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How to Teach the Verb Can to ESL Students

Updated on April 1, 2016

The verb Can


How to Introduce the Verb Can in the ESL Classroom

The verb ¨can,¨ which is used to express abilities or possibilities, can be introduced to ESL students in a reading, writing or listening activity. For simplicity and to maintain a good pace and to add some kind of amusement, I have chosen to introduced this verb demonstrating some of my own abilities to the students.

This introduction can be conducted at the beginning of your class during the chit chat stage, just after having greeted the students on any morning class. This activity can be introduced like this;

Chit chat Stage

Good morning! How are you doing today? Is there something that you can do and I can´t do? Who can fly?

Someone will answer;

¨birds can fly.¨

That is true!

Can you fly an airplain?

I can´t. Someone will answer. Maybe someone will answer. My uncle can, he works as a pilot.

Great! people can fly airplains.

Ask the following question to a student.

What can you do, Patricia?

Possible answers; I can cook, I can prepare coffee, I can speak French, etc...

The object of this stage is to have all students actively participate

Presentation Stage

In this activity, the students read while the teacher speaks out loud and maintains the students amused.

Do you know what I discovered this morning? I left my house and headed directly to the bus stop. On the way, I had to go through some puddles of water on the road, due to heavy rain this weelk. When walking through the park around my house, I had to overcome one puddle five feet long, so I had to jump over it. And wuhh! I made it. I can jump!

Not only that. I also played basketball with my friends and inserted the ball into the basket three times. I can really play basketball. That is great!

Not so great. I also discovered that I can not make good coffee. When I prepared coffee this morning, I noticed that it was not as good as my mother used to make it. She can make good coffee, but I can´t make good coffee.

Grammar Presentation


I can jump the rope.


I can not jump the rope.


Can you jump the rope?

Short answers

Yes, I can.

No, I can´t.

Practice Stage

Until here, you have introduced three of your own abilities, which is sufficient for the purpose of this lesson. After the introduction, you can ask the students the following question;

Can you jump through a water puddle?

Some will answer yes and some no. You supply the complete answer;

Yes, I can jump a water puddle.

No, I can´t jump a water puddle.

Continue with another question targeted to different students;

Can you play basketball. Those who play basketball will answer yes and those who don´t will answer no. Supply the complete answer;

Yes, I can play basketball.

No, I can´t play basketball.

Ask the next question. This time supply a short answer;

Can you make coffee?

Yes, I can.

No, I can´t.

ESl classrooms are usually no more bigger than 20 students. If in your classroom there are more than 20 students , have the students form groups of four and tell them to practice the given questions orally among them.,

More practice

Tell them to write ten sentences; including five with abilities that they can do and five with activities that they can´t do. After they´ve written the sentences, tell them to share them with another student like this;

I can jump the rope.

Can you jump the rope?

Yes, I can jump the rope

No, I can´t jump the rope.

The students should practice all of their sentences with another student following the prvious model and then change places with their partner.

After they have finished practicing this activity, tell them that they are gong to find the student who shares more abilities with them like this;

Can you swim?

No, I can´t

They continue around the classroom asking questions related to the abilities that they can do;

Can you run marathons?

No, I can´t.

Yes, I can.

Challenging Game

With some playing activities already prepared in advance, tell them that all of you are going to the patio and play some games. You should have prepared material such as a jumping rope, a ballon full of water; some chalk to draw lines on the floor, a ball that they are going to throw to a figure on the wall.

Each of these activities is a challenging activity for the students. They wil take turns and try to overcome the challenge, each time accumulating points. At the end of each challenge, the student who has been able to perform pósitively will have more points.

Activities in the ESL Classroom


More Activities

BEginner Students
For advanced students
Cards with verbs demonstrating abilities
Trravelling abroad
Challenging games
Mimicking the gesture
leisure time

Extended Activity

As homework or out of class activity, tell them that they are going to think about some abilties that they did not know they had. The next time they come to class, they are going to report those abilities like this;

I discovered that I can prepare exotic dishes.

I realized that I can concentrate while reading a book.
I concluded that I can swim 100 meters if I try, etc...


Submit a Comment

  • unvrso profile image

    Jose Juan Gutierrez 18 months ago from Mexico City

    Thanks! There are many approaches to teaching and all are helpful. IT all depends on the approach you take to reach the teaching objective for a particular grammar point.

  • Billie Kelpin profile image

    Billie Kelpin 18 months ago from Newport Beach

    This takes me back almost 50 years ago! I was in teacher training for deaf students, and our Professor, Dr. Alice Streng, tried to illustrate the difficulty of teaching "can" and "do" to deaf children. Oralism was popular at the time and students in the public schools were not using sign language. She asked each of the six student teachers of the deaf in our group to explain how we would teach "can". Of course, "can" cannot be seen on the lips at all which makes it doubly difficult to teach to a child who cannot hear and who doesn't use sign language. Each of us fumbled with an answer. None of us thought of teaching "can" through the question form first. Finally Dr. Streng brought out a jar of pickles (if memory serves me correctly) and passed it to one person asking "Can you open the jar?". "No, I can't". "Can you open the jar?" "No, I can't." And finally when someone opened the jar. "Yes, I can." So that one aspect of "can" as in "having the ability to..." was illustrated. I was struck at that point at the amazing complexity of language that we take so much for granted. I think your illustration of asking the question to get at the use of "can" in a statement is very helpful. Nicely done!