Identifying and using modality

The verb is the element that expresses what is happening in a sentence and locates it in time (tense). Verbs are central to a clause. Verbs create the relationship between the subject and the object of the verb.

Modal verbs give the reader information about the degree of obligation or certainty involved in the action. Modality can be demonstrated through careful word choice and may include selective use of verbs, adverbs, adjectives (especially with ‘existing verbs’ as in is vital, ‘is’ being the existing verb) or nouns to heighten/ strengthen or weaken/lessen potency.

Low modality shows less certainty; obligation; probability; importance; frequency; extent; intensity; confidence or emphasis. High modality shows a high degree of these. For further unpacking of these see the examples in the verb overview.

Activities to support the strategy

Activity 1: verb clines

Look at the words used that demonstrate opinion and rank the modal verbs from least powerful to most powerful. Students place cards onto a cline by making decisions for each word. The answers will be quite individual. Use the following modals.

High modality Medium modality Low modality
must will may
mustn't won't might
ought to should mightn't
shall shouldn't could
shan't can couldn't
has to can't would
have to need to wouldn't

Activity 2: possible impossible certain

Practice using different phrases and show how the sentence changes depending on if it's possible, impossible or certain, example:

  • we go out. (point to CERTAIN) We'll go out.
  • we always stay at home. (point to IMPOSSIBLE) We can't always stay at home.
  • we go to the cinema. (point to POSSIBLE) We might go to the cinema.

Using A3 sheets or IWB with possible, impossible, certain in three columns groups of students within a time frame write a possible sentence then an impossible and a certain statement. Look at which modal words are included in them.

Activity 3: partner share (advanced)

Students are paired. One student from each pair starts a sentence using a noun (with an article, determiner, and so on) or pronoun subject then two or more of the modal words from the resource below. For example:

  • The essential ingredient certainly must not ...

The second of the pair then concludes the sentence creating an interesting or funny sentence. For example:

  • ... be left out of the dish or disaster will occur.

Students keep tally marks of each sentence and note their favourite one which is shared with the class after five minutes of the activity. The pair with the most tally marks wins.

Activity 4: those are the rules (advanced)

Ask students to work in groups. Give each group the name of a place without showing them to the other teams (for example, library, swimming pool, office, school, bus, amusement park) and ask them to write rules for this place (using must, mustn’t, have to and don’t have to and so on.) When they finish, groups read out their rules and the others guess the place.

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