Главная страница «Первого сентября»Главная страница журнала «Английский язык»Содержание №2/2010

Teaching Modals (Ability)

continued from No. 1

Now let’s return to our subject, i.e. modal ability/capability. Have you ever wondered about the difference between the notions? Don’t we need to understand the distinction before we start teaching? “Ability is something you are capable of doing”, “Capability is the ability to do something”, reads the Macmillan English dictionary. Great! So, these notions are grammatically different: we speak about an ability to do something, but a capability of doing something. But if you study the examples more closely, you will find that the distinction is not consistent.

It should be semantic. In a nutshell, ability applies to a natural skill or talent which is hard to quantify, e.g. She can sing, whereas capability refers to one’s limits of capacity (capacity is quantitative) for doing or accomplishing something, e.g. She can sing for two minutes without drawing breath. Ability is more qualitative, capability is more quantitative. Ability can be described as the “actual” level of development, capability as the “potential” level of development. Cf. Care for the bird until it is able to fly (the generic, non-quantifiable quality of being able to fly), Concorde is capable of cruising at over 2160 km per hour (potential). Caveat: most grammars refer to “ability” only, meaning both ability and capability, for the sake of simplicity. While the teacher realizes the distinction, she doesn’t want to overburden the rule with sub-categories or obscure terminology, so here we come across a trade-off between the comprehensiveness of a rule and its pedagogical worth.

If the aim of the class is to revise and consolidate the means of expressing ability in a variety of contexts, the following procedure is used.


To express ability – in this general sense – can, could and the modal expression to be able are used:

can is the Present Indefinite tense form,

could is the Past Indefinite,

to be able is used for the rest of the tense forms.



He can (is able to) speak English.

I have never been able to speak Chinese.

She could (was able to) read when she was four.

She was able to get the book.

(particular action; realization)

She said she could/had been able to read when she was four.

You will be able to do it some day.

• With see, hear, smell, etc., understand – can, could

The rule above, in fact, illustrates the atomic globule of modals and modal expressions grouped around the meaning all these related words have in common – the concept of physical and mental ability/capability. This semantic set of modals, i.e. mental lexicon, is organized with the help of the exponents of the target language. The exponents can be made more relevant to our pupils when personalized.

A rule is only part of an explanation. The presentation of a rule consists of a lot of components, such as: 1) the explanation of the rule of form, exemplification, check, 2) the presentation of the rule of use, exemplification, check, 3) illustration, correction etc. Here is one of the procedures a teacher might follow to explain the use of to be able in the present context:

Teacher: (rule of form) Unlike can, be able is followed by the full infinitive, the infinitive WITH to.

(example) He is able to read.

(check) So, how do we say “Я могу сделать это” with the help of be able?

Pupil: I am able to do it.

Teacher: Right.

(rule of use) In the present context, be able is used in the same way as can. Can is more usual, be able (able = способный, знающий, искусный) is more formal.

(example) I can read English books in the original, I am able to read English books in the original.

(check) What can we say to express the idea that we are skillful enough to read French books?

Pupil: We are able to read French books.

Teacher: Good.

(check) What else can we say to express the same?

Pupil: We can read French books.

Teacher: Good.

(check) Which variant will you use if you speak to a friend?

Pupil: We can.

Teacher: Right.

(rule of use) Can is the Present Indefinite form. When we normally use the Present Perfect or the Infinitive, we need be able.


(example) I can’t speak Chinese. I have never been able to speak Chinese. I would like to be able to speak Chinese.

(check) What languages can you speak?

Pupil: I can speak German.

Teacher: (check) When did you start learning German?

Pupil: I started learning German three years ago.

Teacher: (check) So, how long have you been able to speak German?

Pupil: I have been able to speak German for three years.

Teacher: (check) What other languages would you like to be able to speak?

Pupil: I would like to be able to speak Italian.


