Professional Development

About Language activity #3: Modals

Scott Thornbury

This is the third article in our new Teacher Development series (#TDWednesday) where we’ll be sharing activities from Scott Thornbury’s new title, About Language Second Edition! This week, we’re focusing on Modals.

Modals, or if we use their full name, modal auxiliary verbs (must, shall, will, should, would, can, could, may, and might) can, could, may or might cause muddles and confusion for us and our students! How many times have you taught modals and been asked questions such as, ‘But isn’t ‘may’ the same as ‘might’?’

As Parrott (2010, 152) observes, learners often find modals verbs to be particularly difficult partly due to the fact that they have problems in ‘choosing when to use them’ and ‘choosing which ones to use’ (ibid.). Especially as most modal verbs have multiple meanings and functions and it’s only clear from the context which meaning is intended (ibid., p. 156).

In this activity, Scott encourages us to consider this ambiguity in terms of ‘logical’ or ‘personal’ meanings through some real-world examples he has gathered. Work through the task below, and consider the following questions:

  • In what ways could these categories of ‘logical’ and ‘personal’ be useful when considering modals?
  • How could using these categories help your learners to choose which modals to use and when more easily? For example, in what ways could they deepen understanding of the core modal concepts of certainty, obligation and permission?
  • In what ways could these categories help when explaining the differences between modals which can often seem very similar in meaning. For example, ‘may’ and ‘might’?

Two types of meaning

Out of context, modal sentences can be ambiguous. Consider, for example, these three sentences:

•       She may run.

•       He should be home.

•       They could’ve phoned.

a – Identify at least two different meanings that each one could have.

The ambiguity results from the fact that every modal auxiliary expresses at least two meanings:

  • All modals can be used to talk about probability/possibility, e.g. She may run, but it depends on the weather = it’s possible. These are sometimes called ‘logical’ meanings.
  • Each modal has another set of particular meanings which may be loosely classed as relating to human wishes, abilities and obligations, e.g. She may run, but not on the highway, please = she has permission. These are sometimes called ‘personal’ meanings.


b – Look at these signs. Identify the modal verb in each case. What kind of meaning – logical or personal – is conveyed, in each case?


Modal meanings

Now, see if you can complete this chart either with examples, meaning categories or the missing modal verb. Note that the logical meanings are listed before the personal ones.

To delve further into modals, read the key and commentary for activities 4 and 5!

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy last week’s activity, all about lexical aspect. Keep your eye out for next week’s post where we will be looking at spoken interaction



Parrott, M. (2010) Grammar for English Language Teachers Second Edition Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, chapter 11


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