10 Must-use Exercises for Teaching ESL Modal Verbs

Modal verbs are all around us.

That means there’s lots of inspiration for you to teach them. Instead of sticking to boring old grammar drills, you can take real-life scenarios to teach modal verbs the fun way.

Grammar lessons don’t have to be boring or tedious. With these ESL activities, you can make them fun! That way, students will pick up modal verbs more easily.

Here are 10 activities so fun that students will forget they’re even learning!


1. Give Me a Sign

This exercise is great for teaching how to use modal verbs for prohibition and obligation. It uses real-life examples that students see around them every day, so they should have no problem picking up the grammar and putting it into context.

Start by showing or drawing a picture of a no-smoking sign to your class and asking them what it means. If they say “no smoking,” ask them to elaborate with a full sentence. This should elicit “you can’t smoke,” or something to that effect.

Then, ask your students how they could make the sentence stronger. This should prompt them to give you “you must not smoke.”

From here, you can teach a selection of modal verbs, such as “have to,” “must” and “mustn’t.”

Create a worksheet or PowerPoint presentation which provides a selection of signs. These could be road signs, safety signs or signs you might find in the classroom. Keep them simple and easy to understand. Remember, these should be signs that they’re familiar with already, they just need to put their meanings into English. They can use the given modal verbs to write sentences for each one.


To finish up the class, move on to something more fun and more challenging. Give out a selection of weird and wacky signs, such as this one from the Travel Channel.

Students will have to get creative with their modal verbs to decide what they mean and can work in pairs to write their own ideas. In the end, you can go over their answers together, and correct their grammar as you go along.

2. Agony Aunts

In order to practice using modal verbs for advice, your students can try their hands at being agony aunts.

To open up the topic, tell your students that you have a problem you want them to help you with. This can be something as simple as “I’m hungry” or “I don’t know what to do this weekend.” Ask them to give you some advice. Once they do, work with them to flesh it out into a full sentence. You can do this by writing a gap fill on the board, such as “You ____ go to a restaurant.”

Use this to elicit the following responses:

  • Ought to
  • Should
  • Had better

Then, students can practice giving advice with these words. You can either give them example problems to answer or have them write some of their own. The best choice for you will depend on the skill level of your class, as well as the amount of time you have. This could be a writing or conversation lesson, depending on how you structure it.

3. Fortune Tellers

Students can try predicting the future by role playing as fortune tellers. This is a great way to practice using “will,” “may” and “might.”


There are two ways you can approach this topic. The first is to use palm reading. Busy Teacher has a great palm reading lesson plan.

Combine this with One Stop English’s palm reading worksheet, and your students can learn what the lines on their hands mean. Then, they can use this knowledge to pair up, read their partner’s palm and use modal verbs to make predictions about their future.

Here are some examples of sentences they could use:

“Your ‘lifeline’ is long, so you will have a long and healthy life.”

“Your ‘love line’ is curved, so you will have a successful love life.”


The second way to do it is by using tarot cards. Print out ISL Collective’s tarot cards for ESL classes, cut them up and give them out to students in pairs. Once your students have learned how to use the modal verbs, they can draw three cards at a time and use them to make predictions about their partners.

4. Guess the Job

Kick off this activity by having students brainstorm a list of jobs. Once they’ve done that, ask them to tell you the responsibilities of a teacher. You can use their answers to teach them how to use the following modal verbs:

  • Have to
  • Don’t have to
  • Needn’t
  • Mustn’t

They can construct sentences like, “You must take care of students,” “You don’t have to wear a uniform” and “You mustn’t be late for class.” After that, direct them back to the lists they made earlier and have them write similar sentences for the jobs they wrote down. In pairs, students can then discuss their own jobs using modal verbs.

To wrap up, turn it into a guessing game. Ask each student to choose a job without telling their partner what it is. They can use modal verbs to describe the job and their partner can guess the job.

5. Shall We?

Suggestions are another function that modal verbs are used for. This simple activity will get your students comfortable with making them on their own. It’s great for lower levels because the language is basic, there’s only one modal verb to focus on and the activity has a rigid structure.

Start the class by asking students to talk in pairs about what their hobbies are. This should be easy for most students. After a few minutes of discussion, pick one example from the class. Then, ask how they would invite someone to join them in that activity.

For example, if the activity is football, they might say “Do you want to play football with me?”

Use this to elicit a simpler way to give suggestions, “Shall we…?” Then, show the students how to give some short responses.

Give out cards with different scenarios on each one. Every time a student picks one, they have to use it to make a sentence with “shall we” or “shall I.” For example, if their card says “It’s hot in here,” a student can answer with “Shall I open a window?”

If your students find this too easy, you can then do away with the cards and have them come up with prompts on their own.


You can give your students some examples on FluentU, a language learning program. For example, the video clip “A Tiring Trip” shows “shall we” in use naturally, with pretty slow speech that even beginners can follow.

FluentU is a way to make the lessons more engaging. Instead of going over the same workbook exercises, vocabulary drills and grammar problems, students can learn English through video clips of popular movies and TV shows, pop songs, animated shows, news broadcasts and more.

