Modelling modals has become a total nuance

16th May 2008 at 01:00
As I'm sure Raymond Blanc says while dribbling a smidgeon of purple jus on a pannacotta, it's the little touches that count
As I'm sure Raymond Blanc says while dribbling a smidgeon of purple jus on a pannacotta, it's the little touches that count. It's the same with language in the classroom. It's not the big, impressive words that a teacher uses that make the difference, but the itsy-bitsy ones.

I've learnt this the hard way, and now I love teaching kids about how vital modal verbs are. No, don't run away - I'm not writing this from an institution with padded cells and afternoon macrame.

I do a survey with my classes. "If I say, you may do your homework, how many of you will do it?" I ask. I write may on the board, and then, inevitably, by it, the figure 0. "OK, if I say, you could do your homework, how many?" Again, 0. "What if I say should? Ah, that makes a difference, then." The figure goes up to 10. "And how about must or will?" Jake proudly claims that "neever" word would make any "diffwence to 'im", but the rest concede. "So that's 28, then. A bit different, eh?"

One bright kid puts his hand up and points out that must and will are different. Must, he explains, sounds like something a teacher could say without getting their backs up. "But if you said 'You will do your homework', you'd sound like you didn't trust us and we'd hate you."

It's the difference between authoritative and authoritarian. As a new teacher, I tried authoritarian. It didn't work. I sounded as though I assumed the worst. And guess what I got? Now, I aim for non-ambiguous, but non-patronising. I watch my modals. It's an absorbing hobby, and may even score over macrame as an institutional pastime.

There's an automated announcement on South West Trains - a woman's voice saying, "Do remember to take your personal belongings with you." I want to reply, "Oh, do come here so I can slap you." Just that one word alters the tone. She sounds like she's saying, "Oh, do grow up, you blithering idiots." It's the do that does for me.

Conversely, I notice at a local station, undergoing refurbishment which necessitates a climb of about 400 steps, there's a sign saying: "We are sorry for the inconvenience this will cause you." Now, that's different from the usual "may cause you" that I've seen before, and which makes me want to slap someone else. Will is honest. Will is realistic.

A teacher from my schooldays carped on about can and may, and I thought he was a boring old fart. "Yes, Frances, you can give your homework in later than everyone else. But you may not, I'm afraid, because I can set you 300 lines." But he never explained what the difference was, and why.

Now I can impose my own boring old fartness on the kids I teach - by hammering away about modals until they've understood how vital they are. Yes, I can and I will.

Fran Hill, Teacher at an independent school in London.

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