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How to Teach Modal Verbs (With Examples)

Teaching modal verbs is essential for learning English well. These verbs, like “can,” “might,” and “should,” help us make sentences that make sense and sound right. This comprehensive guide will show you easy ways to teach modal verbs. It will help your students get better at using these verbs in casual conversations and in more formal, professional settings. Keep reading to learn how to teach model verbs.

What are Modal Verbs?

Modal verbs are helping verbs that present ability (can, could), possibility (may, could, can, might), obligation (should, must, have to), and request (could, would, must). This type of verb is used to express perspective and hypothetical conditions such as advisability, capability, and request.

Modal verbs are used together with a main verb to show a reader or listener its meaning. In addition, since these verbs are auxiliary verbs, they’re also used together with the infinitive form of the main verb in a sentence.

Here’s an example to help clarify the definition:

I go to the beach once a month.

I can go to the beach once month.

The initial example is a straightforward factual statement. The speaker travels to the beach once a month.

The second example includes the modal verb can. From there, you’ll see that the meaning of the statement slightly changes. The speaker doesn’t necessarily go to the beach every month but they’re saying that they are capable of going to the beach every month. It can also be inferred that it’s possible for them to go to the beach every month, making it hypothetical.

There are a lot of modal verbs that are used everyday when communicating in English. Here are some of the most common:

can should
may would
might will
could must

Aside from the common modal verbs listed in the table above, there are less frequently used modal verbs as well, such as “shall” and “ought”. In some cases, there are some verbs that can act as both main verbs and modal verbs in phrases. Examples include “got to,” “need to,” and “have to.” In addition, modal verbs such as “dare” (used in challenges or hesitant inquiry) and “used to” (used for past actions) are some of the rarely used modal verbs since they have very specific uses.

View all of our Verb Worksheets

Teaching Modal Verbs

Modal verbs, like “can,” “must,” and “might,” are important in English. They help us say how sure we are about something, ask for things, or say what we need to do. When teaching these verbs, it’s good to show how they are used with other verbs to make sentences. For example, we say “can go,” not “can goes.” It’s also helpful to give examples of when to use each modal verb, because each one has a different meaning.

When do we use Modal Verbs

To perfectly grasp the idea of how modal verbs are used, we first must understand what kind of special conditions these verbs are used:

Expressing Likelihood

In cases that something seems likely to be true but cannot be defined as a fact, modal verbs such asshould” and must” can be used to show probability without certainty.

Here are some examples:

modal verbs

Indicating Possibility

In circumstances where an outcome is uncertain, you can use the modal verbs “could,” “may,” or “might” to express this uncertainty.

Here are some examples:

modal verbs

Showing Ability

The modal verb “can” is used to indicate if someone has the ability to do something. On the other hand, “cannot” or “can’t” is used to express the inability to do that thing.

Here are some examples:

modal verbs

Asking for Permission

Start questions with “can,” “may,” or “could” if you’re looking to ask for permission to do something. Traditionally, the usage of the modal verb “may” is seen as formal or polite compared to using the modal verb “can” as the latter can be confused to questioning your ability to do something. However, in modern and less formal situations, the usage of both “may” and “can” is widely accepted to ask permission or to indicate possibility.

Here are some examples:

modal verbs

Tendering a Request

In conjunction with the condition of permission, if you’re looking to ask somebody else to do something, beginning your question with the modal verbs “will,” “would,” “can,” and “could” would indicate that you’re trying to make a request.

Here are some examples:

modal verbs

Providing Suggestions

Want to recommend something but don’t want to appear pushy? Use the modal verb “should” to provide suggestions without sounding commanding.

Here an example:

modal verbs

Issuing a Command/Obligation

To sound absolute or to express an action such as a duty or requirement, use the modal verbs “must,” “have,” and “need”.

Note that the modal verbs “have” and “need” retain the word “to” in the sentence structure. This will help maintain the commanding nature of the sentence.

