How Do You Teach Phrasal Verbs?

Look it up…

As if there wasn’t enough vocabulary for our students to learn, English has certain multi-word expressions that have a different meaning as a whole than the meaning of the separate parts. The most common types of these expressions are idioms and phrasal verbs, and they can be difficult for students to master. Because phrasal verbs are so prevalent in our culture, they are important to becoming fluent in English. So what exactly are phrasal verbs? What’s the best way to teach them? Read on to get some ideas, and feel free to share your favourite method in the comments section below.

What are phrasal verbs?

A phrasal verb is a phrase with two or more words, usually involving a verb and a preposition. (This is how most grammar books present it, and it is easiest for students to understand if you explain it in this way. Technically speaking, though, some phrasal verbs involve a verb + adverb combination. See my post Preposition or Adverb? for more information.)

A regular verb + preposition combination has two meanings whereas a phrasal verb has one meaning. For example, the verb look means to use your eyes to see something and the preposition up means the direction above, as in look up at the sky. This is very different from the phrasal verb look up, which means to check, as in look up a word in the dictionary.

Make sure your students (and you!) always write phrasal verbs as two separate words. Phrasal verbs are never hyphenated or combined into one word, though their noun or adjective forms often are.

How do you teach phrasal verbs?

The following methods are some that I’ve tried over the years. The third method is my favourite because my students seem to catch on and retain phrasal verbs better with it.

1. From a list

A lot of textbooks/classes will have a list of phrasal verbs that are relevant to the course, such as Business English, TOEIC, TOEFL, IELTS, etc. A long list like this can be overwhelming to students, so consider presenting five phrasal verbs a day or using fun vocabulary activities such as cutting up the phrasal verbs and their definitions and having students match them up. See my posts 4 Ways to Teach New Vocabulary and 4 Activities for Reviewing Vocabulary for more ideas.

2. In context

A fun way to teach phrasal verbs is in the context of a story. Seeing the phrasal verb in context helps students grasp and retain the meaning. I’ve seen some textbooks dedicated to idioms that are grouped into themes, and a lot of them include phrasal verbs. At ESL-Library, we have three sections (a detective series, a love story, and a story about college life) that make learning phrasal verbs and idioms fun and relevant. Try our Detective Series – The Case of the Missing Ring, Everyday Idioms, and Everyday Idioms (Part 2) lessons. Everyday Idioms (Part 3) is coming soon, too!

3. As groupings

Grouping phrasal verbs into categories based on the same verb is another way to go. This is my preferred method because it presents phrasal verbs in small, logical, and manageable groups. I think students remember the phrasal verbs more easily this way. Here are some common groupings to try with your students:

Look after – take care of

Look down on – think less of

Look into – investigate, find more information

Look out – be careful

Look over – review, examine

Look up – check, find

Look up to – admire


Take after – resemble

Take away (from) – learn

Take off – leave

Take on – start

Take out – take on a date

Take over – replace


Get along (with) – have a good relationship

Get away – go on vacation

Get away with – not get caught while doing something bad

Get out of – no longer have to do something

Get over – recover, overcome

Get through – survive, bear

Separable or Inseparable?

Which phrasal verbs can have an object between the verb and preposition, and which can’t? For example, you can say I called on my cousin yesterday but you can’t say I called my cousin on yesterday, so call on is inseparable. You can say I picked my cousin up at the airport or I picked up my cousin at the airport, so pick up is separable. (Remind students that for separable verbs, a pronoun object must separate the phrasal verb. E.g., I picked her up is correct. I picked up her is incorrect.)

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to tell which phrasal verbs are separable and which aren’t. Giving students a list can help. English Club and the University of Victoria have good lists available: http://www.englishclub.com/vocabulary/phrasal-verbs-list.htm and  http://web2.uvcs.uvic.ca/courses/elc/Sample/Advanced/gs/gs_04.htm.

Carry on,

Tanya

6 comments

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  1. yaldakaroon@gmail.com'

    yalda says:

    Apr 4, 2014 at 6:08 am

    hi from Iran. thank you so much! I really like the methods, and I particularly share similar interest in your favorite. We do ‘phrasal verbs and idioms’ as a part of our advanced levels (fce and above) and it always feels like a headache to get the Ss to first learn them and then employ them. I’m sure gonna try this… Thanks again.

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Apr 4, 2014 at 6:20 am

      I’m happy to hear you found this post useful! Thanks for taking the time to comment. :)

      Reply

  2. beckibenedict@yahoo.com'

    Becki Benedict says:

    Aug 8, 2013 at 1:28 am

    I like to do a fun activity using videos. First, give the students a list of phrasal verbs. Then, play the video with the sound off. The students’ task is to create the dialog using the phrasal verbs. The students enjoy creating interesting dialogs for the characters while learning how to use the phrasal verbs. At the end, the students can act the skits out or do the voices while the video is playing.

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Aug 8, 2013 at 5:11 am

      I love having students write dialogues using phrasal verbs. They enjoy performing and watching each other, and it helps us know that they truly understand the meanings. But I’ve never tried having them write dialogues based on a video with the sound off. That’s brilliant! Thanks for sharing, Becki.

      Reply

  3. eric@compellingconversations.com'

    Eric Roth says:

    Aug 8, 2013 at 12:31 am

    Thank you for sharing these practical exercises and approaches. Phrasal verbs deserve and require far more time in class than many English teachers realize or standard textbooks often allow.
    Personally, I prefer having high intermediate and advanced English students select their own authentic readings on an assigned topic (time management, avoiding plagiarism, hot topic in their field) and asking them to circle all the phrasal verbs they find in their article. Putting them in small groups, and asking them to share makes this exercise more communicative too. Of course, asking students to work with two common verbs (give & take, get & bring, look & go, put and cut) and create as many phrasal verbs as possible (dictionaries allowed) in small groups also works. If time allows, students can go to the board and write their answers on the board.
    Bottomline: there are many ways to help students notice and deploy phrasal verbs in their English classes.

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Aug 8, 2013 at 5:09 am

      Thanks for sharing your ideas, Eric. Using authentic materials is always a good idea. It really helps students see the grammar point “in action”!

      Reply

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