How to use "Can" and "Can't": A Beginning ESL Lesson

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This lesson is an effective way to practice “can/can’t” sentences with beginning students who have just learned the form, or to review the structure with slightly more advanced students. Before beginning the lesson, make sure the students are familiar with the structures for modal verbs, and the meaning of the words. On the board, write some sentences with obvious mistakes, such as “Joe can swims” and “Michael can to run fast” and elicit the correct forms. You can check that students understand the meaning of “can/can’t” by writing “I can fly” and “I can’t write my name” and asking if these sentences are true about you.

The Lesson: Superman and a Baby

Draw a picture of Superman and a baby on the board, or bring pictures of these to class. Write the following list of verbs on the board:








Help people



(For higher level students doing review, don’t give them the verbs)

Elicit a few “can/can’t” sentences about the baby (“The baby can cry,” “The baby can’t read”) and about Superman (“Superman can fly,” “Superman can help people.”) Write the students’ sentences on the board.

Have the students work in small groups or pairs to talk about what Superman and the baby can and can’t do. Encourage them to think of their own verbs to use in their sentences. Allow them 5-7 minutes for this part.

Invite each group or pair to share a sentence or two with the class, and make corrections where necessary. For sentences like “The baby can’t walk,” ask if this is always true in order to encourage discussion.

This lesson can be extended into a short writing exercise or a homework assignment. Have the students write “can/can’t” sentences on their own. They can write about Superman and the baby, or you can ask them to think of two other people or animals and write about what they can and can’t do.