The most useful can/ can't for ability activities

Summary: Interactive classroom activities for can and can't for ability, focussing on language that students really need.

Because teaching can and can’t is almost always both easy and fun, this article focuses on the much more important criteria of usefulness. Ways of making can/ can’t practice more useful for students’ language development include:

-       Concentrating on the aspects of this language that students actually find difficult

-       Teaching other useful language at the same time

-       Working as a warm up for the rest of the class

-       Including useful skills work 

Can/ can’t simplest responses games

The biggest problem students tend to have with can/ can’t is with the most important thing of all – knowing whether people are making positive or negative statements. The best activity for practising this is getting students to race to show if they think that they have just heard “can” or “can’t” as they listen to positive and negative statements like “I can swim” and “I can’t ski”. They can indicate what they think they have heard in many different ways, for example running and touching two walls of the classroom, raising “can” and “can’t” cards, raising their right hand for “can” or left hand for “can’t”, pointing at “can” and “can’t” cards on opposite sides of the class, or throwing paper aeroplanes etc at “can” and “can’t” on the two halves of the whiteboard. As the biggest difference between can and can’t statements is actually the sentence stress, this game should include a fair amount of getting students to react to just hummed sentences like “hmm hmm HMM” for “I can swim” and “hmm HMM hmm” for “I can’t ski”.

Students can then take the teacher’s role by making positive and negative ability statements about themselves, animals etc for other students to listen to and react to in one or more of the ways described above. It’s best if all the sentences are true, so that the other people are motivated to listen to the whole sentence to help guess what they are hearing. You can then start to move away from controlled speaking to more personalised practice by getting students to guess if can or can’t is missing from gapped sentences like “I BLANK fly a helicopter”. Alternatively, you could move onto sentence stress with other language points.

Can/ can’t statements bluffing games

After some controlled practice of listening to and producing can and can’t statements, you can then move onto more communicative activities. The communicative activity where other students probably need to listen most closely to positive and negative statements is one where they have to guess if each statement that their partners make is true or false. Students might have problems coming up with a good mix of suitable true and false statements about themselves, so you can give them prompts to show them which kind of sentence to make and/ or give them language that they can use in their statements. Prompts to show them which kind of statement to make include (secretly) flipping a coin and having to make a true statement if you get heads and a false one for tails, or taking and following “True” and “False” cards. Language that you can give them to help make true and false statements includes whole statements (“I can swim 200 metres” etc), statements without “can” and “can’t” (“jump down four steps” etc), verbs like “play”, or objects like “trumpet”. 

See below for one more bluffing game.

Comparing abilities games

After bluffing games, perhaps the best way of getting students to listen carefully to each other is to get them to react with their own abilities or lack of abilities when they hear about their partner. The best way of doing this is to ask students to find (lack of) abilities in common or (lack of) abilities that are unique to one person (in their group, or even in the whole class). For example, pairs of students can get one point for every can/ can’t statement that is also true about their partner, and perhaps another point if that thing isn’t true about anyone else in the class. For more a more active version, students can stand up and go around the whole class trying to find an ability or lack of ability that is only true for them. 

To make them listen carefully for “can” and “can’t”, you’ll probably want to insist on students making statements for people to react to (with “So can I” etc) rather than questions (which are much too easy to understand). You might also want to tell them to alternate positive and negative statements about their abilities. 

Can/ can’t sentence completion games

Perhaps the only other major confusion for students learning this language is between can/ can’t and Present Simple. This can be tackled by students making statements that contrast the two forms like “I can… and I often do”, “I can… but I never do” and “My brother/ sister often…s but I can’t do that (so I can’t join in)”. There aren’t really enough contrasting Present Simple and can/ can’t sentences like these to make a whole game, but there are plenty of other useful gapped sentences that you could include in the same activity like “I can… better than my father”, “I can… very well”, “I can… but not very well”, “I can… if someone helps me” and “I can’t… (now) but I could before”. 

