The ABC of ELT

Failing at Modal verbs

Inspire by Sophia Khan and Kevin Stein’s blog posts last week on failing I thought I’d share a story (or two) of my own failures centring around one of my favourite linguistical topics, Modal verbs (I’m not sure why exactly but I think it is linked in with Intrinsic and extrinsic meaning as well as their more abstract nature…but mainly because they usually lend themselves well to teaching through context).

This is a two part story and takes place in two different countries and schools [insert blurry screen effects and dreaming harp music for a flashback]

In Ukraine

I was preparing for an observed lesson in my first year in Ukraine. By this point I had got over the initial nerves of teaching, received some good feedback and was starting to get down to honing my craft. Never one to miss an opportunity I asked my director to observe one of my lessons whilst he was around and he obliged.

I had no idea what the topic would be when I asked him but it turned out to be Modal verbs of Obligation and Prohibition (Must/Have to) for a pre-intermediate. I looked over the material which was presented using the context of some signs typically found in a language school, a test of ability, some guided discovery concept check questions and then some activities.

I was following our course guide and had this class three times in one evening with the second of the three observed. I prepared some extra handouts and materials and was really happy with the lesson plan until…

Class One

The class started well with a few issues with words on the signs (I made a note to pre-teach for the next class) but when the guided discovery questions that I had adapted from the coursebook came up there were some issues. You see the questions used the words “obligation” and “prohibition” in them [yes really] and being a still very fresh faced teacher I had no idea what vocabulary my students had or didn’t and expected the all wise coursebook to see me right. In this case it didn’t.

After a while of explaining things became okay and we moved on. I made a note that I needed to deal with this language again and better but as the lesson wore on I forgot about it and focused on the moment.

Class two

Just before the class I remembered about the stumbling words and tried to formulate a plan of action but it was too late. The class started and I found myself with the same issue coming up but this time with a student who couldn’t tolerate any ambiguity. With uncertainty over the words “obligation” and “prohibition” as well as the difference between “Must” and “Have to”, the class turned into a long winded and not clear Grammar lecture (that mainly consisted of ums and ahs and using the target language to explain what the words obligation and prohibition were)

Thankfully I rectified this issue by the third class and the feedback session after the class included lots of areas to work on and ways to improve.

This month in Spain

This month I had a class where we looked at modal verbs of obligation and prohibition and I decided to use a similar context of Road signs and road rules. It’s actually been really good fun but it my first class an issue arose.

To compensate and use more “international” language I started to use “a rule” which seemed to translate across well. Except in this case it appeared that my students didn’t know what the word was. They couldn’t seem to decipher the word and so we had a period of try to explain the word without using the target language when after a while one student said

“ah, Una obligación!”

Yup! that’s right, not that different from Obligation in English at all


It’s a little bit funny (this feeling inside) how my adaptation method of using “International words” to for my Ukrainian students actually caused more problem in this situation and how my past experience actually hindered my current lesson. I guess that is the danger of a purely reflective approach, that we over assume based on one or two experiences or contexts.

P.S. I wonder if this also reflects a bias in coursebook for Romantic languages or Spanish teaching context? I know that certain coursebooks are published with a “Spanish” version as well [in fact this coursebook has a Spanish specific version too].. just a thought.  

About Chris Wilson

I'm an English Language teacher based in Krakow, Poland. I enjoy writing, using technology and playing the Ukulele.

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