Teenagers, “have to” and “can’t” for complaining – and a student-generated card game

My teenagers had to (!) learn how to complain in English today. We’d touched on it last lesson via input and a bit of language focus, and today I wanted to give them a bit more opportunity to use it and lodge it a bit more firmly in their brains. Basically it was a communicative drill dressed up as a game. So, to get away from the book activity, which was to use the prompts given to make little dialogues, I made it into a…

Student-generated card game!


My students aren't this old (nor, fortunately, this dour-looking) but they like cards!

My students aren’t this old (nor, fortunately, this dour-looking) but they like cards! (Image from http://www.flickr.com, via google image search licensed for commercial reuse with modification)


Pre-intermediate (but adaptable)




Each student needs a piece of paper from their notebook (or provided by you)


  • Get out a piece of paper and get learners to do the same. Fold and tear it into 4 pieces and get learners to do the same.
  • Ask learners to write a sentence on each paper. 2 sentences should be with “have to” e.g. I have to get up early. 2 sentences should be with “can’t” e.g. “I can’t stay up late”. These pieces of paper become the students’ playing cards. (You could use actual card if you wanted to be posh! My learners were perfectly happy with paper…)
  • Put learners into groups of three or four and tell them to keep their cards hidden!
  • Tell learners that the aim of the game is to get as many cards as possible.
  • Do some quick drilling of suitable intonation for complaining so that learners know what you expect. This should be quite fun! You can also kill two birds with one stone and model the game in the process, getting them to follow your example, get two learners to model in front of the class etc.
  • To get a card: Each learner takes a turn to ask another learner in their group a question using “have to” i.e. Do you have to get up early? or “can’t” – e.g. Can you stay up late? If that learner has a card with, in this case, I have to get up early or I can’t stay up late, then they must relinquish the card to the learner who asked the question. So, essentially, the learners are trying to guess what their fellow group-mates have on their cards. The same question can’t be asked more than once per round.
  • Language control: If a learner speaks L1 during the game, they have to pass one of their cards to the person on their left. They don’t want to do this = suddenly no Italian, just English – very quickly!


  • Learners use the target language communicatively, in a semi-controlled way, repeatedly but in a cognitively engaging way.
  • They get lots of practice with questions and answers, and should start to associate the structures with the activities they have to/can’t do, which makes the language more memorable.
  • They drill themselves. Teacher can monitor and correct where necessary, or encourage improvement in the intonation department.
  • Student-generated, so more memorable than the prompts in the book while achieving the same aims.
  • Requires no preparation!

Ideas for adaptation:

  • Could be used with verb patterns such as I enjoy + verb-ing, fed up with + verb-ing etc (Do you enjoy swimming? Do you enjoy going to the beach? Are you fed up with studying?) topic vocabulary e.g. Things I like doing (Do you like playing netball? Do you like playing tennis?) 
  • Increase the complexity for higher level learners by using more difficult language e.g. If I had a million dollars I would… If I were _____ I would – Would you buy a house if you had a million dollars? Would you be….? and so on.
  • Suitable for adults as well as young learners!

7 thoughts on “Teenagers, “have to” and “can’t” for complaining – and a student-generated card game

  1. Pingback: Teenagers, "have to" and "can't&...

  2. This is definitely a very good game to give them an opportunity to speak. Speaking in front of their own small groups also boosts one’s confidence levels. Must try this soon.

  3. Pingback: Teaching teenagers “have to” and “can’t” for complaining – resurrected in TEA issue 71! | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

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