Coulda Woulda Shoulda – Teaching Modals

I don’t do a lot of posts on grammar teaching, mostly because I don’t do a lot of grammar teaching. (You can see my views on that here.) This post is no exception, really, because it’s more about materials design than grammar. My view on materials design is that, if we want students to be able to use English, good materials should provide comprehensible input that includes the language they intend to teach, and good activity design should ensure that students use that language meaningfully.
In other words, I believe our true learning objective is language proficiency, and that, in order to achieve that, students need comprehensible input and meaningful use of the language.


Working with these ideas, I’m consulting with teachers in Gujarat to design new English-medium textbooks and also teaching a materials design class to MA-ELT students at H.M.Patel Institute of English Training and Research. The class is in preparation for fulfillment of a grant project, called MEET, Mobile Education for English Teachers, where we’ll design and distribute teaching demos and materials to rural school teachers via mobile phone MicroSDs. We’ll post some of the videos that we make demonstrating our activities here and on Facebook.
I’d like to use an example of an activity for teaching modals to illustrate some of my ideas on materials and activity design. Let’s begin by looking at some of the old ways of teaching them. In going through the lesson plans of pre-service teachers and many old versions of textbooks, I’ve seen, quite a few times, modals taught in the following way:
Fill in the blanks with should or shouldn’t.
We _______ study our lessons.   We _______ spit on the floor.
We _______ take exercise to stay healthy.   We _______ eat too much junk food.
They are also sometimes shown this way:
Tick True or False.
True    False    We should study our lessons.
True    False    We shouldn’t spit on the floor.
You get the idea. Never mind the idea that “should” statements aren’t really either true or false. Every school child knows the “correct” answer. Let’s just focus on the language shown and the amount of the language used.
There’s very little shown, obviously. I’ve seen other activities that show “can” and “can’t” in the same way, but, although they must exist, I haven’t seen any treatment of more modals than these. I also haven’t seen any activities that show more than a negative/positive treatment of them. Again, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Even if they do, it’s still cause for concern, because I’ve seen these particular activities labeled as “teaching modals” without any acknowledgement that they are really only showing one modal and really only demonstrating the significance of the contraction, “n’t.”
So the first thing we might want to think about is whether the materials/activity really teaches modals. As it is, I’d have to say no, it doesn’t.
The second thing I’d like to focus on is the lack of language use. Fill-in-the-blanks exercises seem to be much beloved in the textbooks but, if we are not careful, all we teach our students is how to fill in blanks. Given the well-worn content of these sentences, I’d argue that students don’t even receive much input, much less get a chance to make and negotiate meaning with these exercises.
First let’s think about our teaching objective: to help students use modals meaningfully. In my opinion, the most salient feature of modals is not the positive/negative distinction that can be made with one of them, rather, it’s the shades of meaning that modals carry.
Students should know that the choice of modal completely changes the meaning of the sentence.
For example, if Jitendra calls his wife, Lekshmi, about his dinner plans, Lekshmi will be keenly interested in the different meanings of these sentences:
Jitendra must leave work early today.
Jitendra should leave work early today.
Jitendra can leave work early today.
Jitendra might leave work early today.
Once students are familiar with the basic concept of modals and the major meanings for each one, we can design an activity that points out the salient features of modals while encouraging students to use the language meaningfully.
The sample I’ve provided allows students to work in pairs to create their own dialog. The modals are provided so that students do not need to be overly-concerned with form as they work together to negotiate the meaning intended by the different modals. Stage directions help set the context for each modal’s use. Students enjoy making their version of this story humorous and enjoy sharing their unique story with classmates afterwards. Although the exercise doesn’t require students to write the modals, it provides plenty of practice for using them in meaningful context after they’ve written the dialogs themselves.
Help your students learn to use modals meaningfully. Download the prepared dialog for your classroom use.
This type of activity has some distinct advantages for teachers. It is far easier for the teacher to write this sort of dialog correctly than it is to write good fill-in-the-blank-with-modal exercises. Because fill-in-the-blank-with-modal sentences are inherently ambiguous, writing such a sentence that truly has only one correct answer is very difficult. The exercise is likely to be a poor model of language use and, unfortunately, a poorly written model will confuse the strong student who recognizes there are legitimate alternatives even more than it will a weak student. Another advantage to teachers is that this activity can be expanded to allow more language use across lessons as students first write, then share in groups, then act out for the class their dialogs.
If you think your friends might find this useful, hit the Like button to share it. If you’d like to contribute to our materials design discussion or project, like our Facebook page. If you use this activity or think of interesting alternatives, please share your ideas here as well.

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