Past modals speaking activity: abandoned places

The aim of this activity is to practice using modal verbs to speculate about the past. It is suitable for levels intermediate and higher. It is a good choice for students preparing for their FCE or CAE exams who need to work more on the use of modal verbs. It is based around the photos in this online article.

The Task

Step 1

Choose a visual from the article and show it to your students. Ask them to say what they see. Then, ask them to think about what this place might have been like in the past. Draw your students’ attention to the following modal verbs used to talk about the past:

  • might have (possibility)
  • could have (possibility)
  • must have (certainty something was true)
  • can’t have (certainty something wasn’t true)

and their respective meanings and functions.

This is the image I usually start this class with. My students usually determine it is an old, ruined house / mansion/palace. Then we speculate together about what it once might have been:

  • It might have been a┬áhouse.
  • People who lived there must have been rich.
  • It might have belonged to an important person (politician, businessman etc.)
  • It can’t have been in the centre of the city because it’s now covered with plants.
  • It must have had many rooms and a big garden.
  • It might have been abandoned because it was haunted (my personal favourite!)

I then reveal the caption for the picture: “A home abandoned after a fire during World War II. ”

Step 2

Ask your students to work in pairs/individually and choose a photograph of an abandoned place they want to work with (you either need to print some photos or allow your students to go to the website). Ask them to come up with as many sentences using past modals as possible.

Step 3

Check and correct your students’ sentences with the whole class. Find out which picture was the most popular and why. Ask whether your students have ever visited a similar, abandoned place/whether there is a similar, abandoned place in the area. If so, try to find out what they think this place might have been like in the past.

If you are looking for more engaging grammar activities take a look here, here, and here.

Personal Experience

I have often heard from my students that using modal verbs to talk about the past was “too much” and they had difficulty getting their heads around it. I have always tried providing them with a suitable context in which practising this particular grammar point wouldn’t sound artificial and they could see the actual point of it. This collection of photographs allowed me to do just that and additionally sparked a couple of interesting discussions about abandoned buildings my students had seen or heard of.

One Comment

  1. I used this a few weeks ago when I was observed by the director of my school – it blended well with some present perfect activities beforehand, then speculating on who certain people may or might be, and then this. Was an upper level PET group, and they loved discussing these pictures. Tried it with a CAE student as well, and also was quite successful. Excellent material!

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