Practice of the target grammar is aimed at two objectives: accuracy and fluency. Accuracy here means precision at applying the rule, fluency – the availability of ready-made, automatic chunks of language to facilitate fast, real-life communication. Correspondingly, the exercises aimed at achieving accuracy are called drills – guided and controlled repetitions of identical language. Learners need drills in order to automate:

1) the correct use of the form with the help of “formal drills” – referring to how the items fit together, the use of “to”, etc. The pupils here get the opportunity to get their mouths around the target pieces of language and to create mental “sound” images of the target structure;

2) the expression of the meaning in separate sentences with the help of “functional drills” – referring to the correct meaning transmission and recognition. Pupils get many opportunities to practice the items in activities that only call for restricted language when they speak. Also, learners take some time to think and reflect;

3) the use of the new language in typical situations, conversations, contexts with the help of “meaningful drills”. This refers to text-based activities, dialogues, problem-solving games, role-plays and other exercises with a view to enriching the learner’s knowledge and experience of the situational settings in which the target structure might be used.

The exercises aimed at achieving fluency need to divert attention away from form and focus primarily on meaning. Such activities should have a communicative purpose, a need to interact, rather than the necessity to display grammar knowledge for its own sake, and attempt to create the conditions of real-life language use with its unpredictability and a need to listen as well as to speak. For automisation to take place, such activities should have an element of built-in repetition of small memorisable chunks. Here belong drama, role-play, storytelling (stories, jokes, and anecdotes), discussions and debates, problem-solving, simulation, esp. based on information gap tasks. Such activities allow learners to make use of the new language and in fact integrate the task of grammar learning with the task of developing the productive skills of speaking and/or writing.

From the point of the PPP (presentation-practice-production) framework of teaching grammar, one more important thing needs to be taken into consideration. The post-activity task, meaning post-practice or post-production stage, should focus on the items again, thus reviewing the target grammar structures with the aim of facilitating their memorization.

The examples of the exercises are shown below:

1. Formal substitution drill. Do is being substituted by can. Aim to use can, can’t, could and couldn’t with verbs of sense perception and “understand”.

Task: Rephrase the following using can, can’t, could, couldn’t as in the example.

1. Do you see that man over there? Can you see that man over there?

2. I smell something burning.

3. I understood what he said.

4. Did you understand what he said?

5. I don’t see anyone.

6. I didn’t understand what he said.

2. Formal substitution cued drill. The teacher gives a cue in order to elicit the target language, the pupils make up sentences according to the patterns of ex. 1.

Task: Make up sentences with the help of a cue as in the example.

1. the tree over there – Can you see the tree over there?

2. the siren wailing

3. cold here

4. her talking

5. what she mumbled

6. the minibus driving up

3. Formal completion drill. The aim is to use be able in the correct tense form.

Task: Supply suitable forms of be able in the sentences.

1. Our teacher says we _______ speak English fluently in a few months.

2. I’ve been trying for hours, but so far I (not) _______ get through on the phone.

3. If he had asked me earlier, I ________ help him.

4. I’m sure she would have helped you if she ____.

5. I think I _______ play table tennis better after a bit of practice.

6. He has managed to live in England for years without _______ speak English.

7. I’m practising hard because I want to _______ pass my driving test first time.

8. If I _____ sing, I would have loved to be an opera singer.

4. Functional completion drill. The focus here is not only on the accuracy, but also on the distinction between the use of can and be able in the present/future.

Task: Insert can or be able. Comment upon the choice.

1. Ken has travelled a lot. He _____ speak four languages.

2. I haven’t ______ sleep very well recently.

3. Nadia _______ drive but she hasn’t got a car.

4. I can’t understand Peter. I’ve never ______ understand him.

5. Ask Kate about your problem. She might ____ help you.

6. If you work quickly, you ______ finish on time.

7. Tina ________ finish this today, shouldn’t she?

8. Denis should _______ read by now; he’s already six.

5. Functional completion drill. The focus is on the distinction between could and be able in the context of the past.

Task: Work in pairs. Insert could, be able or their negative forms. Comment upon the choice.

