Are You Sure about That? Teaching Certainty and Uncertainty in English

Are You Sure about That? Teaching Certainty and Uncertainty in English

Language can be very subtle.

English is peppered with nuances that communicate respect, disbelief, sincerity and certainty (among other things). For students of English, it is easy for these subtleties to get lost in translation, but understanding those words and phrases is sometimes key to understanding what a person is trying to communicate. The subtleties surrounding certainty, for example, can determine how a speaker should respond or what actions she should take. In fact, a whole category of adverbs in English is dedicated to expressing certainty. That’s why ESL teachers should make a point of teaching the art of certainty to their students. Though beginning students may not be ready to talk about adverbs of certainty, your intermediate and advanced students should be comfortable recognizing and using these adverbs. Here are some activities you can use with your ESL students when the time is surely right.

Consider Using These Activities to Practice Certainty and Uncertainty

  1. 1

    Certain or Uncertain

    Give your students a list of adverbs of certainty. Include some that express uncertainty and some that express certainty. Then have students work in pairs to divide the list into two categories - words that express certainty and those that express uncertainty. Students should use their previous knowledge and a dictionary, if necessary, to determine which group each word fits into. You may want to include the following words in your list.

    Absolutely Positively
    Actually Possibly
    Allegedly Presumably
    Apparently Probably
    Certainly Purportedly
    Clearly Reportedly
    Definitely Seemingly
    Doubtfully Supposedly
    Evidently Surely
    Hopefully Theoretically
    Hypothetically Undeniably
    Invariably Undoubtedly
    Obviously Unmistakably
    Perhaps Unquestionably

    If your students can add to the lists once these words are sorted, encourage them to do so.

  2. 2

    Adverb of Certainty Placement

    Adverbs of certainty appear before the main verb in a sentence but after the auxiliary verb.

    • He is absolutely coming tomorrow.
    • She allegedly stole the diamond necklace.

    They can also appear at the beginning of a sentence.

    • Obviously Anna is in love with the king.
    • Hypothetically, students start at level one and progress through level six.

    After reviewing placement of adjectives of certainty with your class, have pairs of students work together to write five statements that they are sure of. Each statement should use one of the adverbs of certainty. Then, have each pair write five statements they are not sure of, also using an adverb of certainty in each sentence. Tell students to make sure some sentences place the adverb of certainty before the main verb and others place it at the beginning of the sentence.

  3. 3

    Surely You Know…

    Surely is an adverb of certainty that serves a specific purpose when it comes at the beginning of a sentence. A speaker who uses surely in this way believes that his statement is true but is looking for confirmation. Consider the following sentences.

    • Surely you know we have a test tomorrow.
    • Surely you have told your family about your fiancé.

    Though phrased as a statement, each sentence is in fact a request for information from the listener. You can give your students a chance to practice this structure with this fun lying game. Each student should write three statements about herself – two that are true and one that is a lie. Either in groups or with the whole class, have each person read her statements. The other students should then determine which statement they think is a lie. To check if they are correct in their choice, they should give a “surely” statement expressing disbelief at what they think is the lie. For example, a student might say the following.

    • I swam with sharks.
    • I climbed Mt. Everest.
    • I shot a bear.

    Her classmates would then reply with one of the following statements.

    • Surely you didn’t swim with sharks.
    • Surely you didn’t climb Mt. Everest.
    • Surely you didn’t shoot a bear.

    If the speaker is wrong in his guess, the first person should give a statement of certainty in reply.

    • I absolutely swam with sharks.

    If the class guess is correct, the speaker should admit the lie and chose the next person to read his statements. Make sure each person has a chance to share her statements and try to fool her classmates before ending the activity.

  4. 4

    Are you sure about that?

    To give your students some more practice using adverbs of certainty, brainstorm a list of silly statements (either with your students or before class). You might include statements such as the following.

    • The sky is purple.
    • Hippos make great pets.
    • Spaghetti is the best topping on a pizza.
    • Winter is a great time to visit the beach.
    • Learning English is quick and easy.

    Have students work with a partner and the list of statements. On his turn, the student should choose a statement and use an adverb of certainty to indicate he is certain his statement is true.

    • Spaghetti is definitely the best topping for pizza.

    His partner then asks, “Are you sure about that?” The first student should then rephrase his statement in the negative form also using an adverb of uncertainty.

    • Spaghetti is apparently not the best toping for pizza.

    Then students switch roles and choose another statement following the same pattern as above.

  5. 5

    Writing About the Future

    In writing, have students make predictions about their futures. Students should write two paragraphs about what their future will be or might be like. The first paragraph should be about his near future – the next semester or the next year. Your students will probably be somewhat certain of the events in this time period. The second paragraph should be about his life far in the future. He might want to think about his life five or ten years in the future. These are events he will probably be less certain about. When writing, each person should include some things he is sure about and some things he is unsure about in each paragraph about his future. Encourage students to use as many adverbs of certainty as possible in their paragraphs. If you teach children, you may also want to have students draw pictures to illustrate their futures and post them on a bulletin board in your classroom.

When you are certain your students are ready to practice adverbs of certainty, these activities will get them started in the process. Have fun and in the process your students will definitely advance in their knowledge of the English language.

At what level do you teach adverbs of certainty in your English program?

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