Here are some examples (Command):

modal verbs

Here are some examples (Obligation):

modal verbs

Describing a Habit

To show an ongoing activity or something a subject does regularly, use the modal verb “would” for the past tense, and “will” for the present and future tenses. The rarely used phrase “used to” could also be used if we will be talking about a habit in the past.

Here are some examples:

modal verbs

How to use Modal Verbs

Usage of modal verbs in sentences is pretty simple. For basic sentences in the simple present tense, follow these rules:

  • With modal verbs, use the infinitive form of the main verb. With most but not all modal verbs, “to” is dropped from the infinitive.
  • When using modal verbs, pair them with the main verb in its infinitive form, generally without the word “to.” However, in some cases with certain modal verbs, “to” is retained in the infinitive.

With that said, if someone wants to tell people about their ability to eat 3 cheeseburgers in 30 minutes, use the modal verb “can” before the infinitive form of the word “eat” without the usage of the word “to.”

Here’s an example:

modal verbs

Now, if someone wants to tell people about the condition required to eat 3 cheeseburgers in 30 minutes, you can use the modal verb “have” before the infinitive form of the word “eat” with the addition of the word “to.”

Here’s an example:

modal verbs

In forming yes/no questions with modal verbs, the modal verb comes first, followed by the subject, and then the main verb in its base form without “to.” 

Formula: [modal verb] + [subject] + [main verb infinitive]

Here are some examples:

modal verbs

For the second example, since the verb “have” can sometimes function as a helping verb or sometimes function as a main verb, the question is written with the helping verb “do” in the beginning of the sentence.

Modal verbs are mainly used in hypothetical situations that haven’t happened yet, be it in present or the future. Most of these verbs don’t change form for different tenses, and only a few can directly refer to the past. Although this is the case, modal verbs can still be used with different forms of main verbs to indicate varied times such as the present, past, or the future. This flexibility allows for a range of expressions about time in sentences, especially when considering verb tenses alongside modal verbs.

Present Tenses

Apart from using modal verbs in the simple present tense (as discussed above), these verbs can be used in present continuous and present perfect continuous tenses as well.

Present continuous

When constructing a sentence with a modal verb for continuous actions, place “be” after the modal verb, followed by the main verb in its “-ing” form.

Formula: [modal verb] + “be” + [main verb in “-ing” form]

Here’s an example:

modal verbs

Present perfect continuous

When using a modal verb with a main verb in the present perfect continuous tense, the structure remains largely the same. However, it’s important to use “have been” with the main verb, not “had been,” regardless of the subject’s grammatical person (including third-person). This rule maintains the present perfect continuous aspect even when a modal verb is introduced.

Formula: [modal verb] + have been + [main verb in -ing form]

Here’s an example:

modal verbs

Simple past and present perfect tenses

Using modal verbs in the simple past and present perfect tenses can be a little bit tricky. These tenses show actions done in the past but are directly related to the present.

Only a few of the common modal verbs can refer to past time: “could,” “might,” “should,” and “would.” These verbs act as the past tense forms of “can,” “may,” “shall,” and “will” respectively.

It’s important to remember that modal verbs like “could,” “might,” “should,” and “would” are not just for the past. They can mean different things in the present and future, like asking for permission or talking about what might happen. But, these modal verbs don’t fit into every kind of past tense, especially not the past perfect, past continuous, or past perfect continuous.

Simple past

Among the common modal verbs, only “can” and “will” are typically used to refer to the past in a simple form. The phrases “have to” and “need to” can also talk about the past when they’re changed to “had to” and “needed to.” For other modal verbs, the present perfect tense is commonly used to describe past events.

In their past tense forms, “can” and “will” become “could” and “would,” respectively. When used, they are followed by the infinitive form of the main verb without “to,” similar to how they function in the present tense. So, it’s “could/would” followed by the base form of the verb.

Formula: could/would + [main verb infinitive]

Here are some examples:

modal verbs

Present perfect

To construct the present perfect tense with modal verbs like “could,” “might,” “should,” or “would,” pair these verbs with the present perfect form of the main verb. This involves using “have” along with the past participle of the main verb.

Remember: For third-person subjects, always use “have” and not “has” in this structure.

