Grammar time! How about some modal activities for adult ESL students? Years ago, after hearing a co-worker complain about how much they hated teaching modals, I decided right then to make it one of the most fun things for my students to learn. No, I wasn’t trying to show up my co-worker; I figured that if my students were having fun, I’d be having fun. (That totally worked!)
So, if you’re looking for creative and effective modal activities to help your students have FUN while learning modals, a rather important part of the English language, you’ve come to the right place. Modals are vital in English, and we use them to express many concepts, including necessity, obligation, permission, ability, possibility, advice, and the future.
And yes, it’s possible to have worksheets that make learning about modals fun, but you likely don’t want to stick with just that. So, keep reading to learn about eight exciting and interactive modal activities that will help your adult ESL students improve their skills with modals and use them confidently and accurately.
Quick Intro to Modals
Modals are like magic words for your sentences! They’re auxiliary verbs that help convey meaning, like the necessity or ability to do something. For example, can shows that you’re able to do something, like speak a language. Must means doing something, like finishing a report by tomorrow, is not a choice. Grasping the different ways to use modals and when to use them in different situations is essential for adult English language learners. With practice and exposure to real-life language usage, adult learners can get better at using modals accurately and confidently. And what better way to give them that practice than with some fun yet practical modal activities?
Modals of Necessity: you need them in your life
We use modals of necessity to express a requirement or obligation. Such modals include must, have to, and need to. When we want to convey a sense of urgency or importance, we use these modals.
- I must finish this report by tomorrow means that it is necessary or required for the speaker to complete the report by the specified deadline. Perhaps a promotion hinges on its completion.
- She has to go to the store. She doesn’t have a say in this–skipping the store is not an option. Maybe she’s out of an ingredient needed for dinner, ran out of toilet paper, or needs a tool to repair something. The modal shows the necessity of the action.
- I need to eat something. The speaker needs to eat to satisfy their hunger. Perhaps they’re hangry, starting to feel light-headed, or having low blood sugar problems. Regardless, eating is not an option but a necessity.
Your adult ESL students need to understand how to use modals of necessity correctly and when to use them in different situations. Use the following modal activity to provide an opportunity for students to practice using modals of necessity in various scenarios.
Modal Activities: Must, Have to, Need to Scenarios
To practice using modals of necessity, try this activity with your students:
Create a list of scenarios that require the use of modals of necessity. For example:
- You forgot your keys and need to get into your apartment.
- You are running late for an important meeting.
- You have a headache and need to take some medicine.
- You need to submit a report to your boss by tomorrow.
- There is a disgusting odor coming from your bathroom that you need to eliminate.
Divide the class into pairs or small groups of 3-4 students. Give each group a copy of the list of scenarios. Then, have each group discuss the appropriate modal to use in each scenario. Encourage them to use complete sentences to explain their reasoning. For example:
- I must call a locksmith to get into my apartment.
- I have to hurry to make it to my meeting on time.
- I need to take some ibuprofen to relieve my headache.
- I must submit my report by tomorrow or face the consequences.
- I have to open a window or turn on an exhaust fan to freshen the air.
After each group has had a chance to discuss their answers, bring the class back together for a whole-class discussion. Ask each group to share their responses and the reasoning behind their choices.
As a class, discuss the different modals used and why they were chosen. Emphasize the importance of using the correct modal to convey the necessary meaning.
Repeat the activity with additional lists of scenarios, or have students create their own scenarios to present to the class. Consider having students use both positive and negative sentences with the modals. For example: I must call a locksmith to get into my apartment. I must not panic and call 911.
As an extension, you could also have students create role-play scenarios in which they must use modals of necessity. For example, one student could be a doctor prescribing medication to a patient, and the other could be the patient asking questions about the medicine.
Encourage students to use the modals correctly and to provide clear explanations for their choices. You can also provide additional examples and explanations as needed to help students understand the different uses of modals of necessity.
Modal activities are a great way to practice using modals of necessity in context, and they encourage students to think critically about their language choices and to explain their reasoning. By working in pairs or small groups, students also have the opportunity to practice speaking and listening skills and work on their accuracy and fluency with modals.