1. My grandpa was really gifted. He _______ speak five languages.

2. I looked everywhere for my specs but I ____ find them.

3. They didn’t want to come with us first but we _______ persuade them.

4. Kim had hurt her leg and _______ walk.

5. She wasn’t at home when I phoned but I _______ contact her at her office.

6. I looked very carefully and I _______ see a figure in the distance.

7. I wanted to buy some tomatoes. The first shop I went to didn’t have any but I _____ get some in the next shop.

8. My grandmother loved music. She ______ play the piano very well.

9. A girl fell into the river but fortunately we _____ rescue her.

10. I had forgotten to bring my camera so I _______ take any photographs.

11. You ______ run much faster when you were younger.

12. On entering the house I ______ smell something burning in the kitchen.

13. When we lived at the dacha, we ______ swim in the river every day.

14. If the dog ______ find its way out of the debris, it would have survived.

15. Last week he ______ arrange a meeting with the Dean.

16. I’m not usually very good at tennis, but yesterday I _______ to beat my brother.

17. He ________ fix the tap so he called a plumber.

18. I used to _____ stand on my head but I can’t do it now.

6. Functional transformation drill. The teacher provides a model, the pupils transform a sentence of one kind into another form:

Task: Work in pairs. Rephrase the following using can, could, be able and their negative forms. Comment upon the choice.

1. He managed to settle the problem.

2. She failed to swim across the Channel.

3. Do you have the ability to write with your left hand?

4. It’s within his capabilities to work all night long.

5. We have the ability to adapt to any difficulties but the cold.

7. Functional substitution drill, “true sentences”.

Task: Speak about yourself.

For example: I used to be able to sing well.

1. (something you used to be able to do) I used…

2. (something you would like to be able to do) I’d…

3. (something you have never been able to do) I’ve…

8. Meaningful drill. Context.

Task: Insert suitable forms which express ability. Can you share a similar experience with your class?

I remember the first time I went camping with my friends. My old folks – I 1)________ say they were strictly opposed to the idea – had not been at all enthusiastic and I 2)________ understand why. Their only child, loved and admired, well taken care of – would be made hostage to fortune, that is, dark, cold, hunger and so on. But, as ill luck would have it, I 3)________ resist the temptation and started to pack.

I 4)________ never ________ understand how I survived. We all were so inexperienced that we 5)_________ put up a tent. When it started to drizzle, in a moment I found myself in a pool of cold water. I tried to get warm at the campfire, but it soon started to die down and it was quite a drag. At last I 6)________ to kindle it again. But the chicken – the shashlik – well, the taste, and more than that, the smell still gives me the pip.

But at least it was memorable. Something tells me I 7)_______ forget the cold, the rain, the shivering, – and the laughter which we used to face the inevitable.

9. Meaningful drill. Storytelling. Aim: sequence of tenses. The exercise may be practiced orally in class and set as a home assignment to be done in writing.

Task: Work in pairs. Ask your partner the following questions and report what he/she said to the class.

1. Are you good at sports? What sports games can you play/would you like to be able to play? Have you played any sports game? What were your impressions? Were you able to score a goal/kick the ball into the hoop/win a prize? Share your experience with your partner.

2. Tell about your accomplishments in the past. What other skills and talents have you developed? Do you feel proud of yourself? Is it possible to be thoroughly satisfied with yourself? What are your plans for the future? What would you like to be able to do?

3. Tell your partner about your experience of learning English. When did you start reading English? How easy was it for you to learn to understand oral speech? What have you never been able to do? What are your best achievements? What skills would you like to be able to improve?

10. Test: focus on form. For my class, I have created a Visual Basic functional completion test. The aim of such activity is to revise all the means of expressing ability in a variety of contexts (sentences).

In this article, I have tried to deal with methodology in a very practical way, applying the universal truths to the options available to everybody. Let me summarize in a few words the basic notions mentioned. The questions a teacher answers at the start are: what for, what, and how to teach, i.e. the goal, the content, and the means of instruction. The main aim of the lesson here was to revise and consolidate the means of expressing ability in a variety of contexts, for which we first had to clarify the notions of function and ability/capability as such. Then, the creation of the concise and comprehensive rule is a painful task itself, as we have to take into consideration the truthfulness – and all the limitations of the rule – on the one hand, and its pedagogical value, on the other. The procedures of the rule presentation and further practice of the target language conform to the cyclical logic of teaching grammar, as described by R. Millrood, with the theoretical rationale provided. I also use computer tests at the end of the lesson, integrating technology into the process, and have very positive feedback from my students on that, too.

to be continued

By Olga Mischenko, MGPPU