Give students at least ten gapped can/ can’t sentences to fill in, first explaining the rules of the game that you’ve chosen to play. If you decide to allow them to fill the gaps with a mix of true and imaginary things, they can then play a bluffing game where they read out one of those statements and others guess if it is true or not (perhaps after asking questions like “Why not?” to get more details). 

If you ask students to only fill as many gaps as they can with true info, the best game is for them to read out just the part they have written in the gap, e.g. “Swim backstroke” or “Skip”. Their partners try to guess the whole true sentence including that word, with exchanges like “Swim butterfly” “You can swim butterfly and you often do” “No, that’s not true” “You can swim butterfly but you never do” “Yes that’s right”.

Can/ can’t short answers games

Some students instantly get that “Can you…?” needs “Yes, I can”/ “No, I can’t” rather than “Yes, I do”/ “No, I don’t” and rarely make mistakes from then on. Other students can mix the two forms up in their speaking for years. Most of my students seem to be somewhere in the middle, producing “Yes, I can” correctly straightaway but then getting mixed up later on, e.g. the next time that they study “Do you…?” or when they come across some unfamiliar variations in the can/ can’t questions like “Does your mother…?” Whether Yes I can/ No I can’t short answer games are useful for your class or not and how much variation you want to have in the kinds of Yes/ No questions you use will depend on how much trouble your students have with the language.

The easiest Yes I can/ No I can’t game is to get students asking questions to get particular responses. The simplest of these is to give one point for each question that gets a “Yes, I can” answer from someone in their group (and no points if the person answering says “No, I can’t”). You can then play the same game the other way round, with one point for each negative answer (and none for positive answers). If this game isn’t challenging enough, you can get students to do the same thing but asking about other people with questions like “Can your mother swim?” As well as no points for “No, she/ he/ they can’t”, they also don’t score if the answer is “I don’t know”. You might need to give them a list of suggested people to ask about like “your English teacher” and “your father’s father” to help with this stage.

There are also more challenging games where students try to get a mix of “Yes” and “No” answers. For example, they could (secretly) flip a coin or pick a card and then try to get that answer. This can be done with the coin or cards just indicating if the student needs to get a Yes or No answer, or you can make things more specific with rules like “Heads + heads = Yes, he/ she can” or specific cards like “No, we can’t” and “Yes, they can”.

Another short answers with can game is for students to guess what each answer will be before they ask the question. For example, they could ask “Can you stay underwater for 25 seconds?” after hiding an eraser in their left hand because they think the answer will be “No, I can’t”. After their partner answers the question, they open their hands to show if they guessed correctly or not.

See the Random Pelmanism games below for another useful Yes I can/ No I can’t game.

Teaching other useful language through can/can’t practice

Useful language that you can teach at the same time as can and can’t includes:

-       Things that can be the subject of can/ can’t sentences (jobs and relationships such as “coach” and “cousin”, animals, machines, technology, etc)

-       Verbs (“play”, “sing”, “fix”, “make”, “cook”, “fry”, “lift”, etc)

-       Things that can be the object of can/ can’t sentences (sports, instruments, skills, household objects, classroom objects, materials, ingredients, clothes, etc)

-       Collocations (“play tennis”, “do judo”, “make the bed”, etc)

-       Places (countries, “in the post office”, “in a lake”, etc)

You can also combine can/ can’t with other grammar points, for example:

-       Prepositions of position (“I can balance a box on my head”, etc)

-       Have/ Have got (“I’ve got a _____________ but I can’t use it”, “I can use a _______________ but I haven’t got one”, “I’ve got a ____________ and I can ___________ with it”, etc)

Can/ can’t guessing games

The easiest practice for most of the useful language above is students describing one person, animal, place, skill, classroom object etc until someone guesses what is being described. This can be done with just can/ can’t (“It can run and jump. You can ride on it. It can eat grass. You can’t pick it up. It can’t fly” for a horse) or you can allow a mix of that and other language (“It’s tall. It lives in Africa. It can eat leaves from trees” for a giraffe, etc). This works particularly well for describing places and animals. You can also play a guess the verb from the hints game, but the sentences you need to produce in order to play the game like “I can do this very well” and “Dogs can’t do this” are a bit unnatural.

