Grammar Essentials: A Guide to Using Modal Verbs in the IELTS Exam 

 May 18, 2024

By  Jonathan

If you’re preparing for the IELTS exam, understanding the nuances of modal verbs is key to achieving your target scores in both writing and speaking. Modal verbs are those little words like “can”, “must”, “will”, and “should”, that add layers of meaning to a sentence. Using them correctly will demonstrate your grammatical competence and precision, both of which are crucial for success on the IELTS.

What are Modal Verbs?

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs, also known as “helping verbs”. Unlike regular verbs, they don’t express actions but instead modify the main verb to show concepts like:

  • Ability: She can speak three languages fluently.
  • Possibility: The results might be announced tomorrow.
  • Necessity: You must arrive on time for the exam.
  • Permission: May I use your pen, please?
  • Advice: You should study regularly.

The Importance of Modal Verbs in IELTS

Modal verbs appear frequently in both written and spoken English, and therefore play a significant role in the IELTS exam. Using them correctly shows the examiners that you possess:

  • Grammatical Accuracy: Incorrect or misplaced modal verbs can make your sentences sound awkward at best or nonsensical at worst.
  • Nuance and Precision: Modal verbs let you express subtle shades of meaning which are essential for high-band writing and speaking scores.
  • Natural Fluency: Understanding how native speakers use modal verbs will make your spoken responses sound more authentic.

Common Modal Verbs for the IELTS

Here’s a table of the most commonly used modal verbs and their various meanings:

Modal VerbMain UsesExample
canAbility, possibility, permissionI can understand complex articles.
couldPast ability, polite requests, possibilityI could swim when I was five.
mayPossibility, formal permissionThe storm may arrive tomorrow.
mightLess certain possibilityI might have time for a coffee later.
mustNecessity, strong obligationYou must bring your passport for the exam.
shouldAdvice, recommendation, expectationYou should start revising for the test early.
wouldFuture in the past, hypothetical situations, polite requestsI said I would help you with that.

Key Tips for Using Modal Verbs

  1. Negative Forms: Most modal verbs form their negative simply by adding ‘not’ after the modal.
    • Example: You must not arrive late.
  2. No Changes: Modal verbs don’t change form regardless of the verb’s subject (he, she, it, they). They’re always followed by the base form (infinitive) of the main verb.
    • Example: She can play the piano.
  3. Tenses and Other Forms: When expressing past ability or giving advice about the past, use “could have” and “should have”.
  • Example: You should have studied harder.

Practising Your Modal Verbs

  • Reading and Listening: Pay attention to how modal verbs are used in IELTS preparation materials, articles, and podcasts.
  • Sentence Transformation: Try rewriting sentences using different modal verbs to change their meaning.
  • Speaking Practice: Use modal verbs with confidence in your IELTS speaking practice sessions. Ask your practice partner for feedback.
  • Online Quizzes: There are many online quizzes focusing on modal verbs that offer instant feedback.

Final Note

While there are other aspects of grammar that are important for IELTS, getting to grips with modal verbs gives you a solid foundation. Understanding the fine distinctions between meanings and using them naturally will set your communication apart, both in the exam and in real-life use of English.

Jonathan has been teaching students to prepare for the IELTS and PTE Exams for more than 10+ years. He's taught English to students in various countries in the world including Singapore, China, Australia, Canada and Colombia.