I Should Have Known: Teaching Modals of Regret

I Should Have Known
Teaching Modals of Regret

Joyce B
by Joyce B 144,346 views

We use modal verbs in so many distinct ways in English, it is essential to spread out the lessons of various usages and realize that students may become overwhelmed.

Modals of regret aren’t particularly difficult to convey, but they are an advanced grammar point with several nuances to be certain to include. You can also have very meaningful conversations that arise out of the activities for modals of regret.

Teaching Modals of Regret

  1. 1

    What is Regret

    The best way to introduce modals of regret is to first define and discuss regrets and what they are. The key element to stress with regret is that you are looking back upon a past event and reflecting upon it. The feeling of regret is not positive, and it comes from strongly wanting to change your actions, your behaviors, your reactions, etc. In the present you are thinking back to a past event, and expressing your regret which may make you feel apologetic, sad, or shameful. These are big emotions so you will want to provide good examples. Tell your class about a personal regret and give them the story of a past event. Have them analyze your story for issues like how you may have felt during the event compared to how you feel now. Have them ask questions like what did you do after the event? Do you still feel badly? What did you do to resolve your regret? You’ll want to get personal if you expect your students to share their personal stories as well.

  2. 2

    Teach the Grammar

    You will have used the grammar in your example above, so all you need to do is lay out it for them and provide more examples. Regrets are often preceded by wishing things could be different. Also, be sure to illustrate for them how to make a negative statement, and stress that regrets are often geared toward things you didn’t do, but wish you had.

    • - I wish I hadn't said those awful things.
    • - I should have known that my brother was in trouble.
    • - I could have been a better daughter.
    Modal Verb + Have + Verb 3 (Past Participle)
    Should   have   known
    Could   have   been
    Would   have   said
  3. 3

    Common Uses

    There are some modals of regret that are very common in spoken English. Often we use these conversationally and they can be heard quite frequently. Some of those are:

    • - I should have known better.
    • - I could have done better.
    • - I wouldn’t have dreamed of…
    • - I should have been there.
    • - I shouldn’t have said that.
    • - I should have taken it more seriously.
    • - I would have done it differently.

    These are great opportunities for more concrete examples and story-telling. You could have students complete each of these thoughts with an example from their lives or have them create hypothetical ways each could be used.

  4. 4


    There are many great ways that you can practice modals of regret. Here are a few ideas.

    You can provide the students with a list of scenarios of people discussing regrets. Have them detail what the regret is and how they themselves would deal with it. You could also have them compose questions that they would ask the narrator. You can also do this, but within the story leave out what the actual regret is and have them deduct it from what is being discussed. Another practice activity is to put students in pairs and have them detail and discuss some of their biggest regrets. For example ‘What are your regrets when you think back on your life? Make a list of three regrets and tell the story to your partner’. Have them take turns sharing. After any of these activities you could also debrief with the entire class and discusses the ramifications of having regrets and how to cope with them. Are there solutions to regrets, and what are some things you could have done differently?

Teaching modals of regret is challenging because it is a very personal and involved topic.

From the grammar description to the practice, there is a lot for the students to absorb and share. I have found that advanced students really enjoy these lessons because it provides an opportunity for some self-reflection. It can also be very meaningful as it can lead to students sharing things they may not have ever verbalized.

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