Number one for English language teachers

Phrasal verbs: Teaching phrasal verbs using a literary text – tips and activities

Level: Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

Tips and activities for teaching phrasal verbs using a literary text.


Using authentic texts can be a motivating way to teach phrasal verbs. The relationship between phrasal verbs is more natural and can often be deduced from the surrounding context. This is teaching phrasal verbs as you would teach any other 'difficult' words in a text.

The lesson plan at the bottom of the pagepresents eight new phrasal verbs using a literary text as a starting point. The learners deduce the meaning of the phrasal verbs from their context, and then write a follow up story using more new phrasal verbs.

Lesson aim: To present 4 to 8 phrasal verbs. To encourage students to deduce meaning from context in a piece of literary writing.

Level: Intermediate and above.

Teaching approach:
You can teach phrasal verbs using an authentic text in which phrasal verbs occur. Here the phrasal verbs are not necessarily linked in a thematic sense; their relationship depends on the surrounding text and is therefore more natural. This manner of teaching phrasal verbs is similar to teaching other items of vocabulary from context. Notice that in the text the phrasal verbs are highlighted in bold, this is so that learners notice them. The exercises are designed to get students to speculate about their meaning, before moving on to production.

One of the advantages of this approach is its authenticity. You might want to make your own similar exercise from a text of your choosing. This however can be a difficult task. Works of fiction and letters tend to have more phrasal verbs than newspaper articles for example. This is because phrasal verbs are more common in informal language.

Stage one

Ask learners to make a list in English of all the things that come into their mailbox in an average week. Tell them to do this alone for one minute. Then compare with a partner. Who gets the most mail? Who gets the best mail? Tell the learners that today they will read a story about someone waiting for an important letter.

Stage two

Distribute the worksheet and ask learners to look at exercise A. Make sure they understand the questions. Tell them they have exactly one minute to read through the text. After the minute is up, tell them to turn their papers over and answer the questions as a class group.

Answers: a letter from the acting school; no, the letter didn’t arrive

Stage three

Now let them re-read the text. Tell them to do the questions in B, but allow more time for this. The learners could do this in pairs.


  1. He bounded down (half jumping half running) the stairs.
  2. Fliers, tax communications, advertising offers and bills.
  3. He tore them open very quickly, almost frantically.
  4. He was very excited.
  5. He was waiting for a letter from the acting school
  6. It was full of paper in little balls.

Stage four

Tell students to look at the phrasal verbs highlighted in the text. Working with a partner, they should try to explain what they think each phrasal verb means. They can use their own language or mime if they like. Direct them to a dictionary if they are completely stuck. Ask students to report back, then do exercise C where they have to fill in the gap with the correct phrasal verb.

Answers: open up; scrunched it up; fell upon; dawned on

Macmillan English Dictionary definitions

  • Open (something) up - to open a locked door, container or building.
  • Scrunch (something) up - to press or squeeze something into a smaller shape
  • Fall upon (something) - to move quickly downwards
  • (something) Dawn on (somebody) - if something dawns on you, you realize it for the first time.

Tips for understanding phrasal verbs

Some phrasal verbs have more than one meaning. Often one of the meanings is more idiomatic than the other. Look at the following phrasal verbs. They all appeared in the exercises here, but they can also have another (more idiomatic) meaning. Read the other meanings and the sample sentences.

  • Open up - to start to talk more about yourself.
It has taken a few months, but Katy is now starting to open to me.
  • Fall upon/on - If a job or duty falls on someone, it becomes their duty.
It fell on John to organise the office party.
  • Start off - make someone laugh or cry.
If you talk about that comedy film again, you’ll start me off.
  • Call in - ask someone for help in a difficult situation.
The police were called in when somebody threw a stone through the shop window.

Stage five

Show students the next five phrasal verbs in exercise D. After they have read the definition, tell them to think of an example sentence that could illustrate the phrasal verb. When they have one they should write it down. Then ask them to swap sentences with someone else to see what the other person has written. Finally, put the learners into pairs and ask them to write a follow up to this story, describing the day the important letter arrived. Tell them that they must try to incorporate at least two of the phrasal verbs from the list or the original text.

Stage six

You could collect the work and correct it later, or have students make some peer corrections on each other’s work. A nice follow up would be to let students exchange and read each other’s stories. Direct students’ attention to the tip on phrasal verbs for this lesson, which looks at how some phrasal verbs can have more than one meaning.

Optional follow-up

If your learners have access to the internet, they can do the online activities on phrasal verbs which are related to this lesson. Anchor Point:bottom

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Readers' comments (4)

  • Hello again,

    Now I feel such an idiot! Having re-read the answer AND followed the instruction, I managed to find them. So sorry.

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  • Hello,

    I know it has been almost 6 years since the last comment, but I have to ask again, where is the Related resources heading to on this page?

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  • Hi Jane,
    The worksheet can be found under the 'Related resources' heading. We have now moved this from the bottom of the article to the top right so it is easier to spot.
    Hope you enjoy it!

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  • This looks like a great exercise but how do I find the worksheet that goes with it?

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