Teachers often fear teaching phrasal verbs, but it doesn’t have to be so tough.
“When I got in, I took my coat off, hung it up on the hanger, and turned on the television as I settled in for the night.”
This sentence may not make a native English speaker think twice, it may even make us feel a bit cozy, but to an English learner this represents one of the most baffling elements of the language. The infamous phrasal verb, where two words, each with its own definition, come together to create something completely new with a totally different set of rules and meanings.
Students around the world love to express their hatred for these little demons, questioning the very purpose of their existence. But it is our responsibilities to make them see how important they are for their overall fluency. We need to break them down and present them in a way that is not overwhelming, or difficult, or scary. It isn’t easy, but our students will be much better off if we can pull it off.
Here are some tips and tricks I use to teach phrasal verbs in a way students can wrap their heads around.
1. Drop the list
So many books and exam prep courses present lists of phrasal verbs for students to memorize.
This is the worst way to teach phrasal verbs.
While it alerts them to the specific words they need to memorize, how are they supposed to catch the nuance of each word? How do they get the context to know when to toss it casually into a sentence? That’s the whole point, isn’t it?
Memorizing a list may help your students identify when they need to use a specific word to fill in a blank on a test, but when it comes to using phrasal verbs, they will still be completely lost.
2. Keep it relevant
Typically, teachers will select a list of phrasal verbs to introduce such as this.
- Take off
- Take on
- Take over
- Take out
- Take in
These words do have one thing in common, the word ‘take’. However, this list simply reinforces the misconception students already have about phrasal verbs…that they can determine the meaning from the words used.
Think about it, do ‘take off’ and ‘take out’ really have anything to do with each other? One involves an airplane and the other garbage. It will only make it more difficult to use them in context later on.
Now compare it to this list.
- Move away
- Grow up
- Split up
- Make up
- Come back
While these phrasal verbs have little to do with each other at first glance, they all have to do with changes in our lives.
One could easily put together a story of a girl who grew up, split up with her boyfriend, moved away, made up with him over the phone, and finally came back home.
There are endless activities you could carry out with this list of words that will all reinforce the use and meanings of the vocabulary. When you are selecting the words to use, remember to always keep it relevant.
3. Use stories
We have established that lists are not the way to present phrasal verbs, so how should we introduce them to our students?
The best way I have found is through a story. Writers use phrasal verbs all the time and it won’t be difficult to find a passage that contains a few of them. Or, if you have the time, get a handful of phrasal verbs with a common theme and write a short story of your own. Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, your students will love your ingenuity!
4. It’s just vocabulary
It is tempting to try to approach phrasal verbs as their own topic, but at the end of the day there isn’t much that distinguishes them from any other type of vocabulary.
Once you move your students past the idea that they can predict the meaning of a phrasal verb based on the verb and preposition used, you should constantly reinforce the idea that a phrasal verb is just another vocabulary word to learn.
A great way to reinforce this is by introducing phrasal verbs along with other vocabulary words. Instead of having a class dedicated solely to learning ten different phrasal verbs, include two or three in the vocabulary of a given lesson.
Check out this vocabulary list from a class about writing to a pen pal.
- Keep busy
- Work out
- In shape
- Work hard
The focus of this class is the present perfect continuous tense, not the vocabulary itself, but notice that there are as many expressions in this list as there are words. We see the phrasal verb ‘work out’ hidden among the other vocabulary. As the students learn and practice this vocabulary, they begin to see phrasal verbs as just another word they need to remember.
5. Practice, practice, practice
Like with anything in English, the real learning comes from practice. There are tons of activities you can do with your students to practice phrasal verbs, such as…
- Write a story using the phrasal verbs they have learned
- Create a dialogue
- Play games such as taboo, Pictionary, or charades.
- Have a debate
The important thing is that you aren’t simply introducing and explaining what a phrasal verb is or how it is used, but giving your students an opportunity to feel out the context and how to use it. Practice, practice, practice and give them lots of repetition.
Almost every student I have ever worked with has dreaded learning phrasal verbs. It can be extremely tempting for them to avoid them in conversation. After all, most phrasal verbs can be expressed using other vocabulary. Students can just as easily say I discovered it as I found it out. And it is just as easy for teachers to avoid focusing on phrasal verbs for the same reasons. The important thing is that a student is understood, isn’t it?
English is a language full of nuance. While find out and discover may be synonyms, the conversation takes on a different feel when we use phrasal verbs. It feels more casual, more fluid. And unfortunately, those students who don’t learn how to use phrasal verbs will always lack a certain fluency they provide.
So phrasal verbs are important, and students don’t want to learn them. With the tips provided in this article, hopefully you will have the tools to get past that hurdle and help your students build the fluency they need!