Students will probably need some help for most of these games, e.g. some example sentences about what you can and can’t do in the country which they are describing or some example abilities of the animals that they choose to speak about.

Can/ can’t brainstorming games

Students choose a single verb, place, object etc and take turns brainstorming true can and can’t sentences about that thing until one person says something that isn’t true, repeats something that has already been said, or gives up. For example, for “swimming pool” they can take turns saying “You can’t wear shoes there”, “You can’t eat there”, “You can jump there”, etc. With objects they can brainstorm different things that can be done to that thing, e.g. “I can break it” and “I can hold 100” for “paperclip”.

Can/ can’t random pelmanism

Students spread a pack of cards across the table, then each person takes two cards and tries to find something in common between those two things. For example, if a student picks “cow” and “sheep” they can say “You can make cheese from their milk” and if the cards say “paper” and “books” they can say “You can’t eat them”. If their partner agrees that those two things have that in common, the student can keep those two cards and score two points. If they can’t think of anything in common or other people disagree with what they said, they have to put the cards back in (exactly) the same places and they score no points. This game works with loads of different language points as the subject of the questions, for example country names, places around town, places in the countryside, animals, transport, machines, and technology. The words on the cards can also be the objects of the sentences if students make sentences like “I can make an omelette with them” for “egg” and “onion”. The version with verbs on the cards takes a bit more imagination, with students adding their own ideas for a subject for both verbs with sentences like “A duck can fly and a duck can swim” for “fly” and “swim”.

Like the playing card memory game on which it is based, pelmanism is traditionally played with the cards face down on the table. However, in this case students already have to think quite carefully to match up the cards, so I think the game works just as well or better with the cards face up.

Personalised yes/ no can questions random pelmanism

You can also play a more personalised version of Can/ Can’t Random Pelmanism with Yes/ No questions. One student takes two cards and gets two points and can keep the cards if they can get the same Yes or No answer to questions about both things from someone in their group. For example, if they take the cards “table” and “wall” and get “No, I can’t” answers to both of the questions “Can you lift a table?” and “Can you break a wall with a punch?”, they keep the cards and score two points. Two Yes answers also get two points, but if they get one “Yes” answer and one “No” answer to their two questions they don’t get any points and have to put the cards back in the same places on the table.

This game works well with cards with people (“Can your mother play badminton?” and “Can your coach shout?” etc), verbs (“Can you break a pencil?” and “Can you jump off that chair?” etc), and objects (“Can you touch the ceiling?” and “Can you take the whiteboard?” etc). See below for the phonics cards variation.

If your students are still having problems understanding positive or negative statements, e.g. thinking “I can’t tap dance” means “I can tap dance”, these games can also be played with the students saying “Your mother can/ can’t…” etc and their partner saying “That’s true” or “Actually, my mother…”

Phonics can/ can’t random pelmanism

A variation on the games above which gives students a bit more freedom to come up with their own ideas is having a pack of cards with a sound on each card, e.g. 28 cards for the alphabet minus “x” plus “ch-”, “sh-” and “th-”. One student chooses two cards and tries to make can or can’t statements with words starting with both, e.g. “I can eat raw apples” and “I can eat raw cabbage” for “a” and “c”. You can also allow or ask for statements with verbs starting with those letters, e.g. “I can’t shoot a gun” and “I can’t chase a rabbit” for “sh-” and “ch-” cards. The personalised Yes/ No questions version above also works well with phonics cards.

Creative can/ can’t activities

In contrast to the personalised speaking games above, in these activities students make up imaginary superheroes, animals, monsters, robots, etc. This can be made into more of a game by students taking turns making one can statement and one can’t statement about their own thing, then one of each kind of statement about their partner’s thing. For example, one student says “My robot can fly but it can’t eat cheese” to add useful skills to and only take away unimportant skills from their own robot, then they can say “Your robot can’t see but it can make a pancake” to get rid of important skills and only add useless skills when it comes to their partner’s robot. To expand the range of language used, you should probably tell them that each sentence needs to have a different verb.

