Advice and suggestions about when to start teaching phrasal verbs.

I have recently started thinking about the usefulness of phrasal verbs and the teaching implications. When should we start teaching them /what level/, what is the best way to group them in a lesson /topic, main verb, particle, inseparable before separable/ and what is most important, isn't the "grammar" of the phrasal verbs /transitive - intransitive, separable - inseparable/ too confusing for the learners. Should we teach it at all or should we treat phrasal verbs as lexical chunks without analyzing them? Please give me some advice as to the best approach. Yours,

Dani Zheleva

Hi Dani,

I was preparing a book on vocabulary teaching recently and I asked a colleague, “What problems do your students have with phrasal verbs?” He answered, “None”. “None?” “No,” he said, “they don’t use them.”  He was right: most students avoid phrasal verbs if they can help it. The problems of meaning (many are idiomatic), form (some are separable, some are not), and style (many are informal, even slang) make them a mine-field for learners. Nevertheless, examination boards love them, and many students would love to acquire them, if only because they feel, quite rightly, that it lends idiomaticity to their talk.

Traditional approaches to the teaching of phrasal verbs have tended to focus on the syntax rules, i.e. whether they are transitive/ intransitive, and, if the former, whether they are separable or not. As Dani suggests, this is totally mystifying for most learners (and many teachers!).  Phrasal verbs are also often grouped according to their lexical verb: get up, get back, get off, get over, etc., and exercises are designed to test the learner’s knowledge of the difference. This may seem systematic but there is a very good chance learners will get them confused: there is a “sod’s law” operating in language learning that goes: the more similar two items are, the more likely it is that they will get muddled.

Occasionally, exercise types focus on the meanings of the particles – a particle being the adverb or preposition component of the phrasal verb (in, back, off, around etc). A focus on particles aims to sensitize learners to the shared meanings of a group such as carry on, drive on, hang on, go on and come on. The good thing about this approach is that it helps “fix” the meaning of the particles, so that learners have a better chance of understanding new phrasal verbs when they meet them, e.g. log on, press on, etc. But there still remains the problem of confusability.

It may be the case that phrasal verbs are best learned on an item-by-item basis, and preferably in short contexts that demonstrate their syntactic behaviour. The following passage which comes from a guide to the Cambridge First Certificate in English examination offers some good advice to students:

  • Whenever you read a book, newspaper or text in English, get into the habit of identifying and underlining phrasal verbs.

  • Write down in a special notebook the sentences in which they appear.

  • Use your English-English dictionary to look up the meaning, and write this after your sentence.

  • Try to write your own sentence using the same phrasal verb in a different context.

  • Get an English teacher or friend to check that your sentences are correct.

  • Limit the number of new phrasal verbs you collect to, say, two or three each day; if you do five or ten minutes’ good work with each, you will quickly build up a useful stock of words which you have actually seen used in the English you have read.

(Naylor, H. and Hagger, S. First Certificate Handbook, 1979, Hulton Educational, page 4.)

This approach is self-directed and text-based, and, admittedly, assumes a high degree of motivation on the part of the learner. Nevertheless, the approach can be adapted to the classroom. For a start, the teacher can increase the probability of learners coming across phrasal verbs by providing texts that are likely to have a high frequency of phrasal verbs in them. Some books on phrasal verbs present theme-related sets of verbs in specially written texts. Thus, a text about relationships may include such phrasal verbs as go out with, get on with, fall out, split up, make up, get back together etc.

Again, though, there is a danger that words of too similar a meaning will interfere with each other – especially if they have a similar form (e.g. go out with, get on with). A looser and more natural relationship may be more effective, such as the way words occur in authentic texts, as in this example, an extract from a magazine article about Tallinn, with the phrasal verbs underlined:

To get your bearings, head up to St Olaf’s church, which sits high above the city and dates back to 1267, when it was the tallest church in Europe. From here you’ll see the ancient warren of cobbled streets and fortified walls that make up one of Europe’s most attractive city centres. … The Botanical Garden covers 110 hectares, contains more than 8,000 plant species, and yes, there are hot houses where you can warm up. … If it’s dancefloor action you’re looking for, then head out to Club Hollywood at Vana-Posti 8…

(Easyjet Inflight Magazine, February 2005)

Finally, try and include phrasal verbs in your classroom language as much as possible – and draw attention to these from time to time. Common classroom expressions incorporating phrasal verbs are sit down, put your hand up, turn your papers over, write this down, cover the page up, look it up, hurry up and  calm down! By this means, exposure to a rich diet of phrasal verbs can begin on Day 1 of the course. Which answers the first part of your question, Dani: “When should we start teaching them?” Start off on Day 1, and don’t look back.