ESL Students as Advice Columnists: Learning Modal Verbs

My wife is a terrible cook — I mean the worst. We haven’t had anything good to eat since we got married, but she tries so hard. What should I do? Doesn’t a husband have a right to a decent meal? My mother was a great cook!

Dear Hungry Husband,
You’re right, every husband has the right for a good meal. How about cooking on your own? If you’re not a great cook, your mother should give advice to your wife how to cook your favorite meals. Or did you ever think about paying cooking lessons for your wife? If all these options won’t work, and if it’s a really important topic for you, you should look for another wife! ;-)

I’m going on a blind date tonight. I’m so nervous! What should I talk about? What should I NOT talk about? How can I get my date to like me?

Dear Nervous,
You should relax first because nobody knows what’s going to happen. You’d better show yourself as you are. Be very calm, very friendly. The first impression is most important in a date. Make you a humorous person. You can make it.

Clean up the grammar a bit, and my ESL students could give Ann Landers, Dear Abby, or maybe even Carolyn Hax a run for her money. Our Advanced Plus class had quite the romp on Wednesday night as students answered a series of cringe-inducing personal questions purportedly penned to advice columnists.

In the process, they practiced using modal verbs. These auxiliary verbs, like should, could, and might, express obligation or possibility. We often use them to give advice, suggestions, and recommendations to others.

As we began the lesson, Caroline, my co-teacher, confided to me that she and her (entirely fictitious) husband were fighting. I asked the students how I could advise my friend to see a marriage counselor. As they came up with ways to express this, we created a ladder on the board, ranging from most authoritative (firm order) to least authoritative (gentle suggestion):

See a marriage counselor!
You should see a marriage counselor.
You have to/must see a marriage counselor.
You’d better see a marriage counselor.
You ought to see a marriage counselor.
You could see a marriage counselor.
You might see a marriage counselor.
Why don’t you see a marriage counselor?
How about seeing a marriage counselor?
Why not see a marriage counselor?

We talked about how you use the imperative form of the verb to give a command; this is the strongest way to give advice. At the other end of the scale, advice phrased as a question is a tactful suggestion without much force behind it. And we noted that while the modals are followed by the simple form of the main verb (see), the phrase how about is followed by the gerund (seeing).

We asked the students if they ever read advice columns in the newspaper. (I love the British term for advice columnists, “agony aunts.”) Almost all were familiar with this genre. We gave them a list of 15 questions, written by Caroline, and read through the questions as a class, clarifying vocabulary. The students then worked in pairs to choose two or three questions and write answers to them, using the grammatical forms on the board. Then they shared their answers with the class.

My mother-in-law has been living at my house for over six months. She doesn’t have a job and sits on the couch all day eating bonbons. She doesn’t clean or cook, and she’s not very nice. I think she has overstayed her welcome. What should I do?

Dear Daughter-in-law,
How about packing all of her belongings and buying a bus ticket to Alaska?

My best friend gave me a bright purple leather jacket for my birthday. It has a skull and crossbones on the back and it glows in the dark. I hate it. She keeps asking me if I like it and when I’m going to wear it. What can I tell her?

Dear Proud Purple Leather Jacket Owner,
You should be lucky with this present, everybody wants to wear such a jacket! If you are really not lucky with it, you could get revenge by giving a pink “Hello Kitty” jacket to your friend and invite her going out to catch some beers at a biker’s/motard’s bar!

My roommate keeps asking to borrow my toothbrush. I’ve said no repeatedly, but I think she’s using it anyway to clean her hamster’s cage. What should I do?

Dear Roommate,
The solution is easy, you should keep locked your toothbrush in.

Tomorrow I have a really great job interview that I’m so excited about. It’s for a Russian language specialist — I’ll be translating documents from Russian to English. Really well paid! The only problem is I don’t speak any Russian. What can I say during the interview to fool the recruiter?

Dear Job Seeker,
You’d better learn some russian sentences quickly! Don’t let him ask you too much, instead you could talk about your russian aunt.

This month my credit card bill is really high. I had so many things to buy: my 100th pair of shoes, new clothes, extra-high thread-count sheets for my dog, and a new diamond-studded toothbrush. How can I cut back on my spending?

Dear Big Spender,
Do you think that you really need these things? You should see a phycologist and ask for help to solve the impulsive manner for buying many things. You might freeze your credit card in ice.

My roommate hasn’t showered in over a week and he keeps leaving empty Cheetos bags on the floor of our apartment. What should I do?

Dear Roommate,
My advice for this situation is that you must put a fine of $2 per pack for leaving bags on the floor and when it get on top of $50 you should stop to no longer pay more the TV cable.

