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Used to and Would: Grammar for Teachers

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One of the challenges many trainees on our CELTA course in London or newly qualified teachers face is getting to grips with English grammar. I remember my first lesson as a qualified teacher. I’d prepared a lesson on past tenses when a student put their hand up and out of nowhere said, “Teacher, is would a modal verb?”. Panic set in. “Yes,” I replied, fairly sure that it was. “Thank you teacher,” came the reply. But he wasn’t finished. “How do you use would?” I’ll be honest, I had no idea how to answer that question. As a bead of sweat ran down my back, I reached for the only safe ground I had and said, “That’s quite a big question. Let’s focus on the past tenses today and I will do a lesson on would later in the week.” Just like that, I was safe.

Little did I know how correct I was. Trying to teach someone all the uses of a modal verb like would is a huge ask, and probably not something that a teacher should attempt because it’s not the word itself that is important, it’s not a single-use word like a cheap plastic bottle. Would is used in many different situations in different ways. What’s important is the context.

Let’s take used to and would to talk about past habits. Read my short trip down memory lane below and consider the questions:

  1. What type of words come after used to and would?
  2. Why am I using used to and would?
  3. How are they used together?

“When I was young, we used to spend every summer in a caravan by the beach in Ireland. My brothers and I would wake up early because of the seagulls and we’d run around to our cousin’s caravan. We’d head down to the beach or play on the swings and we’d only come home when we were hungry.”

Let’s answer each of our questions in turn.

  1. What type of words come after used to and would?

Used to and would are followed by a verb. It is the infinitive without “to”. This is sometimes called the bare infinitive (e.g. go / do / eat).

  1. Why am I using used to and would?

I’m using used to and would to talk about my past habits. It is something from my past that I did again and again but don’t do now. I didn’t go to this caravan one summer, I went every summer as a kid. We often use these to tell people about our memories.

  1. How are they used together?

Both used to and would can be used to talk about past habits. However, we often begin with an overarching memory using used to and then give further details using would.

And remember‚Ķif you’re not sure how to answer the question, put your students off until tomorrow ūüėČ.


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