Formula: could/might/should/would + have + [main verb past participle]

Here are some examples:

modal verbs

Future tenses

Since main verbs in future tenses like simple future, future continuous, future perfect, and future perfect continuous are already formed using the modal verb “will,” adding another modal verb to express likelihood, permission, or other conditions for future actions is often unnecessary. Instead, these ideas are better conveyed using different methods or expressions.

Let’s say you want to express the likelihood of an event happening in the future.

Instead of saying “He will might go to the concert,” which is incorrect due to the redundancy of “will” and “might,” you could say: “He is likely to go to the concert.”

This sentence expresses the future likelihood without the need for an additional modal verb.

In certain scenarios, a modal verb other than “will” can be used to discuss future events. In these situations, the new modal verb simply takes the place of “will” in the sentence structure, and the main verb is used in the same form as it would be with “will.”

Here are some examples:

modal verbs

Modal Verbs Exercises

Here are some exercises that can help teaching modal verbs to students.

Fill in the blanks exercise:

Instructions: Fill in the blanks with the appropriate modal verb from the options given: “can,” “could,” “may,” “might,” “must,” “shall,” “should,” “will,” “would.”
1.) You ___________ turn off the lights before leaving.
2.) ___________ I borrow your pencil?
3.) He ___________ be at the library; I saw his car there.
4.) ___________ you please pass the salt?
5.) They ___________ come to the party if they finish work on time.
6.) I ___________ swim when I was five years old.
7.) You ___________ visit the doctor if the pain continues.
8.) We ___________ have a meeting tomorrow to discuss the project.
9.) She ___________ not enter the competition if she’s not confident.
10.) ___________ I help you with your luggage?
Answer key:
1.) You must turn off the lights before leaving.
2.) May I borrow your pencil?
3.) He could be at the library; I saw his car there.
4.) Would you please pass the salt?
5.) They might come to the party if they finish work on time.
6.) I could swim when I was five years old.
7.) You should visit the doctor if the pain continues.
8.) We will have a meeting tomorrow to discuss the project.
9.) She should not enter the competition if she’s not confident.
10.) Shall I help you with your luggage?

Error correction exercise:

Instructions: Below are sentences where modal verbs have been used incorrectly. Identify the error and correct it. Number 1 is done for you as an example.
1. She can to drive to work if her car is fixed. 1. She can drive to work if her car is fixed.
2. They must studies harder to pass the exam. 2.
3. You will to finish your homework by tonight. 3.
4. We might goes to the beach this weekend. 4.
5. He should to call his mother on her birthday. 5.
6. They might to leave early if the meeting ends soon. 6.
7. Can she swims across the lake? 7.
8. I must to finish this report by tomorrow. 8.
9. Would you likes some coffee? 9.
10. She may to be the best candidate for the job. 10.
Answer key:
1. She can drive to work if her car is fixed.
2. They must study harder to pass the exam.
3. You will finish your homework by tonight.
4. We might go to the beach this weekend.
5. He should call his mother on her birthday.
6. They might leave early if the meeting ends soon.
7. Can she swim across the lake?
8. I must finish this report by tomorrow.
9. Would you like some coffee?
10. She may be the best candidate for the job.

Final Thoughts on Teaching Modal Verbs to Your Students

Teaching modal verbs effectively is crucial for enhancing students’ language skills, especially when it comes to expressing nuances such as possibility, ability, and necessity. These verbs add a layer of sophistication to language use, allowing students to convey subtleties in mood, tone, and intention.

Utilizing resources like EnglishLearningByPro, which offers accessible and flexible materials, enables teachers to customize their teaching strategies to suit the varied needs of their students. The ultimate aim is to enable students to confidently utilize helping verbs, thereby enhancing their communication skills in both spoken and written English.

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John Bart
Author: John Bart

I am the co-owner of englishlearningbypro.com, a community built specifically for English teachers around the world trying to make a living teaching English. I have lived in Brazil for four years and had previously taught private English classes for three years. I am passionate about helping others, and making English teaching and learning easier.

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