YouTube viewer did me the favor of selecting my next video topic. The viewer did not merely request a language point, but also suggested a theme. Many have asked me to make videos on modal verbs, but this was the first request for the perfect aspect, namely must have…

Smart Ideas for Using Dumb Laws and Warnings for Language Instruction

I hadn’t visited the Dumb Laws and Dumb Warnings sites for a number of years. I recently took a look and recalled both the potential laughs and lessons that can be found there. There’s an entire Dumb Network that includes sites with silly photos, quotes, facts, and more. Consider the possibilities: Dumb Laws     Use laws…

Student Stumper 21: May vs. Might

QUESTION: Is it true that the only difference between MAY and MIGHT is that MAY is stronger? ANSWER:  Yes, but only when we’re talking about possibilities. I may get my work done early if I don’t run into any trouble. This suggests it’s possible that I’ll finish early. Compare: If the computer screen stops freezing…

What’s a Must When Teaching “Must” and “Have To”?

At the request of a fellow teacher, I’m going to review and expand on a posting I shared about one year ago titled Teaching Modal Verbs: Function, Strength, and Formality. This time around, I’d like to focus specifically on must and the modal-like expression have to. Points to cover when teaching must and have to:…

Let’s Talk about that Lesser Used Modal Verb, Shall We?

Every so often I get asked by students about the modal verb shall. It seems like its mention in U.S.-published grammar books is little more than a brief note tacked on to the main presentation. As a result, I feel inclined to remark that in American English the use of shall is very limited, and…

Student Stumper 6: The Wh- Infinitive in Indirect Speech

QUESTION:  If the reported statement is he asked me when to come, what was the original statement? “When to come?” Can I ask that? ANSWER:   No. When to come? is not a grammatically correct question. The original statement was probably when should I come? It could also have been what time do you want…