Year 5 – Teaching modal verbs


The pupils in Year 5 have recently completed work on persuasive texts and are able to employ a range of persuasive devices, including rhetorical questions, emotional language, exaggeration and repetition. They have constructed adverts for new products that they have presented to some local business people in an attempt to persuade them to manufacture their product. To practise writing persuasive letters, they have written letters to the local council asking them to build a skateboard ramp in the local park. In both cases, the children had a purpose for their work and received feedback indicating the success of their persuasive writing. They are now exploring the use of modal verbs in texts to suggest shades of meaning and degrees of certainty. 

Learning objectives

  • To explore the functions of modal verbs.
  • To be able to explain how changing the modal verb can change the meaning of the sentence.
  • To use modal verbs accurately to convey meaning. 

Starter: Shades of meaning

Arrange the children into groups of four or five and hand them an envelope containing sentences that include modal verbs. You could also use tablets or laptops and ask the children to move the sentences on the screen. Ask the children to order them according to certainty of outcome and highlight the particular words or phrases that give an indication of possibility.

Main lesson


Show the class a plain cardboard box containing a pair of trainers and explain that a local business is about to manufacture these trainers and we have the only prototype. We need to plan a marketing strategy to persuade people that these are the greatest trainers on earth. Alternatively, you could use a new soft drink, an item of clothing or a new breakfast cereal. Try relating the product to your class topic or the interests of your class. You could even invite a local business in to talk to the children or ‘mock up’ a letter from a business. Another option is to ask someone to act in role to explain the task to the children. You may also want to consider asking someone to act as an expert (for example, the chief executive officer of a company) to communicate the task by emailing a video clip. Consider how best to engage the children in your class.

Explain that the use of modal verbs will be very important in the campaign and they must produce an advert to persuade people to buy the product. You may want to suggest children work in pairs or individually depending on the needs of your class.

Begin by showing the children an advert that you have written with sentences containing modal verbs. Invite discussion and ask for clarification. Challenge the more able by asking them to suggest alternative sentences. Ask them: which would be more effective? Why?

Choose sentences written by the children that demonstrate the effective use of modal verbs to add to the class working wall to act as good examples. You will need to explain why they are effective and how a sentence such as You will be the envy of your friends is more powerful than You might be the envy of your friends when attempting to persuade people to buy your product.

Critical questions to ask pupils:

          Substitute your modal verb for an alternative. Does it still have the same meaning?

          How has it changed the meaning of the sentence?

          Can you explain your choice of modal verb to a partner?

          Does your sentence read well and make sense? Compare with examples on the working wall.

Practical application

Children can design their advert using modal verbs that have a particular function for this genre of writing. You will need to consider the use of scaffolds and prompts to support some children. You may want to ask some children to record their sentences using Easi-Speak microphones or video cameras so that they are less constrained by the transcriptional skills necessary to produce a written advert. More able children may benefit from completing a storyboard for a TV advert or writing a letter to a company asking them to stock the trainers.


In pairs, children need to organise themselves so that one is acting as a marketing expert and one is a member of the public. The children must role play the conversation using sentences containing modal verbs. Pupils can give feedback to their partners on how their choice of phrases influenced their decision to buy the product. Write their most effective phrase on a sticky note and attach it to the front of their book.

Assessment (measuring achievement)

Assessment for learning

The starter activity in this lesson allows you to assess prior knowledge. The children may not necessarily be aware that they are specifically using modal verbs but may be able to use them correctly to indicate shades of meaning.

You may want to explore the use of these verbs during guided reading, asking children to explain why the author has chosen to employ that particular verb. This will also provide opportunities to discuss alternatives and assess how much children know about their function.

Ask the children to compose sentences containing each of the nine main modal verbs: can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would. How does it change the intention of the character? Can they order them on a continuum from possible to probable to certain?

Assessment at the point of learning

Ensure that any teaching assistants or adults working within your lesson are aware of what constitutes learning in terms of modal verb use. When they see children using modal verbs correctly or demonstrating their understanding through careful explanation of choice, ask them to record this on a sticky note or in a designated book. In this way, you will be able to address individual learning throughout the course of the lesson.

When you are working with a guided group, challenge children by asking the critical questions suggested above. You will be able to assess their learning by evaluating the answers they give and address misconceptions in order to clarify understanding.

Can they explain why they should include might rather than will? How does this change the meaning of the sentence? Does it contribute to the effectiveness of the text?

Can they explain why? Do they understand the difference between shall and should? All of these questions will need to be explored if you are to ensure that every child achieves the learning objectives for this particular lesson.

Assessment of learning

When marking the children’s work, you will need to consider the following questions:

                        Have the pupils demonstrated accurate use of modal verbs?

                        Have pupils identified modal verbs correctly within the text?

                        Have the pupils deliberately chosen a modal verb that shows intent?

                        To what extent have the pupils persuaded you to purchase the product?

Note how children use modal verbs in other curriculum subjects and when writing different types of text. 


Children will need to understand how a verb operates within a clause. Before asking children to identify modal auxiliary verbs, make sure that they possess the necessary understanding of main verbs.

There is a tendency for some children to write he could of instead of he could have as this is what they hear in conversation. It might be appropriate to spend some time explaining this to your class so as to avoid this grammatical inconsistency.

Pupils for whom English is an additional language (EAL) need to develop the ability to use modal verbs to express a greater range of possibilities. The subtleties in meaning will need to be given explicit attention and demonstrated in detail, particularly for lower-achieving EAL writers. This could be done through drama, speaking and listening activities or through discussion around common dilemmas, for example, what would you do if. . .?

For more lesson inspiration and for the theory behind how to develop good lessons, see the Lessons in Teaching Series.