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What are modal verbs?

What are modal verbs?
Modal verbs indicate possibility, obligation or ability. Find out how your child will be taught about modal verbs in grammar lessons in KS2 and the kinds of activities they might be asked to complete in the primary-school classroom.

What are modal verbs?

A modal verb is a special type of verb.

Modal verbs change or affect other verbs in a sentence. They are used to show the level of possibility, indicate ability, show obligation or give permission. Modal verbs behave differently to ‘ordinary’ verbs.

The most common modal verbs are:

  • will
  • would
  • should
  • could
  • may
  • can
  • shall
  • ought to
  • must
  • might

Modal verbs explained

Modal verbs can be used when we want to show how likely something is to happen. For example:

It might rain tomorrow.
"I shall go to the ball!" said Cinderella.
We will have fish and chips for tea.

Modal verbs can be used when we want to show a skill or someone's ability to do something. For example:

Jack can sing.
We could walk.

Obligation and advice
Modal verbs can be used to state when something is necessary/compulsory, to give an instruction or to give advice. For example:

You must tidy your room.
She ought to help with the shopping.
James should cook the dinner tonight.

Modal verbs are used to give or ask for permission for an activity. For example:

You may have another biscuit.
You can get down from the table now.
Could I go to the toilet, please?


What and how are children taught about modal verbs in primary school?

As of September 2014 the national curriculum requires children to be taught grammar more explicitly.

Children will be familiar with words such as will, would, should, could, can, may, might, shall, must and ought to in KS1 and lower KS2 through reading and most likely use them in their writing. However, in Year 5 children will be formally taught the grammatical term modal verb.

In Year 5 children should be able to identify modal verbs in texts when reading and will be shown the different effects of using modal verbs in their writing via teacher modelling and they will most likely be given exercises or short writing tasks to complete. Children may be asked to highlight modal verbs in a text, discuss the effect of a modal verb on a sentence when reading, and choose a modal verb to complete a sentence or change a modal verb to alter a sentence in a writing task.

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