Every time I go into my boss’s office for a meeting, he takes his shoes off. His feet really smell. I mean bad! Is there any way I could let him know that his stinky feet need shoes?

Dear Employee,
I think that you could tell him that you are happy because in the farmacy you found an effective refresh odor for you feet. So maybe he would realize to use it.

We have two married couples in the class, and the question from the hungry (and sexist) husband drew plenty of laughs. While the answer above, suggesting that the mother-in-law give cooking lessons, was provided by one of the husbands in the class, his wife had a different idea: “First, you could go out for dinner at least 3 times a week.” Yet another student thought the wife might shape up when confronted with the unappetizing alternative of American fast food: “I think that you should invite her every night during three or four days in the row to McDonald, so she’ll realize what is the problem without any explanation.”

This is a good activity for teaching modal verbs to an upper-intermediate or advanced ESL class. All the students got comfortable using you should, you could, how about, and other phrases for giving advice. I’m lucky to have a co-teacher with a great imagination, and her questions made the activity funny and fun. The complete list of questions is below. Enjoy!

  1. My roommate hasn’t showered in over a week and he keeps leaving empty Cheetos bags on the floor of our apartment. What should I do?
  2. I’m going on a blind date tonight. I’m so nervous! What should I talk about? What should I NOT talk about? How can I get my date to like me?
  3. I have the WORST breath. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I brush my teeth once a week and floss twice a month. I eat an onion a day to keep the dentist away. I do everything right! What can I do to solve my stinky breath?
  4. My mother-in-law has been living at my house for over six months now. She doesn’t have a job and sits on the couch all day eating bonbons. She doesn’t clean or cook, and she’s not very nice. I think she has overstayed her welcome. What should I do?
  5. My roommate keeps asking to borrow my toothbrush. I’ve said no repeatedly, but I think she’s using it anyway to clean her hamster’s cage. What should I do?
  6. Every time I go into my boss’s office for a meeting, he takes his shoes off. His feet really smell. I mean bad! Is there any way I could let him know that his stinky feet need shoes?
  7. My boyfriend and I are going on vacation next week. At the last minute one of our friends invited herself along. She booked her tickets and everything. This was supposed to be a romantic trip, but now we have an extra person. Three’s a crowd, you know? How can I persuade her not to come?
  8. My wife is a terrible cook — I mean the worst. We haven’t had anything good to eat since we got married, but she tries so hard. What should I do? Doesn’t a husband have a right to a decent meal? My mother was a great cook!
  9. I’m going on a date tonight with a man I met online. I told him I was 40, but I’m really a lot older. What are some cool and hip things I could say on the date so he’ll think I’m young? Should I talk about Justin Bieber?
  10. This month my credit card bill is really high. I had so many things to buy: my 100th pair of shoes, new clothes, extra-high thread-count sheets for my dog, and a new diamond-studded toothbrush. How can I cut back on my spending?
  11. I met a really nice guy this weekend and got his phone number, but when I called the number, it was a pizza delivery place. Do you think it was a mistake? I don’t want to date a pizza deliveryman! What can I do?
  12. My best friend gave me a bright purple leather jacket for my birthday. It has a skull and crossbones on the back and it glows in the dark. I hate it. She keeps asking me if I like it and when I’m going to wear it. What can I tell her?
  13. My girlfriend went to the hair salon today for a haircut. The salon accidentally died her hair BRIGHT PINK. It looks awful, and she’s so upset. What can I say to make her feel better?
  14. Tomorrow I have a really great job interview that I’m so excited about. It’s for a Russian language specialist — I’ll be translating documents from Russian to English. Really well paid! The only problem is I don’t speak any Russian. What can I say during the interview to fool the recruiter?
  15. The spark has gone out of my marriage. My husband goes out every night and we never — well, you know. But our cellphone bill is really high, and I saw that he got 700 text messages last month from a number I don’t recognize. What could be going on?
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2 Responses to ESL Students as Advice Columnists: Learning Modal Verbs

  1. Laura Jane says:

    Thank you for this wonderful lesson! I will be using it in the future!
    However, right now I am doing a research paper on different ways to teach modal auxiliaries and would like to be able to cite this source. Could I have your name, please? If not, I can do without it!

  2. Natalie Wexler says:

    This is great! We used it with our 4A class when we were doing modals, as suggested in the syllabus, and the students really enjoyed it — and got practice making sentences with modals. Since we were doing both past and present tense modals (“should have done” as well as “should do”), I modified some of the questions to put them in the past tense. Thanks so much for doing this and posting it for others. The questions are really creative and amusing.

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