Modal Verbs and Agony Aunts: Conversation Class for Older Mid-level Students

18 10 2012

Today’s topic is MODAL VERBS. Can anyone tell me a modal verb?

My mid-level students have all been over modal verbs multiple times in their regular English classes, and  they can produce a good starting list when prompted (we’ll skip shall for sake of modern relevance). In general, though, they’re reluctant to regularly use any beyond can, and their form needs work.

Once the map’s been generated, we talk about usage: these verbs are for ability and possibility. We use them to permit and prohibit, to oblige and forbid, to suggest and advise.

I sneak in a grammar review here – what’s easy about modal verbs? No matter the subject, these special verbs don’t change their form – I could walk, you could walk, he could walk, she could walk, it could walk, we could walk, they could walk.

If you want a negative, just stick a NOT onto the end of the principal verb of the sentence – that is, to the modal: I could not walk, you could not walk, he could not walk, she could not walk, it could not walk, we could not walk, they could not walk.

To take it into the past is as simple as changing the base form of the second verb to its present perfect: I could have walked, you could have walked, he could have walked, she could have walked, it could have walked, we could have walked, they could have walked. By the time I get to the end of this list, I’m going a zillion syllables a minute, and I think the students get the idea – don’t stress about the grammar here, because it couldn’t be simpler.

I start a new map: Agony Aunt. “La Tía de las Agonías”? Not quite – I explain the idea of an advice columnist, then elicit ideas of possible situations that might prompt someone to send in a letter. Issues with relationships, family, friends, work, school, decision-making… a whole heap of personal problems.

The mere existence of agony aunts can seem a bit inexplicable, so I ask: why in the world would someone write to a perfect stranger for advice instead of just asking their friends? It takes students a bit of thinking, but eventually they reach the conclusion that it must have to do with anonymity. YES, precisely – you write a stranger because your problem is embarrassing. That’s why people write, it’s why people read, and it’s definitely why I’ve chosen it as today’s vehicle for conversation.

It’s time to put the desks together and play agony aunt ourselves. I bring out four Dear Abby letters from the desperate, adapted to an appropriate level of English. Students take turns reading them aloud (hello, Reading!), explaining what the problem is (hey, Listening!), and theorizing about possible solutions using the modals we’ve generated earlier in the class (‘sup, Speaking!).

Dear Abby,
I am 16 years old and I want to leave school this year. My parents say it is too early for me and that I should be trying to get into university. I want to work with my friend in McDonalds. Then, I can start earning money to buy things.

Dear Abby,
I saw one of my work colleagues taking some paper from the office and put it in her bag. Do you think I should report her for theft to the boss or not? My parents always taught me to tell the truth and that stealing is wrong. What do you think?

Dear Abby,
I have been married for nearly a year and my husband doesn’t seem interested in me anymore. I think he may be interested in his co-worker, a woman half his age. I am pregnant now and feel fat and ugly. Is there any hope for our marriage?

Dear Abby,
I love my partner dearly but I can’t cope with his aversion to soap and water and clean clothing. He wasn’t like this when I first knew him. He helps pay the bills but I hate him being in the house because he smells. I’ve tried being direct but nothing works. He has enough time to spend in the bar, so why not in the shower?

The best advice so far:
You might burn the school.
You ought to blackmail your colleague.
You must take revenge on the co-worker. You should do jiu-jitsu and punch her face.
You must throw him in the shower and hose him down. Like a cat.

Things get more personal when I hand out “secret” role-playing cards. Students read over the personality they must assume, and then proceed to ask the class for advice. With stronger groups, I let them wander around the room; weaker groups stay seated in the big table and request help one by one.

The characters:

  • You are a 10-year-old boy with long hair. Your parents tell you it looks dirty and they want you to cut it, but you think you are old enough to decide your style for yourself.
  • You are a 45-year-old single woman with many cats. You have seen ghosts in the mirrors of your house for the past week. You are scared you might be crazy.
  • You are the vice president of a very large company. You know the president of the company has been stealing money – but the problem is, he’s also your brother.
  • You are a 30-year-old mother of five young children. Your husband makes enough money to support your family, but you are home with the kids all day, and you are very bored.
  • You are a 19-year-old college student studying Economics. Your best friend from high school is the lead singer in a rock band, and he invites you to leave school and go on tour with him.
  • You are a 16-year-old high school student. Your mom tells you that she is actually a superhero with superpowers, and that she has to leave you for several years to save the world.
  • You are a 17-year-old high school student. You know you are smart, but you can’t stop stuttering, and you get very poor marks in school.
  • You are a 50-year-old dwarf with big dreams to become a famous ballet dancer. You have never danced before in your life.

I always have to explain “stuttering” and “dwarf,” but all of these work exceptionally well. My favorite actor actually incorporated st-st-st-st-stuttering into his speech. The soundest advice, though, was for the would-be-dancing dwarf: he might do well by taking his potential pirouette prowess to Jackass.


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