The Ultimate Beginners Guide: How to Describe Ability

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How to Describe Ability

How do we describe ability in English? I’m sure that there are so many great and wonderful things that you can do. Or, your child. But how do we describe our abilities? This is a great question. Thankfully there is a rather simple answer. We use the word ‘CAN’. And this lesson will teach you how to use ‘can’ to describe all the amazing things that you do.

The key structures that we will learn in this lesson are:

I can swim. He can swim

I can’t swim. He can’t swim.

Can you swim? Yes I can. OR No, I can’t.

Ability Lesson Warm Up

To warm up for this lesson I want you to use our action flashcards. You can find them in our printable’s section. Print and cut them out. You will need to be familiar with action words (verbs) to completely understand this lesson.

Once you have them printed and cut, use them to play a quick games with your child. First, show them the cards and go through each word. Have them repeat after you. This way they will become familiar with each word. After that, pick a card but don’t show the picture to your child. Instead, act out the card and have your child try to guess the action. For example, if you choose the run card, your child should say run or running. Repeat the process. Your child can even act out the cards as well with you guessing.

Action Ability Vocabulary

Just in case you can’t print the action words flashcards I have a little chart that you can use. Listen as I say each word. Repeat each word.


Vocabulary Race

This is a very simple activity you can do to review these vocabulary words with your child or children. This game is more fun with more students, but can be adapted for one child by using a stop watch.

One child: If you have one child/student use a stop watch. Say one of the vocabulary words, have them spell it out. Time how long it takes them to write the word correctly. Do a second, third, forth and so on. Your child should try to beat their time for each word.

Two or more:  If you have two or more children then this game will be a little more exciting. You can use a paper and pen, or a white board if you have one. Say a vocabulary word and have your child race to spell the word correctly. Who ever spells the word accurately first is the winner and receives a point. Repeat the process for several more words.

How to use ability

It’s time to introduce the first key sentence structure for this lesson. I can swim. When you have the ability to do something we use the word ‘can’. The sentence structure is very simple.

Subject + can + verb

I/He/She/We/They/You/It + can + swim/walk/run.

Sentence drill:

I can read.

He can play soccer.

She can cook.

They can drive.

You can ski.

We can dance.


How to use can’t

The second key sentence structure for this lesson is “I can’t read.” We use ‘can’t’ when we don’t have the ability to do something. ‘Can’t’ is the contraction of ‘can not’. The sentence structure is the same the same first structure.

Subject + can’t + verb

(I/He/She/We/They/You/It) + can’t + (read/ride a bike/paint)

Sentence drill:

I can’t read.

He can’t ride a bike.

She can’t paint.

We can’t sing.

They can’t run.

You can’t surf.

Asking about ability

The final key sentence structure in this lesson is asking about ability. To do this we are going to use a yes and no question.  The sentence structure will be a little different than the first two structures. ‘Can’ will go at the beginning of the question instead of the middle. Here it is:

Can + subject + verb?

Can + I/he/she/we/it/they/you + read/surf/play soccer?

To answer the question, we simple say:

Yes, I can. OR No, I can’t.


Sentence drill:

Can you read? Yes, I can.

Can he surf? Yes, he can.

Can she play soccer? Yes, she can.

Can they paint? Yes, they can.

Can he sing? No, he can’t.

Can you drive? No, I can’t.

Can they ride a bike? No, they can’t.

Can you run? No, we can’t.

Activity time

Fantastic! You have now gone through our three key sentence structures for this ability lesson. It’s time to review with an activity. This is a very simple activity that will help encourage your child to speak English. All you need is a coin and a set of action words flashcards that you printed out earlier. (They can be found here if you still need to print them out.)

This activity is called heads or tails. I’m sure you have done this before. One side of the coin is called heads, the other tails. When the heads side lands, your child should answer with a positive answer. If it is a tails, there should be a negative answer.  Here is the process:

  1. Ask a question. (Can you swim?)
  2. Flip the coin.
  3. (Heads) Yes, I can. (Tails) No, I can’t.

Ability Practice Sheet

Here is a practice sheet you can use to become more familiar with asking questions on ability. Look at the picture and say the answer or the question.


Wrap Up

Well done. You have completed this lesson on how to describe ability. I hope that you enjoyed and learned from it. If you have any questions, please leave me a message below. You can also share this lesson with your friends on Facebook or Twitter. I’d really appreciate it if you did. (smile). If you would like to try another one of English expression lessons I’d recommend part 1 and 2 of our Present Progressive lesson. It is a continuation on using action words. Just click on one of the links below.

What are you doing?

Present Progressive

Have a great day.

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