Modal Verb EFL Activity – Einstein’s Fish

Textbooks are wonderful resources, they provide an excellent framework for your lessons and cut planning time by a huge amount, leaving you free to spend your time doing other things. But sometimes, they can be a little monotonous. In the last few weeks, I have been diving into the murky waters of modal verbs with my B2 First students. They get very confused with these, mainly because of L1 interference. That is, their knowledge of similar words in their mother language makes it difficult for them to grasp.

So if the textbook is a little dull, and the subject matter confusing anyway, how do I make it entertaining? A game of course!

Einstein’s Fish

This game appeared in the newspaper in the sixties, and has been attributed to Albert Einstein and Lewis Carrol. There is no actual proof that either of them created it, but it makes a nice story!

The aim of the game is to use the clues to solve the puzzle and attribute each item to it’s respective owner.

Step 1 – Lead In 

You need – 

A box with a lid. 

  • Ask students to imagine that they are 6 years old, it’s Christmas day, and their parents give you a box like the one you are holding. Ask them what they would do first, even before unwrapping it. (Shake the box of course!)
  • Elicit what might be inside after shaking it. A toy, a new gadget, a book, etc…. To do this, students should be using language like ‘Could’, ‘Might’, and ‘May’. Because they are not sure, it’s only a possibility.
  • Then, make a meow sound, as if it were coming from the box. And again! After they have stopped laughing, they will probably say that there is a cat inside. To do this, they should say “It must be a cat”. Because now they have reasonable certainty that it is indeed a cat.
  • Ask them if there is a dog inside the box. They should answer “It can’t be a dog”.
  • Perhaps explain the difference between ‘can’t’ and ‘mustn’t’ in this context.

This is the language they are practising. Possibility and Certainty!

Step 2 – Context

Ask students to imagine a street with 5 houses. Each house is a different colour, and each has one occupant. The inhabitants of the street are all friends, but they are very different. Each person has a different pet, smokes a different brand of tobacco, drinks a different beverage, and is of a different nationality.

Extra Activity – You could pre – teach some vocabulary here. Things like ‘Ivory’ and other things on the cards that they might need for later.

You could also use it as a lead in for a quick revision of nationalities. You might elicit different nationalities from students using the countries or whatever you like!

Step 3 – Materials

Now you can hand out the necessary materials. Which you can find below, and as attachments on this post. You need –

  • A blank 5×5 table with the five numbers across the top.
  • The clue sheet.
  • The prompts with names of tobacco, beverage, colour, nationality and pet.

I like to put students into groups of two for this, but experiment and see what works for you!

Step 4 – Focus On Language

This activity is meant to specifically focus on modal verbs for certainty and possibility, and how it differs from obligation. So students should be using this language when reading the clues and putting in their answers. See my lead in activity above. Remind them of this! They should use phrases like “The Norwegian must live here”! and “The Englishman can’t live in the red house”.

Step 5 – Set Up Game

Let them know that there is no cheating from other teams, and hint that it’s easier to figure out if they separate the five categories first, then use the clues to put each one together. After doing this, ‘Zebra’ and ‘Water’ should be the only prompts not connected to any other. Tell them that in the end, they should be able to tell you who owns the zebra, and who drinks the water.


  • Puzzle Clues

  1. There are five houses.
  2. The Englishman lives in the red house.
  3. The Spaniard owns the dog.
  4. Coffee is drunk in the green house.
  5. The Ukrainian drinks tea.
  6. The green house is immediately to the right of the ivory house.
  7. The Old Gold smoker owns snails.
  8. Kools are smoked in the yellow house.
  9. Milk is drunk in the middle house.
  10. The Norwegian lives in the first house.
  11. The man who smokes Chesterfields lives in the house next to the man with the fox.
  12. Kools are smoked in the house next to the house where the horse is kept.
  13. The Lucky Strike smoker drinks orange juice.
  14. The Japanese smokes Parliaments.
  15. The Norwegian lives next to the blue house.

Now, who drinks water? Who owns the zebra?


  • 5×5 Table


House 1 2 3 4 5


  • Prompts


Yellow Water Tea
Blue Milk Orange Juice
Red Coffee Snails
Ivory Fox Dog
Green Horse Zebra
Norwegian Kools Chesterfield

Englishman Old Gold Lucky Strike
Ukrainian Parliament
Spaniard Japanese

As you can see, these are not in any order. Cut them up, one set for each team, and students should sort them into categories themselves. 

Helping Out

If student get stuck, you can give them some clues of course! It’s always easier to focus on what the answer can’t be, rather than what it might be. For example;

The colour of the first house?

Could it be Blue? – No, because the second house is blue.

Could it be Red? No, because the Englishman lives in the red house and we already know that the Norwegian lives in the first house.

Could it be Ivory or Green? – No, because Ivory and Green go next to each other, so they are either house 3 and 4, or houses 4 and 5.

Conclusion – The first house is yellow!

Here is the solution to the puzzle, good luck!

House 1 2 3 4 5
Color Yellow Blue Red Ivory Green
Nationality Norwegian Ukrainian Englishman Spaniard Japanese
Drink Water Tea Milk Orange juice Coffee
Smoke Kools Chesterfield Old Gold Lucky Strike Parliament
Pet Fox Horse Snails Dog Zebra

Enjoy Playing!

Any comments, ideas or suggestions? Let me know in the comments!

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