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Practice for modals of possibility/probability

Stimulating ways of practising must/may/might/could/can’t for speculation.

Despite the long and fancy name “modals of possibility and probability”, with this grammar point we are basically talking here about language used for guessing and so if you get students doing that you have a suitable situation to elicit and/or practise this language.

Possible stimuli to make students guess include pictures, stories, videos, objects, music, other recordings, and language. In all those cases, you can turn the activity into more intensive practice of the range of probabilities from “must be/must have been” to “could be/could have been” by asking them to “bet” on their guess. Give each expression a number of points by how sure it is, e.g. one point for “could possibly be” up to seven points for “must be…, no doubt about it”. Students choose an expression with one of those levels of certainty and make a guess, then gain or lose that many points depending on whether those guesses are correct or not.

Activities that are specific to one kind of stimulus are given below.

1. Pictures

  • Students are given a picture that it is difficult to guess the subject of, e.g. because they can only see part of the picture/object, it is difficult to see because it is so small, it is shown out of focus, it was taken at a strange angle, it is semi-abstract, it is just a silhouette, it is a visual trick, or it is being drawn one line at a time.
  • Students look at a picture where it is difficult to say what is happening, e.g. because they could be embracing or wrestling, where what happens next is ambiguous, or where it is difficult to work out the relationships between the people pictured.
  • Students talk about pictures whose production (place and time taken, materials used, purpose, etc) can be debated.
  • Students guess details of the life (e.g. job and character) of a real person or fictional character who they don’t know from a picture of that person, then they read a text (e.g. Wikipedia entry) telling them the real information.
  • Students guess things about another culture from pictures, e.g. guessing why two people are touching noses.

2. Stories

  • The teacher tells their own story, either true or made up. Students can guess the ending, if it is true or not, which details are made up, what part of the teacher’s life it happened in, or the teacher’s feelings about that incident now.
  • Students try to guess the murderer or other mystery from a short story or part of a longer text.
  • Students speculate on how likely a story, e.g. conspiracy theories or explanations of strange occurrences, are to be true.

3. Other Texts

  • Students guess information about the text from the headline or picture, or guess the headline or picture from the text.
  • Students guess things about a book, e.g. a graded reader, from its cover and/ or blurb on the back, then read at least an extract to check.

4. Video

  • Students speculate on what might happen next, who did something (e.g. murdered someone) or why a character did something.
  • Students guess what is going on without the sound or without the picture, then watch again to check.
  • Students guess which language the actors are speaking without the sound, e.g. from the body language and mouth shapes, then watch and check.
  • Students watch without sound and try to guess the accompanying music and/or sound effects.
  • Students guess what an ambiguous/abstract TV ad is advertising, then watch the last few seconds and check.

5. Objects

  • Students guess the age and/or use of an unusual object.
  • Students guess the story behind an object, e.g. its invention or how the teacher came to be in possession of it.

6. Music

  • Students guess things about a song just from the part before the lyrics start or just the first couple of lines.
  • Students try to guess the ending of a song that has the format of a story.
  • Students try to guess the story behind a song, e.g. who it is about, then read an article on the topic.
  • Students listen to world music and try to guess its provenance.
  • Students guess the musical instruments being used and how many people are playing and/or singing, then watch a video to check.
  • Students guess the appearance of the singer from their voice and the type of song, then look at a music video, album cover or picture and check.

7. Other recordings

  • Students guess the genre of a radio programme from its theme tune, then listen to the first few minutes to check.
  • Students listen to the introduction to a radio programme and guess the content, then listen and check.
  • Students listen to sound effects and guess what they are, or how they were produced if they are artificial ones.

8. Language

  • Students guess the part of speech, pronunciation, meaning and/or origins of words and expressions, then read a text on origins of words and expressions or look in a dictionary to check.

9. Misc

  • Students try to guess how figures (from a table, graph, etc) changed.
Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub | November 2011
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.