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Modal auxiliary verbs: initial training sessions


At initial level, it is probably unwise to focus on anything but the essential functions of the nine pure modal auxiliary verbs and that is what is done here.
Unfortunately, of course, such a focus actually works in the wrong direction and at more advanced levels it will become necessary to focus on types of modality and work from those to the ways we have in English of realising the concepts, only one of which is the use of modal auxiliary verbs.
It is possible, of course, to focus on modality in the way that a lot of course books do it with vague and ill-defined terms such as obligation, necessity, deduction, speculation and so on (add to the list as you will).  However, that way madness lies because the categories are undefined, sometimes indefinable, and they overlap.
Websites do that a lot, as in for example:
    Modals of obligation
when what is meant of course, is (or should be):
    Modal auxiliary verbs expressing deontic modality.

Do not attempt to use any of the worksheets in this section until you have covered the essentials of word class and your trainees are aware of what a lexical or main verb does and what it looks like.  Modal auxiliary verbs are often defined in terms of how they differ from lexical or main verbs and that is the approach taken in these worksheets.


The key ideas

Usually, there are considered to be nine or ten central or pure modal auxiliary verbs and all the others are dumped into a category called semi-modal auxiliary verbs.  This section deals only with the ones listed here.

You may feel that your trainees can cope with more and want to consider dare, need and used (to).  They are listed here for completeness.

  • Characteristics of
    • central modal auxiliary verbs
    • semi-modal auxiliary verbs
  • The modal auxiliary verbs
    • can
    • could
    • be able to
    • may
    • might
    • must
    • have to
    • shall
    • should
    • ought (to)
    • will
    • would
  • Semi-modal auxiliary verbs
    • need
    • dare
    • used (to)

The aim of all of this is to give trainees the essential data they need to be able to teach modal auxiliary verbs and recognise the range of communicative functions they represent.  It is most certainly not all that people need to know but enough for an initial training course.


The characteristics of modal auxiliary verbs

The purpose here is to alert trainees to the three essential characteristics of pure (or central, if you prefer) modal auxiliary verbs and to point out how semi-modal auxiliary verbs differ in some respects.
These three are:

  1. Invariability
  2. Questions and negatives
  3. Non-co-occurrence

The first worksheet tackles the first two characteristics.

The purpose of task three is to alert people to how lexical or main verbs vary grammatically and how we form questions in simple present and past tenses.  This is distinguished from how modal auxiliary verbs work with the example of should.


The modal auxiliary verbs one by one

The next worksheet focuses on what functions are most commonly realised by the central modal auxiliary verbs.  It is not complete and not a very good way of classifying modality but at this level getting into concepts such as epistemic and deontic modality is not advisable.

This is a worksheet which can be done in class or worked on outside a session and reported back.  The verbs ought (to), be able to and have to are included here although there are not always considered central modal auxiliary verbs.


You can, if you like, leave it there (and many do think that's enough for an initial training programme).
However, there is a guide to semi- and marginal modal auxiliary verbs on this site, linked below.


Related areas

Modality is treated at length in the in-service guides but the majority of those are not suitable for initial training course use.

Related guides
For trainees:
modals one by one this guide contains a bit more than is on the worksheets, especially in terms of meaning and syntax
essentials of modality  this guide considers just the basics
For you (as a reminder of what you need to know)
the in-service guides for the in-service index of modality
central modal auxiliary verbs this is a more advanced and longer guide that the one above.  It explains ten tests for these verbs.
semi- and marginal modal auxiliary verbs this guide considers particularly dare, need and used but also ventures into marginal modal auxiliary verbs and the verb let.
A-Z index where you can find guides to or containing specific concepts and terms