Author: British Council | Published on 1 October 2022


1. Present examples 

1a. Present to the whole class

Before the lesson, prepare 3 true and 1 false sentence about yourself. 2 sentences should include can and can’t; 2 should include could and couldn’t. Include some surprising facts. For example:

  1. I can speak English but I can’t fly. (T)
  2. I can cook but I can’t swim. (T)
  3. When I was a child, I could play the guitar but I couldn’t ride a bicycle. (F) 
  4. When I was a baby, I could cry but I couldn’t read. (T) 

Write them on the board and say: “Here are some sentences about me. Work with a partner. Discuss and decide which one you think is false.”

Take feedback. Encourage learners to explain and give reasons for their answers. Share more information about when and how you learnt to do some of these things. This will help to develop trust in your classroom. 

1b. Consolidate learners’ understanding 

Ask: “What are these sentences about?” (=my skills or abilities)

Write these gapped sentences on the board:

1. We use ______ and _______ to talk about present ability.

2. We use ______ and ______ to talk about past ability.

Say: “Look at the example sentences on the board. Complete the rules in pairs.”

Take feedback. (1= can/can’t; 2=could/couldn’t). Point to your example sentences. Ask: “What kind of word comes after can, can’t, could, couldn’t?” (=base form of the verb). Circle the verbs, e.g. speak, ride, etc. 

Ask a learner a question, e.g. “Portia, can you read?” After the answer, say: “Portia can read”. Repeat with other learners and talk about different abilities or skills. Include some that learners definitely can’t do, e.g. fly, drive a car, etc.  

1c. Let learners practise 

Write a list of abilities/skills on the board and the question, Can you _______? 

Say: “Work in pairs. Ask your partner questions. Remember their answers.”

After 3–4 minutes, say: “Portia, tell me something about your partner”. Elicit a sentence with can and can’t (point to your examples on the board) e.g. Eric can read but he can’t fly. Repeat with other learners.

1d. Build on new information 

Say: “Now let’s talk about when you were babies. Rejoyce, when you were a baby, could you speak English?” Elicit ‘No, I couldn’t’. Say: “No, Rejoyce couldn’t speak English when she was a baby.” Repeat with other learners and include some that learners could do, e.g. eat, cry, sleep, etc. 

Add eat, cry, and sleep to the list on the board and the question, “When you were a baby, could you _______?” 

Say: “Work in pairs. Ask your partner questions. Remember their answers.”

After 2–3 minutes, say: “Alain, tell me something about your partner”. Elicit a sentence with could and couldn’t (point to your examples on the board) e.g. Fatou could sleep but he couldn’t walk. Repeat with 2 or 3 other learners.

Ask: “Can we speak English?” Elicit ‘Yes, we can’. Ask: “Can we fly?” Elicit ‘No, we can’t’. 

1e. Clarify understanding 

Point to the 2 rules on the board. Say: “We use can, can’t, could, couldn’t with everybody – I, you, he, she, it, we, and they.” Write this rule on the board.

To help learners you could:

  • Create and use flashcards for skills/abilities
  • Underline the modal verbs can/can’t/could/couldn’t on the board

2. Feedback 

Some key points which you might want to share with them/write on the board include: 

The use:  We commonly use can/can’t to talk about abilities and skills. Examples: I can read. I can’t fly. We use could/couldn’t to talk about abilities and skills in the past. Examples: When I was a baby I couldn’t read. When I was a child, I could play the guitar. 

Other uses of can/could/can’t include: 

  • asking for and giving permission, e.g. Please can I go to the toilet? Yes, you can. No, you can’t. 
  • requests, e.g. Can/could you help me? Sorry, I can’t I’m busy. 
  • offers, e.g. Can I help you? 
  • possibility, e.g. It could rain later.
  • suggestions, e.g. We could meet after school.

Contractions: the contractions can’t and couldn’t are commonly used in speaking and writing. Cannot and could not are used in formal writing. 

Pronunciation: It is important to note the difference in the pronunciation of can and can’t to avoid miscommunication. Can has a short vowel sound /kæn/; can’t has a long vowel sound /ka:nt/.

3. Use the grammar

a) Can/can’t 20 questions:  Learners work in pairs or groups. They take turns to think of an object. The others ask questions to guess what it is, e.g. Can I see it now? Can I buy it? Can I eat it? Can I hold it in my hand? Etc.

b) Superheroes: Learners create their own superheroes, draw a picture and talk or write about what they can do.   

c) Make me say ‘Yes, I can’: Learners work in pairs. A asks B questions but the answer must always be ‘Yes, I can’. As soon as B says, No I can’t, it is A’s turn. Another way to do this activity is that the answer must always be ‘No, I can’t. 

d) Can/can’t definition game: Learners work in groups. They take turns to make can/can’t sentences about an animal, an object or a person. The others guess the answer.

e) Can brainstorming: The teacher gives a time limit, e.g. 5 minutes. Learners work in teams to brainstorm true sentences about one object, e.g. a bus (A bus can move. A bus can turn. A bus can carry people. Etc.) The team with the most true sentences are the winners. 

f) Now and then: Learners look through their book and notebook and reflect on their learning. They discuss what they can do now but couldn’t do at the start of the course. Then they write a diary page about their achievements. 


Elicit: How a teacher gets information from learners, e.g. asking questions, prompting.

Consolidate: asking students to test out the new skills, language or knowledge they have gained through the course of the lesson or overall topic

Base form: The form of the verb listed in the dictionary, without any endings (e.g. -s, -ed or -ing)