Modals of Obligation: Do you have to use them? (ugh, fine.)
Modals of obligation are used to express a requirement or duty. They include have to, must, and should. Did you notice that overlap? Some modals can convey more than one meaning–make sure your students know that.
Wait, what’s the difference between obligation and necessity? These two words are related, but they don’t share the same exact meaning. Both involve a sense of duty or requirement, but with obligation, you’re more likely to have a moral or legal aspect, while necessity is more focused on practicality and essentiality.
Modals of obligation are often used to convey a sense of responsibility or a sense of what is expected morally or legally in a given situation.
- You have to obey the speed limit means that the listener is required to follow that law. It’s necessary for safety.
- You must not mow your lawn at 3 am means that it is required or necessary for the listener to avoid annoying their neighbors and/or going against city code.
- He should respect others’ opinions means respecting the opinions of others is a duty or responsibility based on moral principles or societal norms.
When your adult ESL students sharpen their skills in using modals of obligation, they’ll be able to communicate more accurately and confidently. The following activity offers them a chance to hone their usage of these modals in a variety of real-life decision-making scenarios.
Modal Activities: Should, Have to, Must Decision-Making
To practice using modals of obligation, try this activity with your students:
Create a list of decisions that require the use of modals of obligation. For example:
- You have wrongly accused someone and want to make amends.
- You got caught in a lie and want to confess the truth.
- You received a payment you were not entitled to.
- You found a wallet full of cash.
- You witnessed a crime.
- Someone has trusted you with confidential information.
Split the class into pairs or small groups and have them brainstorm the perfect modal for each scenario, using complete sentences to back up their choices. Then, come together as a class to discuss the modals that were selected and the reasoning behind their use. Having students come together to discuss after participating in modal activities helps embed modal meanings into their grammar souls. Okay, maybe it doesn’t go that far, but do it anyway. 🙂
Modals of Permission: the fine art of asking for what you want
Modals of permission are used to express permission to do something. They include can, could, and may. These modals are often used to request permission or to offer permission to do something.
- Can I borrow your pen? means that the speaker is requesting permission to borrow the pen. I usually warn my students about this one because “can” didn’t use to express permission–only ability. I still remember a high school teacher snarkily replying to a student’s request to sharpen their pencil: “I don’t know. Do you possess the ability to stand up, walk to the sharpener, and use it correctly? Let’s see. Demonstrate for us.”
- You could borrow my car if you need it means that the speaker is offering permission for the listener to borrow their car.
- You may use my computer to print your document means that the speaker is giving permission for the listener to use their computer for the specified purpose.
Now let’s get to some modal activities to give your adult ESL students the chance to put their skills to the test and apply their understanding of modals of permission!
Modal Activities: Can, Could, May Permission Scenarios
To practice using modals of permission, try this modals activity with your students:
Create a list of scenarios that require the use of modals of permission. For example:
- You want to borrow your friend’s car.
- You want to bring a guest to a party.
- You want to use someone else’s WiFi network.
- You want to borrow a ladder from your neighbor.
In pairs or small groups, students discuss which modal is the best fit for each situation and provide full sentences to support their reasoning. Then, come together as a class to share sentences and reasoning.
Modal Activities: Can, Could, May Permission Role-Play
For a more interactive and dynamic way to practice using modals of permission, try this role-play activity:
Divide the class into pairs or small groups. Have one student in each group play the role of a person requesting permission while the other student(s) play the part of the person granting or denying permission. Provide each group with a scenario that requires the use of modals of permission. For example:
- You want to borrow your neighbor’s lawn mower.
- You want to borrow a strand of your co-worker’s hair to complete a science experiment.
- You want to use your neighbor’s pool to host a pool noodle sword-fighting tournament.
Time to play pretend! Have the students act out a conversation where one person asks for permission using modals of permission, and the other grants or denies it, using full sentences to justify their response. Role plays aren’t just for modal activities! You can tweak this and use it for a lot of grammar concepts.
