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Talking about Past Abilities: could, was/were able to, and managed to

In this lesson, students learn the difference between could, was/were able to, and managed to. Do the warm-up activity with your students and then have them complete the practice activity and conversation questions.

Warm up

Look at the sentences below. Complete the sentences with “could,” “was/were able to,” or “managed.”

We worked until 7 p.m. and ________ finish the project.
We used to have a company shuttle so we ________ take people from the parking lot to the building.
Everyone thought we wouldn’t meet the deadline, but somehow we ________ to finish everything on time.


Past Abilities

To talk about past abilities, we can use:

Used to talk about general skills or abilities in the past.
When I first started my career, I could work long hours without a break.
They hired her because they knew that she could do the job well.
At this time last year, Santiago couldn’t speak English.

was/were able to
Used to talk about specific achievements.
I called our IT help desk and they were able to resolve the issue.
Were you able to get in touch with Gary?
Kathy wasn’t able to get here on time because of the accident on the highway.
(Note that in the negative form, we can use couldn’t and was/were able to. For this example, we could also say “Kathy couldn’t get here on time because of the accident on the highway.”)

managed to 
Used to talk about specific achievements that were difficult.
No one thought she had a chance to win the race but somehow she managed to get enough votes and win the election.
When Carla quit without giving notice it was difficult for us, but we managed to handle everything.
How did they manage to find a suitable candidate for the position in such short time?


Practice Exercise

Fill in the blanks with either “could,” “was/were able to” or “managed to” (or their negative forms). In some cases, more than one answer is possible.

1. Ten years ago, people ________ smoke right outside the building. Now they have to leave the business park.

2. When I was in college, I met a guy who ________ speak seven languages.

3. I have no idea how they ________ find a better deal than what we offered them.

4. _________ to find a caterer for the event next week?

5. Unfortunately, we ________ meet the deadline. We needed an extra day.

6. I delegated that task to Mike. I told him I was having some difficulties with it, and he told me that he ________ handle it.

7. Even though I woke up a half an hour late, I _________ get to work on time.

8. Unfortunately, I woke up half an hour late and I __________  get to work on time.

9. When our company had only 25 employees we _________ have meetings with the entire company. Now it’s much more difficult and requires more planning.

10. I have no idea how we ________  get a reservation for tonight on such short notice.


Conversation Questions

Talk about the following with your group. 

1. What are some things you could do when you were younger that you can’t do now?

2.  Think about your country. What are some things that you could do 10 years ago that you can’t do now? What are some things you couldn’t do 10 years ago that you can do now?

3.  Have any of the rules at work changed? How so? What are some things that you could do in the past that you can’t do now? Is there anything you couldn’t do in the past that you can do now?

4.  Talk about your biggest professional accomplishment. How were you able to achieve this?

5.  Think about you last few weeks at work. Tell your group about a difficult task that you had to work on. How did you manage to complete this task?

6.  Think about someone you know that has overcome a lot of adversity. How has this person managed to overcome this adversity? Do you think you’d be able to do the same if you were in his/her position?

7.  Have you ever worked on a project with people who constantly disagreed with each other? Tell your group about it.  Were you able to successfully complete the project?

8.  Have you ever had more than one job at the same time? If so, how were you able to handle such a busy schedule?

9.  Your own question: __________________________________________?

10. Your own question: _________________________________________?