Even with fast speech, students can keep up thanks to FluentU’s option to pause the video to check the translation of any word in the subtitles. You can also replay certain sentences several times to help students practice specific sentence constructions or modal verbs.

6. Making Plans Role Play

Making casual social plans is one of the most common activities we do as human beings. And, as luck would have it, in English, they involve modals. You can turn this into a role play with your students.

Pair them together and have them “call” each other to meet up. You can either introduce essential vocabulary for the role play at the beginning of class or provide sample dialogues with blank spaces they can fill in together and then practice speaking.

The mini-dialogue can go something like this:

“Would you like to go to coffee on Friday?”

“I can’t. Sorry.”

“Could you go on Tuesday?”


Then they can define time and place, as well as other details, depending on how advanced they are.

The second part of the role play is a short dialogue in the place where they’ve decided to meet. This will probably require adding a third or fourth person to the group.

For example, if your students decide to meet up for a cup of coffee, the dialogue would go something like this:

“What would you like?”

“I’d like a latte, please.”

“And you?”

“I’d like an espresso.”

Again, this second part can be expanded if your students are intermediate or advanced. You can have them ask for milk/sugar/etc., order food or add their own creative details. These basic structures will provide a good starting point for practicing social situation logistics and modals at the same time.

7. Tour Guide Role Play

This role play will teach students how to use the word “should” to give recommendations and opinions. The easiest way to carry out this role play is to pair students up—one will play the role of tour guide and one will play the role of tourist.

The idea is that the tourists ask questions, such as:

“Where should I go for ice cream?”

“Where should I go to see the theater?”

Their partner can provide a simple answer, such as:

“You should go to Benny’s Best Cones” 

“You should go to the Coliseum.”

If they’re more advanced in their ESL journey, they can provide supporting information: 

“You should order vanilla. They have the best vanilla ice cream in the world!” 

“You should go see the opera that’s playing right now. It’s great.”

You can construct your own map of attractions for your students to work off of, but if they’re able, it’s great to let them take the reins and provide their own, authentic local recommendations. Depending on the makeup of your class, you can have students ask one another about their native countries or hometowns.

8. Workplace Role Play

“Would,” “should” and “could” are common workplace modals your students will need to excel professionally in English. You can start by handing out a vocabulary list of common office tasks: write a report, make a budget, write an email, double-check calculations, etc.

Then pair students together—one as the boss and the other as the employee. Next, pair the list of phrases with modals. For example with “should,” you have the employee say, “What should I do?”  The boss says, “You should…” and chooses a list of tasks. This will solidify how the modal “should” can be used to indicate obligations.

For “could,” the boss makes requests to the employee. “Could you send me the report?” The employee, of course, has options to say, “Sure,” “Of course,” “No” or “Not right now, but as soon as possible.” For more advanced students, they could even loop it back to “should.” “Sure. When should I send it to you?”

For this role play, you can practice general office verbs and phrases. You can also adapt it to specific fields if you’re teaching students who all work in the same area.

9. Do/Would Contrasts

We as ESL teachers cringe a little when we hear something like, “Do you like some coffee?” Would. Would you like some coffee? However, we have to empathize a little. “Do” and “would” are both short words that are easy for non-native speakers to mix up.

For this contrast exercise, have your students make a list of food and drink they like and don’t like. For example, “I do like tea, coffee and yerba mate. I do not like soda.” Then, have them think of what they’re in the mood for now, like this, “Today, I would like tea.” or “Today, I would like to drink tea.”

It’s good to include “today” because it contrasts something static (your taste) with something in the moment that’s hypothetical. In other words, I like tea in general and today, I would especially like tea.

10. Should/Would Contrast

It’s always enjoyable to contrast the mundane with an imagined world. 

First, have your students make a list of obligations—things they should do. Then, with each “to do” item, make an “I would like to” on the other side.

For example, on one side, “I should do my homework.” On the other side, “I’d like to make a five-layer Oreo cake.” You can adapt this exercise as you see fit.

The two ideas can be more connected with “but” if you want to go for something less dadaist. For example, “I should do my homework, but I’d like to work on my creative writing.”

The Many Uses of Modal Verbs

Modal verbs are incredibly versatile and are used for several different functions in the English language. This is why they’re absolutely essential for your students. Here are just some of the things they’re used for:

  • Permission: Modal verbs like “can,” “could” and “may” are all used for giving or asking for permission. You can use these to teach your students how to construct polite questions.
  • Prohibition: They can be used in the opposite way too. Students can use words like “can’t” and “mustn’t” to set rules and boundaries or give orders.
  • Advice: Modal verbs don’t always have to make such strong sentences. They can be used in softer ways as well. “Should,” “ought to” and “had better” are all good ways for giving advice.
  • Obligation: If you tell your students that they “need to do their homework” and “must come to class on time,” they’ll understand that these are obligations, and things they have no choice in.
  • No obligation: Modal verbs can be used to express a lack of obligation too. 


Ask any student what the most difficult thing about learning English is and they’re bound to say “grammar.”

Teaching English made me realize just how hard it is to learn, with so many tenses and grammar structures that I’d never considered before. Learning these aspects of the language can be tedious, but it doesn’t have to be.

With these activities, your classes will be more fresh and interesting!

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