Just something we did in class: Modals of speculation

Sometimes I do cool stuff in class.

So, I knew it was coming up and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. Nevertheless, the powers that be want it to be tested in some exam type thingy and so I have to teach it in class. ‘Modals of speculation’ can be an absolute stinker of a grammar point to uncover, as I’ve learned from experience.

Here’s a sentence example from the coursebook I use:

The potato might not have been such an important factor in the industrial revolution, because it first started in England, and there were no agricultural problems there.’

I’m sure your pulses are racing with the sheer excitement which that statement raised, but I want you to calm down and focus! Actually, that comes from a text that I really love that looks at the role of the potato in the development of modern history, but as an example of a grammar point in context it’s not the most thrilling sentence I’ve ever read. When I get to that point in any book where I have to uncover modals of speculation in class, I’ve always looked for an interesting way of doing it. Last week I had my four hours worth of lessons frameworked out so that I wouldn’t get to this grammar point until the following day. As things panned out, with half an hour of the last lesson to go I could sense that a change of focus was necessary and that the kids needed something different to challenge them for the end of the day.

Inspiration came just in time…

I actually remember a lot from my school days, although most of it isn’t stuff that I can or would be willing to utilize as a teacher. One thing that I was thinking about recently was the day that a sub teacher came into class and wrote the following on the board (click on the picture to see it more clearly):

Now, the sub teacher was clearly just trying to let time pass without doing any proper teaching, the cheeky bugger, but to his credit he was doing it in an extremely engaging way. The class was immediately thrown into a mass of speculation and deduction as to what could possibly have motivated this man to have undertaken such an action. In fact the following exchanges were typical, not only of ten-year-old me back in 1983 when the sub teacher used this activity, but also of my students when I wrote this up on the white board last week.

Maybe the man wanted to exercise so he walked four floors.’

I think the apartment block was 8 floors above ground and four floors below, so he didn’t need to go any higher.’

Probably the lift was broken.’

I guess he went below ground in the morning to a basement car park but got a bus home in the evening to the ground floor.’

What I like about all of these statements is the way that they express the degrees of certainty with which the students presented their solutions. I’ve only *tidied* the sentences very slightly from what my students actually said, but the ‘maybe’, ‘I think’, ‘probably’ and ‘I guess’ were all methods they employed to express their deductions. Pretty clever, I’d say.

OK, I’m sure you want to know the answer…

The man was very short and could only reach as high as the button for the eighth floor, so had to get off there and walk the rest of the way.

So, how did I make use of their deductions?

First I got them to come up with as many wild ideas that they could think of. We then put this into a ‘could have happened’ category. I dismissed the most outlandish suggestions, leaving only those that were reasonably close to the correct answer. In this case, the closest answer was a suggestion that the buttons were broken from the ninth floor up so couldn’t be pressed. I added the necessary further information so that we were able to create a ‘couldn’t (possibly) have happened’ category, leaving us with what they then considered to be the absolute truth: the thing that ‘must have happened’. I then revealed the answer, to much moaning and groaning.

I then reviewed each of the answers they had suggested, looked at how they had phrased their suggestions – maybe he…’ / ‘I guess he…’ / ‘I’m sure he…’ – and presented the new ‘modal’ way of expressing the same ideas.

This was all lovely and good, so we practiced the new bits of language with the following scenarios:
Brain Teasers

As you can see, some of the scenarios led to students being able to make more certain speculations than others. Let’s look at the answers and you’ll see what I mean.

1. We’ve already seen the answer to the first scenario.

2. In the second, the surgeon must clearly have been the child’s mother (this could lead into a discussion about neutral job titles).

3. In the third, naughty Mustafa must have gone to prison because he’d buried his brother while he was still alive (notice that there was no mention of Ahmet having died).

4. The fourth scenario requires a similar solution: surely they can’t have buried the survivors?

5. In the fifth scenario, the admiral must have worn his uniform to the restaurant to make it so easy for the waiter to address him correctly without knowing him.

6. The sixth one is a real killer because the students are simply not given the whole story: the man must have removed the egg before launching the rocket (warning: this one will make them angry).

The most difficult thing was trying to come up with interesting scenarios, which is why I didn’t bother and just looked up ‘brain teasers’ on the internet. You can find more examples here and here.

If you have any other good ideas for uncovering modals of speculation, please share them in the comments section.