Understanding Modality

There is a story. George Orwell, the famous writer, shot an elephant whilst serving in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. This event forms the basis for Orwell's essay 'Shooting an Elephant'. Not everyone, however, believes or agrees that, in fact, Orwell really shot an elephant. Amongst the doubters is one of Orwell's biographers, Bernard Crick. In a meeting in a London restaurant with Orwell's widow, Sonia Brownell, Crick raised his doubts. In an unequivocal response, strong in profanity, Brownell argued that Orwell had indeed shot the elephant.

Both Crick and Brownell were both interested in truth; that is, what actually happened. Brownell did not doubt her husband. In language, the way we express our views, whether we are very certain, or somewhat less certain, is frequently shown through modality. Modality, and understanding how modality works, is important for Language and Literature students. It is through modality, no least, that writers and speakers express authority, and endeavour to exert power over readers and listeners.

The following lesson idea introduces the concept of modality, and then in a series of activities, where students engage with the wrtings of George Orwell, they come to understand how modality is used in practice to express ideas about certainty and uncertainty. By the end of the activites and readings, students should appreciate that modality is always present, in any utterance, whether or not it is overtly expressed.

Introductory Activity

Students engage in the following introductory modal ranking activity. In the activity, they are asked to rank modal expressions according to the criteria of likelihood. Ensure there is general agreement amongst students before moving on to the next part of the lesson.

 Modal Ranking Activity

Gap Filling Exercise

Having been introduced to the idea of modality and understood how modality expresses likelihood, students move on to consider the function of modality through reading an extract from George Orwell's essay 'Shooting an Elephant'. In the following gap filling exercise, students are asked to put 11 modal expressions into 11 gaps.

 Shooting an Elephant Gap Filling Exercise

Shooting an Elephant: Discussion

Once students successfuly complete the gap filling exercise, they are presented with the completed extract, below. In the worksheet, the modal constructions are in bold text. Students are asked to consider and discuss the significance of modality in the extract. Notice, the ways in which possibility, obligation and, ultimately, uncertainty are expressed through modality.

 Shooting an Elephant: Discussion

Modality: What Should You Understand?

The following worksheet is designed to reinforce an awareness of modality. The worksheet can be kept by students as a reminder. Teachers should underscore for students the idea that modality is always present, even, and perhaps particularly, where it is unmarked. It is important that students recognize the significance of modality, and that they can bring their understanding of the concept to new and unfamiliar situations.

 Modality: What Should You Understand?

Modality: Extension Activity

In this final activity, students read an extract from Orwell's essay 'The Prevention of Literature' and discuss the function of modality. Whilst early activites were well-scaffolded, this activity tests the extent to which students now understand the concept of modality and recognize, through comparison, how modality can be used differently to express quite divergent effects. Notice, here, in 'The Prevention of Literature', in contrast to 'Shooting an Elephant', that the narrative voice is much more confident and authoritative. Much of the authority, if not all, derives from modality.

 Modality: Extension Activity

Links to Assessment

The series of activities, above, and the understandings derived, have considerable potential implication for assessment. Understanding modality is important, and modality is frequently very significant in appreciating media texts, including newspaper stories and advertisements. Students can show an awareness of modality in response to Paper 1 texts. The activites above can be extended to a Further Oral Activity (FOA). If Orwell is studied in the literature components of the course, modality is one aspect of Orwell's demotic style that students should learn to appreciate.

Links to Theory of Knowledge (TOK)

In TOK, students study language. Language, in the TOK course, is regarded as a 'Way of Knowing'. Language is one of the main ways that we acquire and express knowledge about the world. Modality expresses a perspective about the world, but it never does so 'neutrally'. Underpinning the notion of modality is a sense that in discussing or writing about anything we must express an opinion or take a view. From this perspective, we have no choice. And, in becoming critically minded citizens, students should recognize the ways in which authority is often expressed through language. Modality is one way in which authority can be linguistically conveyed.

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