10 Fun ESL Activities to Practice Modal Auxiliary Verbs

Modal Auxiliary Verbs - Ability

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I can't reach | Source

Below is a list of fun activities for your ESL students to practice Modal Auxiliary Verbs.

These special verbs are used to communicate suggestions, offers, ability, possibility, certainty, advice, necessity, invitations and permission.

Some are more formal than others; many can mean the same thing; with others you have to be careful because the modals change the meaning of the sentence.

Modal Auxiliary Verbs

*Note some modal auxiliary verbs have a specific use in the past, but I have not included them in this chart.
*Note some modal auxiliary verbs have a specific use in the past, but I have not included them in this chart. | Source

Here are a few rules:

  • They do not take an s on the third person singular.
  • They are followed by a verb in its base form without the to.
  • Some can refer to the present or the future at the same time (without using will).
  • None of them can be used without a main verb.

Other Modal Auxiliary Verbs include: Have to, Need to, To Be Able, and Shall.

Modal: Can/To Be Able To

Giraffes can’t dance.

Usage: Ability

1. Look for some wacky and unusual stories from the internet such as the woman who lifted a car, 20 times her weight, to free her trapped friend. Or look at the Guinness Book of Records to find some seemingly impossible feats such as licking your own elbow or tickling yourself. Encourage a discussion about the chances of these things happening using may/might/could/are able to.

2. Put students into pairs – the interviewer and the interviewee. Tell the interviewers that they really don’t want to give this job to their current candidate, so they must try to think of increasingly difficult questions to pose to the candidate about their abilities, e.g. Can you do two things at once? How many words can you type a minute? Can you speak four languages?...etc.

Modal: Might/May/Could

Jamie might come to the party.

Usage: Possibility

3. Ask students to bring in 10 random objects each. Place them in a large bag. Some can be easy to guess - like a spoon, but make sure some are more difficult to guess, e.g. a small strangely shaped toy. Bags are given out to different students and they write down what they think the items are. Have a discussion at the end about what they could/may/might be.

4. Pair students – one is a journalist and the other a famous actor’s manager. Give them both diaries and tell the journalist to try to schedule an interview that will take about 2 hours. Tell the manager to be cagey about the actor’s free time. The journalist should try to make an appointment during the week and the manager should rebuff him/her with phrases such as: “You could come on Friday morning, but only for 15 minutes”, or “He might have time Monday at 3 pm, but only for an hour”. Finally, there should be a 2 hour slot in the diary and only when the journalist guesses it can the appointment be made.

Modal Verbs

Modal: Should/Ought to

You really should visit the dentist.

Usage: Advice

5. Look for short Agony Aunt Problems on the internet. Print them out and distribute them to the students. Or invent some. Ask the students in pairs to think of resolutions to the problems and talk about the advice they have given.

6. Get students to write personal problems on a slip of paper. They do not write their names on the paper so the problems remain anonymous. Put them into a hat and mix them up. Each student then chooses a problem and must write a piece of advice in response. Then they read out the problem and the answer.


Modal: Must

I must study.

Usage: Obligation/Prohibition

7. Split class into groups of 4. Give them the names of places e.g. petrol station, football stadium, hospital, jail, school…etc. They must write the rules for 1 place and then read out the rules to the rest of the class. The other groups must try to guess the location from listening to the rules.

8. In pairs ask students to imagine a perfect society. They must then write the rules for their Utopia. Place the rules on the wall and the class votes for their favourite society. Or ask students to read their rules and have a vote instead.

Modal: May/Could

May I use your phone?

Usage: Polite request

9. In pairs get the students to role-play a scene with a principal and a new student. They are going through the rules of the school. The head should tell the student what they may or may not do and the student should also ask questions, e.g. May I leave an exam early?

10. Put students into pairs. One is a parent and the other is a son/daughter. The offspring has behaved badly in the recent past, but wants to go to a rock concert, so must be extremely polite about how she acts. She will need to borrow the car, get some money, get permission to go, book the tickets with her parents credit card…etc. She must politely ask for all these things. The parent can consent if she agrees to do some chores.

© 2013 Muttface

Comments 3 comments

Shinkicker profile image

Shinkicker 23 months ago from Scotland

Nice examples with imagination. I've borrowed a few to use with a student.

Voted up

Muttface profile image

Muttface 23 months ago from Portugal Author

Cheers Shinkicker!

Peter 3 weeks ago

Thanks for the creativity. Simple.

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