To give more context to the game and for an extra practice stage, you can tell them that their finished animals, spaceships etc will have to fight each other, fight some bad guys, go through a challenge, etc. During that stage, students say which of the skills that they decided on are relevant to defeat others, defend against attacks, etc. For example, if their teacher, playing card or partner says “A missile is flying at you”, they can say “I can shoot lasers at the missile”, but only if they already decided that their superhero has that skill during the previous stage.

It is also possible to play the challenges game without a setting up stage, with students making up abilities to tackle each difficulty as they go along. To add more language and challenge, tell students that they can’t use the same skill or verb more than once.

A similar but simpler game involves students taking turns boasting about their own, the brother’s, their computer’s etc (imaginary) abilities, leading to exchanges like “My sister can run all the way to school backwards” “That’s true, but she can’t run forwards! And my sister can get to school in one jump” “That’s true but…” The criticising part is important to make sure that there is enough practice of negative sentences too.

Can/ can’t warmers

Can/ can’t physical games

Most can/ can’t games are fun enough to do in a later lesson to serve both as revision of this grammar and as a warmer for the next point, but the best warmers are ones with some physical movement. The simplest can/ can’t TPR game to set up and play is students miming things like “I can’t ride a scooter” and “I can dive”, with one point for the first person watching who can say (exactly) that sentence. The teacher will need to prepare a worksheet or cards with the phrases that students will mime and guess, preferably phrases with useful language such as common verbs in them. However, some students may be able to continue with their own ideas for can/ can’t mimes. To avoid confusion with “don’t”, you should insist that students mime unsuccessfully trying to do something for the negative sentences. Make sure that they don’t just not do something when they should be illustrating “can’t”, and definitely stop them using gestures like crossed arms or thumbs down to show the negative meaning.

You can also play TPR games where students have to prove their abilities. One is for everyone to bet on whether one person can pick up four chairs, hop to the window, etc and then watch them trying to do so. Another is for students to try to “outbid” each other with impressive sounding can phrases like “I can touch all four walls in 30 seconds”, “I can touch all four walls in 25 seconds”, etc. When there are no more ambitious bids, the last person to bid tries to do what they claimed and gets or loses points depending on whether it turns out to be true or not. This can be combined with betting by the students listening to the final bid for add negative statements.

Can/ can’t drawing games

Especially for students who get too wild when doing TPR activities, another good warmer is drawing. The simplest is Pictionary, with students drawing sentences like “He can’t ride a bike” and “She can ride a unicycle” for their partners to guess. Like the miming and guessing game above, make sure that all “can’t” drawings show unsuccessful attempts at something such as someone stuck in the snow for “I can’t ski”.

Skills work with can/ can’t

As this is quite a basic language point, my students who are studying can/ can’t for ability often can’t read English very well, and sometimes not at all beyond the sentence level. I therefore tend to use cards or worksheets with just phonics, words, phrases or sentences to add a bit of reading practice to the activities above (as well as helping students who might not be able to come up with their own ideas). The next level of difficulty is probably students guessing if statements are true or false and then scanning a text for statements on the same topics to check (perhaps with exactly the same wording in the statements and text if this will be challenging). They could also guess abilities from a picture and then read and check. You can find or adapt suitable texts on animals, technology, machines, inventions, etc from Wikipedia, National Geographic, and the Guinness Book of World Records.

For younger and lower level students there are also some suitable picture books and songs, such as Can a Flea Climb a Tree on LearnEnglishKids or maybe a simplified version of Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better.

Copyright © 2016

Written by Alex Case for

Enjoyed this article?

Please help us spread the word:

Latest from ' Teaching English Using Games & Activities'

Blocks games for different language points Read More »