Modals of Ability in English: Can, Could and Be able to

Modals of ability in English are used to express a person’s capacity or capability to do something.

The main modals of ability in English are:

  1. Can: It expresses general ability or capability to do something. For example, “I can swim.”
  2. Could: is the past tense form of “can” and is used to indicate past ability. For example, “When I was younger, I could run very fast.”
  3. Be able to: This phrase is used when the ability is a result of a particular situation or circumstance. For example, “she will be able to speak fluent Spanish.”

Continue reading to learn how to make sentences and questions with the different modals of ability in English

Modals of Ability in English: Could

These are some example of sentences with could

  1. When I was in university,  I couldn’t drive
  2.  When I was young,  I could run very fast
  3. While I lived in Miami, I could run every morning

These are some examples of questions with could

  • Could you play the piano when you were younger?
  • A little bit
  • Could you speak English when you were in high school?
  • A little bit because I started when I was 16
  • Could you swim when you were younger?
  • No, I couldn’t
  • Could you skate when you were 15?
  • No, I didn’t like it that much
  • Could you work for hours?
  • I could When I was in my 30’s

Modals of Ability in English: Able to

These are some example of sentences with could

  1.  I wasn’t able to speak English
  2. I am able to speak English
  3. I will be able to speak French

These are some questions with able to

  • Were you able to drive?
  • No, I wasn’t
  • will you be able to speak English Fluently very soon?
  • I don’t think so
  • Were you able to run fast when you were younger?
  • Yes, I was
  • Are you able to fight well?
  • I am a MMA fighter
  • Will you be able to pay the rent?
  • I already got Job Miss Daniels

Modals of Ability in English: Can

These are some example of sentences with could

  1. Allan can swim well
  2. Jack can’t play the piano
  3. Jena can cook delicious food

These are some examples and questions using the modal can

  • Can you speak French?
  • Yes, I can
  • Can you run fast?
  • No, I can’t
  • Can you play the piano?
  • Yes, I can
  • Can you swim?
  • Yes, I can but no in the open ocean

These are some examples of the modal in more complex sentences.

  1. When I was in University, I couldn’t drive but I can drive now
  2. When I was a kid, I couldn’t speak English but I can speak fluently now
  3. I could sleep eight hours a day when I was younger but I can’t do that now

Modals of Ability Exercises

Read the information given by Linda, Derek, Ryan, James, Jane and Stacy and answer the true and false exercise.


She  is one of the most talented person I know, she can cook delicious food, she can drive a car but she rides her bike to work. Last week, We went to the beach and  I could see that she can swim and surf really well.


He is a professional soccer player, he can run really fast, he can speak two languages, he used to play soccer when he was in high school. He is also a very good singer


He is a travel blogger, he can write great articles about tourist destinations, he likes to read a lot about touristic places. He is a talented dancer, he really enjoys nightlife.


He is 30 years old, he works in a gym, he likes to exercise a lot, he used to do exercises a lot when he was in high-school. He used to eat a lot when he was a little kid but now he is in shape.


She is 26 years old, she could sing really well when she was in high school but now she is a DJ, She performs in different clubs.  She used to listen to music a lot when she was a teenager. She can speak English, French and Spanish.


She is amazing with computers, she is good at designing websites. She works from home, she can create amazing videos. In her free time, she can play tennis really well.

True or False

  1.  Linda can drive a motorcycle:_______________________
  2. Linda can speak three languages:___________________
  3. Derek  is a travel blogger:___________________________
  4. Derek can speak two languages:____________________
  5. Ryan can dance really well:_________________________
  6. Linda can’t surf:_____________________________________
  7. James doesn’t like to exercise:_____________________
  8. Jane can mix music:________________________________
  9. Stacy can design websites:_________________________
  10. Stacy can surf well:_________________________________

How to Express Ability in English – Lesson Plan

This is a lesson plan with the Task-Based Approach in mind

Schema Activation (10 Mins)

  1.  Students makes two or three teams and they play charades using the action verbs.

Task#1 ( 25 Mins)

  1. Teacher introduces the topic by giving example about examples of people expressing ability in the past and future.
  2. Students read the image descriptions and indicate which are key grammar structures to express ability and the action verb included.
  3.   Now that they students  have review some sentences, they make two rows  and play Chinese / English whispers

Task#2 (30 Mins)

  1. Students  make pairs, one of them has  a reading and another person has questions about the reading.
  2. They don’t show each other sheets,  a student makes a  question and the other students searches for the answers and responds orally once he or she has it.
  3. When they finished, they do the same exercises with another classmate

Task #3 ( 20 Mins)

  1. Students are sent a Powerpoint in a PDF Format and they have to express ability  using the images found in the PDF file as reference.
  2. They switch every two minutes and talk to other classmates about it

Main-Task (40 Mins)

  1. Student are sent a Google Form that has information about what the students is able to do, questions such as: Do you know how to drive?Can you sing?Can you dance?
  2. Students asked those questions to each other
  3. Once they finish they have to tell each other abilities, then they have to report those abilities to another couple.

Post-Task (30 Mins)

Teachers sends students a quiz that summarizes the topic covered today: How to Express Ability

Manuel Campos, English Professor

Manuel Campos

I am Jose Manuel, English professor and creator of, a blog whose mission is to share lessons for those who want to learn and improve their English