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KS2 modal verbs – 9 teaching tips you may/might/will want to follow

By the end of Year 5, children need to be able to identify and use modal verbs - but can you?
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By Sue Drury

Last updated 15 May 2020

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What is a modal verb? Here’s a funny thing: ask the adult population, and it’s likely that at least 90% couldn’t tell you.

In fact, most educators would admit that even they couldn’t have told you before going into teaching; yet, if you were to listen to any of us talking for a minute or two, almost all would be using them correctly (and there have been four in this paragraph alone!)

It might not be a necessity for the general public, but knowing how to identify and use modal verbs is a key grammar expectation for KS2 English students. They are even specified by name on the Government’s Teacher Assessment Frameworks, which is more than can be said for many other features of writing. So, it is clearly important to understand them – and these tips should help.

What is a modal verb?

A modal verb is a verb that indicate things like the likelihood, need or ability to do something.

Modal verb rules

  1. They only have one form, so they don’t change for person or tense.
  2. They must have a main verb in the sentence, and cannot be used alone.
  3. Verbs that immediately follow them are always in the base form.

Modal verbs examples

  • Could
  • Would
  • Should
  • May
  • May not
  • Might
  • Must
  • Mustn’t
  • Can
  • Will
  • Won’t
  • Ought to



Make sure you understand modal verbs

We’re not trying to be facetious or patronising here. In fact, just knowing how to spot a modal verb is 90% of the battle because we tend to use them without thinking. So, having a good, working understanding is essential.

Modal refers to the mood of a verb that is the expression of a degree of possibility or certainty. The most common modal verbs in the English language are can, will, shall, could, should, would, ought, may, might and must.

When used in a sentence, they often work with the basic form of the verb they relate to, but are not accompanied with to unless you are using ought. For example, I must finish my work or I ought to finish my work.



Understanding modal verbs by explanation

Make sure pupils can demonstrate their understanding by giving a written or oral definition of their own. Just being able to explain it in their own words will help to ensure that it is embedded in their brains.



Make sure parents understand modal verbs

There is always the hope that children will be supported in their learning at home, especially as SATs season approaches. For that reason, it will probably help to provide information that gets modal verbs explained for parents.

A simple fact sheet combined with clear examples should do the trick. While you’re about it, you might want to include other terms that they might not be familiar with – fronted adverbials, for example, usually flummoxes all but the most linguistically confident parents.

We’ve put together booklets explaining all the grammar terminology taught at KS1 and KS2, which are perfect for sending home, as well as for children to keep as reminders.



Give examples of modal verbs in context

It really helps to bring concepts like modal verbs to life to see how they are used in everyday situations. Of course, you could do this yourself, but why not save yourself the effort by getting hold of a set of our interactive SPaG displays? You’ll find they cover a lot more than just modal verbs.



Get them to order modal verbs in degrees of certainty

This is a fun little challenge to set your class. Once you have given your pupils a set of example modal verbs, get them to arrange them in order of possibility or certainty. This might/should/will help them to gain an even more secure grasp of the concept.

Incidentally, this is just one of the many activities featured on our Modal Verb – SpaG Challenge Mat (part of the exclusive, member-only SPaG Gym collection).



Organise modal verbs by type

Why not challenge your pupils to take the list of modal verbs given in tip 1 above and sort them into two groups? If they need a further clue, get them to think in terms of possibility and freedom of action.

With any luck, they will put may, might, will and would in one group and shall, should, must and ought in the other. Can and could fit comfortably in both.



Consider the negative – to contract or not to contract modal verbs

A key aspect of modal verbs is how they are used in a negative context. Typically, this will mean putting not after the modal verb: could not, must not, will not and so on. Very often, it is acceptable to turn these into contractions, although consideration still needs to be given to the formality of the context.

When you want to place greater emphasis on the negative, however, you might want to leave it uncontracted. For example, You must not go in there is more powerful than You mustn’t go in there.



Find the right word – Past tense, present tense or future tense

Modal verbs can be used to express ideas in the past, present and future. It should be noted, however, that the form of the modal verb does not change to reflect the tense, regardless of whether the other verb takes the simple, perfect or progressive form.

For example, you would use I could have danced all night rather than I coulded have danced all night.



KS2 SATs practice

Yes, it’s a sad fact of life but the reality is that we all want our pupils to achieve the best mark they can in their end of KS2 tests. For that reason, as well as encouraging them to use modal verbs appropriately in their writing, it is well worth letting pupils practise GPS-test-style questions.

These might be as straightforward as circling examples in a given sentence but it always helps to familiarise pupils in advance with the sort of modal verbs SATs questions they might be faced with on the big day.

Once again, you could find these yourself; but why not save time by using the Modal Verb Challenge Mat mentioned earlier?

That should give you plenty of ideas to be starting with. Oh, and if you’re looking for specific teaching ideas, check out our Grammar Burst members-only collection, where you’ll find a week’s worth of 15-minute lessons covering modal verbs, leading to an extended writing task. You may/might/will be glad you did!

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