How to Teach ESL Modal Verbs in Real-life Contexts

Imagine that you’ve just gotten off the plane in a new city for a much-needed vacation.

You want to see all the landmarks. Go to all the great museums. Maybe take a nap eventually. But first—you’re starving.

You reach a café, map in hand.

“I’d like a sandwich and coffee, please.”

Two seconds after the waiter drops the sandwich in front of you, you realize you want mustard on it.

“Could I have some mustard?”

After you finish your sandwich, you reach the hotel. You have some ideas about where you’d like to go, but you’d still like to ask the front desk clerk for recommendations.

“Where should I go for a beer?”

You might not be conscious of it, but so far your vacation has been totally governed by modal verbs.

Would. Could. Should. Can. Will. Understanding how to use modal verbs is crucial to everyday communication in English. Your ESL students will certainly go through similar scenarios, whether they’re on vacation or not.

Luckily for you, you’re a superstar ESL teacher and you can prepare them with realistic modal verb exercises.

But before we get into that, let’s look into what the big deal about modals is and why you should start using them in your classroom right now.

Why Teaching Modal Verbs Shouldn’t Wait

We need modals to order food (“Could I get a turkey sub?”), to give suggestions (“You should listen to this band!”) and even to land dates (“Would you like to go to the movies this weekend?”).

A solid grip on modal verbs provides so much freedom to navigate the English-speaking world.

However, as ESL educators, sometimes we’re so focused on teaching verb tenses lineally that we put off the ever-present modals. Sometimes our externally imposed curriculums even demand that we teach other verb forms first.

Plus, modals are tricky! Why complicate things for ESL students at the beginning?

Well, getting your students comfortable with modal verbs early on has several practical benefits:

  • Modals widen your students’ range of English communication. With modals, they can express hypotheticals, opinions, doubts and desires like a native speaker.
  • Modals present an excellent opportunity to introduce contractions. For example, “I would like” is more commonly expressed as “I’d like” in spoken English.

ESL students sometimes insist on using the non-contracted forms of words. However, gently incorporating the concept of contractions is important because it’ll facilitate conversations with native speakers.

  • Modal verbs tend to be vital for travel to English-speaking regions. Just think of the scenarios mentioned earlier, from ordering food to asking for suggestions. Of course, you can survive without them, but they do make things much easier.

Would, Could, Should: Teaching Modal Verbs for Daily ESL Adventures

Our modal verb activities are split into two main groups: role plays and verb contrasts. They’re designed to get students using modal verbs in real-world situations, so that they seem relevant and memorable to students.

Modal Role Play Activities

Depending on your ESL students’ first language, the concept of modals may feel a bit abstract to them. Therefore it’s important to provide lots of context to your lessons, so students can absorb the importance of modals and how they’re used day-to-day. Role plays are a simple, effective way to do this.

1. 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. (Yes, I know it’s a little bit 1990s, but for the sake of a speaking exercise instead of a texting exercise, just suspend that disbelief.)

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:

“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:

“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 off point for practicing social situation logistics and modals at the same time.

2. Tour Guide Role Play

Who doesn’t want to know the best places to go and the most delicious things to eat?

Luckily we have a modal for that: should.

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 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?” or “Where should I go to see theater?”

Their partner can provide a simple answer such as, “You should go to Benny’s Best Cones” or “You should go to the Coliseum.”

If they’re more advanced in their ESL journey, they can provide supporting information such as, “You should order vanilla. They have the best vanilla ice cream in the world!” or “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.

In any case, this is a fun one to do because most people will get excited talking about their favorite places to go. It’s also easily adaptable to different places, if you’d like to do a travel theme.

3. Workplace Role Play

Given our globalized world, it’s likely your students will end up in a working environment that requires some English.

Whether it’s answering emails, attending Skype meetings or interacting with English-speaking customers, our lovely language will likely creep its way into office tasks. “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,” “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?”

Meanwhile, “would” in an office setting is a great way of introducing the indirect request.

There’s a scene in the movie “Office Space” where the boss says to the employee, “If you could be here around 9, that would be great.”

The situation is both funny and cringeworthy, but the truth is, we do use the phrase in real life.

It has a similar meaning to “could you,” but in many instances, it’s used to refer to secondary issues, perhaps something less pressing.

Students can combine it with “could.” For example:

“Could you send me the report? Oh, and if you could check the numbers on the budget, that would be great.”

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

Modal Verb Contrasts

Role plays are great to get students activated and talking. But sometimes it’s good to do written exercises in order to solidify what modals are and what they aren’t.

This doesn’t have to be a boring fill-in-the-blank exercise, though. You can still have fun and let your students play.

A verb contrast exercise focuses on the difference between two verb forms.

Contrast exercises are great for two reasons:

  • They help preempt common verb-use mistakes.
  • They stick in students’ minds because they show how different verbs work in real-life contexts.

4. 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.

“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.

5. Should/Would Contrast

It’s always enjoyable to contrast the mundane with an imagined world. Who says English class can’t have a little magical realism, too?

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 related and 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.”


Modals are something you’ll always hear if you sit in a café of English speakers and eavesdrop for 15 minutes.

Don’t put these activities off until the end of the semester or year. Use them soon and watch how quickly your students become modal masters.

Would you like to do that? You could, and personally, I think you should.

Ariadne is a North American expat residing in Buenos Aires, the city of tango, mate and pizza overdoses. When not writing and munching on pizza and mate (hey, she’s still a North American who combines pizza with everything), she can be found Instagramming cats or taking long walks on the flat city terrain.

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