By Sama Alkhalili
Whether you teach ESL in classrooms or privately, you know that phrasal verbs can be a challenge to learn. Not only are there thousands of them, but most phrasal verbs have multiple meanings and uses. And even when some students memorize phrasal verb definitions and understand them passively, they still struggle with using phrasal verbs in their conversations. Most students get frustrated and conclude that phrasal verbs are impossible to learn.
The thing is, without a solid knowledge of phrasal verbs, learners may struggle with understanding spoken English. Expressing thoughts comfortably can also become frustrating because sometimes a phrasal verb is simply the most natural way to express an idea.
Then, how can we help our students overcome the challenge of using phrasal verbs?
Part of the problem lies in the way phrasal verbs are taught in some traditional English courses and textbooks. Massive lists of phrasal verbs and their definitions are the fastest way to confuse learners. In fact, studies show that our brains can only comprehend up to seven pieces of new information at a time.
Grouping phrasal verbs by a particular verb is equally ineffective. For example, we commonly see lists like this one:
- Take on
- Take over
- Take up
- Take down
- Take in
The problem with this approach is that the words all look the same but have entirely different meanings. Our brains rely heavily on making connections to comprehend and digest new information. And naturally, students try to make that connection with ‘take’, but they soon discover that there is absolutely no logical link between these phrasal verbs, and that’s confusing!
So, what can we do to make it easier for our students to learn phrasal verbs and get over the fear of using them?
1. Group Phrasal Verbs by Particle
Instead of grouping phrasal verbs by a particular verb, demonstrating the logic behind the particles can help students establish relevant connections. Let’s use ‘up’ as an example. You could show your students that ‘up’ can indicate a few different things. For instance, in the cases of, ‘use up’, ‘dry up’, and ‘give up’, it can signify that something is complete, or has reached a limit.
You can learn more about this method by reading A Global Approach to Teaching Phrasal Verbs. In this article, Rita Baker explains their concept of teaching phrasal verbs in more detail and provides many examples and ideas on how to apply it. Also, having a good phrasal verb dictionary would help immensely. My personal favorite is Macmillan Phrasal Verbs Plus because it provides detailed information about each particle and their different uses and meanings.
2. Group Phrasal Verbs by Topic
Grouping the phrasal verbs by topic is also a great way to help students build the needed connections. For example, you could choose a group of phrasal verbs commonly used to talk about friends or phrasal verbs used to describe relationships, and then build a lesson around them. This gives students the opportunity to practice using the phrasal verbs in context which can make them more relatable and more interesting to learn. By relating what they’re learning to real situations and emotions, the students transform passive knowledge into active vocabulary they can use in conversations and discussions.
At the end of the lesson or as homework for the next lesson, the students could create a story using the newly learned phrasal verbs. It could be fiction, if that’s something that appeals to them, or it can be a simple paragraph related to their lives. To illustrate, I’d like to share an example from one of my students who created this little story to practice using new phrasal verbs she’d learned to describe friends:
“Yesterday, I ran into Mathilde, an old friend from high school. We grew apart but I remember nothing could come between us. We never let each other down. She always stuck up for me. I heard from Michel she’s still single. Maybe I should try to fix her up with my brother.”
3. Present Phrasal Verbs in Context
Another great way to teach phrasal verbs is by presenting them in context. For example, before introducing the definitions, you could print out an article or a transcript of a YouTube video and get the students to underline all the phrasal verbs they see. The students can then look up the different meanings of the phrasal verbs online or in a dictionary. Always encourage the students to read many example sentences to support what they’re learning. An excellent resource I’ve found recently is a website called Phrasal Verb Demon which is a long-term project aimed at providing free materials on phrasal verbs. I love this website because it offers many example sentences and it also lists common collocations.
4. Make Phrasal Verbs Relatable
Finally, creating engaging questions to help students with using the phrasal verbs is a simple but effective technique. For instance, after teaching phrasal verbs for describing emotions, you could create discussion questions to help students integrate what they have learned.
Here are some examples:
- What makes you light up? When was the last time you saw someone’s face light up?
- Tell me about an event that stirred up a lot of controversy in your country.
- When you get upset, do you usually freak out or do you keep it inside?
- Do bugs freak you out? Are there any animals that freak you out?
- Have you ever told off a stranger? Have you ever been told off by a stranger?
- What movie cracks you up no matter how many times you’ve seen it?
- What’s a song or a movie scene that always makes you tear up?
- When life gets stressful, what can we do to avoid taking out our stress on the people closest to us?
There is no magic formula for teaching phrasal verbs and helping students learn them successfully. But finding approaches that help learners make logical connections and relate the new words to events in their lives can be incredibly powerful.
I hope that you’ve found these tips and resources useful and if you have any questions, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.