Modals of Ability: when you want to brag (just a little bit)
Modals of ability are used to express the ability to do something. They include can, could, and be able to. We often use these modals to describe a person’s skills or abilities.
- I can speak Spanish means that the speaker has the ability to speak Spanish.
- I could swim when I was a child means that the speaker had the ability to swim in the past but may not have that ability now.
- I will be able to swim again once I take some lessons means that the speaker will have the ability to swim in the future.
With the following activity, your adult ESL students can flex their modal muscles and showcase their ability to use modals of ability accurately and confidently in a variety of situations (and possibly even impress their friends).
Modal Activities: Can, Could, Be Able To Ability Quiz
To practice using modals of ability, try this activity with your students:
Create a quiz with a list of statements about yourself or someone else that the students are familiar with that require the use of modals of ability. For example:
- I can knit with my eyes closed.
- I could speak French when I was younger.
- I will be able to run a marathon next year.
Have students work in pairs or small groups to decide if each statement is true or false. Encourage them to explain their reasoning and to use full sentences. Then, as a class, talk about the various modals that were used and the reasoning behind their selection. Highlight the significance of using the right modal to communicate the required message clearly.
Modals of Possibility: when you’re on the fence (and just want to stay there)
We use modals of possibility to express the likelihood or possibility of something happening. These modals include may, might, could, can, shall, and should. They are often used to speculate, make predictions, or describe an uncertain current or past situation.
- It may rain tomorrow means that there is a possibility that it will rain tomorrow. There is an equal possibility that it won’t.
- I might go to the concert if I can get tickets means that there is a possibility that the speaker will go to the concert, depending on whether they are able to obtain tickets. Might denotes more uncertainty than may and makes the possibility more remote.
- She could have been at the store means that there is a possibility that the person was at the store, but the speaker is uncertain.
- You should be able to find the information on their website. This expresses a probability or expected possibility, along with indicating a recommendation.
The following modal activity offers a chance for students to test their understanding of modals of possibility.
Modal Activities: May, Might, Could, Possibility Statements
To practice using modals of possibility, try this activity with your students:
Create a list of statements that require the use of modals of possibility. For example:
- It may rain tomorrow.
- She might arrive late.
- He could have forgotten his wallet.
- The bus should arrive within a few minutes.
- I might turn into a superhero if I eat enough spinach.
- They could be planning a surprise party at the office.
- He may be practicing his karaoke skills in the shower.
- She might be attempting to teach her cat to do tricks.
- If everything goes according to plan, we should weather the storm just fine.
Divide the class into pairs or small groups and have them talk about the probability of each statement being true, providing full sentences to justify their reasoning. Then, come back together as a class to discuss the justifications made.
Modals of Advice: when you want to be helpful (but not overly pushy)
We use modals of advice to offer guidance, recommendations or suggestions. These modals convey the speaker’s opinion about what they believe is the right or wise thing to do in a given situation. They include should, ought to, and had better. These modals are often used to offer guidance or to provide suggestions for what is best or most appropriate in a given situation.
Modals of advice are more assertive and direct than those of suggestion, giving specific recommendations or opinions on what should be done.
- You should start exercising regularly shows the speaker believes exercising regularly is the right or sensible action for someone to take to improve their health.
- You ought to apologize for your mistake emphasizes what the speaker believes is the morally right thing to do.
- You had better not be late for the interview expresses a strong warning or strong advice. The speaker is implying potential negative consequences if the advice isn’t taken.
Try the following activity to give your adult ESL students the chance to put their skills to the test and offer sage advice in a range of realistic or ridiculous scenarios.
Modal Activities: Should, Ought to, Had Better Advice Role-Play
To practice using modals of advice, try this activity with your students:
Divide the class into pairs or small groups. Have one student in each group play the role of a person seeking advice while the other student(s) play the role of a friend or advisor. Provide each group with a scenario that requires the use of modals of advice. For example:
- You are planning a vacation and don’t know where to go.
- You are considering changing careers.
- You are trying to decide whether to buy a new car or fix your old one.
- You are trying to decide whether to buy a pet or adopt one from a shelter.
- You are planning a heist and need to know what disguise to wear.
- You are trying to decide whether to dye your hair a bright color or get a tattoo.
Have the students act out a conversation where one person asks for advice and the other gives recommendations or guidance using modals of advice, with full sentences to justify their recommendations.
Future-Facing Modals: the essential guide to planning ahead (sort of)
Modals of the future are a type of auxiliary verb used to express a plan or intention for the future. They can be used to make predictions or to describe a future event or action that has already been planned. Modals of the future include will, shall, and be going to.
Will is used to express a firm intention or determination to do something in the future. For example, “I will go to the store later” means that the speaker has a strong intention to go to the store later. Will can also be used to make predictions based on present evidence or circumstances. For example, “It will rain tomorrow” means that the speaker predicts it will rain tomorrow based on the current weather conditions.
Shall is used to express a promise or offer to do something in the future. For example, “I shall help you with your homework” means that the speaker is promising or offering to help the listener with their homework. “Shall” is also used to express a plan or intention for the future, especially in formal or formal-sounding situations. For example, “We shall leave at 8:00 am.” means that the speaker and listener have planned or intend to leave at 8:00 am. Note: This modal is not commonly used anymore, but students may still encounter it in the wild.
Be going to is used to express a plan or intention that has already been decided or arranged. For example, “I am going to study abroad next semester” means that the speaker has already decided or arranged to study abroad next semester before mentioning it. Be going to can also be used to make predictions based on present evidence or circumstances. For example, “She is not going to meet expectations if she doesn’t prepare more” means that the speaker is predicting that the person’s performance will be subpar based on the current level of preparation.
Modal Activities: Will & Shall to Express the Future
To practice using modals of the future tense, try this activity with your students:
- Preparation: Create a set of future plans cards: On each card, write a description of a different future plan or goal that one might have, such as “change careers,” “start a business,” “become an influencer,” “volunteer for a charity,” “create a backyard pollinator garden” etc. Prepare enough cards for each student or group of students.
- Setting up the Activity: Divide the class into small groups or pairs. Distribute the future plans cards, one to each group or pair.
Role-Playing Game – Future Plans Fair
Explain to the students that they will participate in a “Future Plans Fair,” where they represent various characters who have different aspirations for the future.
Each group or pair will receive a future plans card, and they need to imagine themselves as individuals with that particular goal.
In their groups or pairs, students will take turns discussing their future plans using modals of the future, will, shall, and be going to. Encourage them to use these modals to express their intentions, likelihood, determination, or promises related to their future plans.
Students should interact with each other in the role-play, asking and answering questions about their future plans. For example:
- Student A: I’m going to start a business.
- Student B: That sounds exciting! What kind of business will you start?
- Student A: I shall open a restaurant with international cuisine.
Group Discussion: After the role-playing activity, bring the whole class together for a group discussion. Ask each group to share the future plans they discussed and some of the modal verbs they used.
Reflection and Expansion: Finally, facilitate a discussion about the likelihood or certainty of the various future plans presented. Encourage students to explain why they chose particular modals for their plans and what factors influence their decisions about the future.
Congratulations, you’ve made it to the end of this comprehensive guide on modals and modal activities! With the help of these modal activities and tips, your adult ESL students will be well on their way to mastering this important aspect of the English language. As always, don’t forget the importance of practice and exposure to real-life language usage. Encourage your students to continue practicing and applying what they’ve learned in everyday conversations and writing. And if you have any additional tips to share, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. Happy teaching!
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Keep reading for more grammar activities for adult ESL!
- 4 Fun Past Progressive Activities for Teaching Adult ESL Students
- The Past Perfect Tense: A Pain in the Past, but a Necessity for the Present
- 2 Fun Activities for Reviewing Prepositions of Time
- 7 FUN Activities for Opposite Adjectives
- 6 Exciting Subject-Verb Agreement Games & Activities for Adult ESL