Monthly Archives: May 2013

Those verbs of the phrasal kind

It is a universal, inviolable truth, seemingly agreed upon with unanimity by learners of English as a second language, that phrasal verbs (or ‘multi-word verbs’) are not very nice. That is, they don’t play fair in the way that, for instance, an unassuming verb tense does in being learnt.

First there are the distinctions of transitive/ intransitive, separable/ inseparable to contend with, before the poor learner, studiously browsing, discovers an endless list of phrasal verbs on the internet and is struck by the apparent impossibility of ever actually learning them all. The downward spiral is then given added momentum when the student overhears a phrasal verb being used on the bus home from college, by a native speaker, in a way which is at odds with the meaning to which their teacher ascribed it in the lesson they’ve just attended.

Most ESL course books tend to give phrasal verbs pretty short shrift, which on the one hand isn’t so surprising given the unpopularity of the subject, but very surprising when we consider the extent to which our everyday speech is littered with phrasal verbs. This being the case, teachers develop their own ways to introduce phrasal verbs to their students. Here are two prominent approaches that I’ve encountered;

1. Taking the verb as the ‘root’ from which the phrasal verbs ‘grow’ (e.g. “Today, phrasal verbs with the verb GO”)

I’m not so sure about this one. I think that it probably leads to less urgent phrasal verbs being revealed and throwing things off balance unnecessarily. Elicitation from students may well invite suggestions of every preposition under the sun, and the teacher, taking the example of ‘into’ from a student might find themselves having to incongruously explain how someone can go into the back of someone else’s car.

2. ‘Hanging’ phrasal verbs on a topic

This is probably the most commonly-used method, whereby a selection of phrasal verbs are introduced which relate to the wider topic of the lesson. The advantages are that students have a definite context to help them to remember the phrasal verbs, while with thoughtful planning the phrasal verbs can be activated in speaking activities at a later point in the lesson.

Even the preferred approach above, however, can be a bit like throwing spaghetti at a wall to see how much will stick. Some students will come back the following week recalling this one and others will have retained that. The ‘other’, meanwhile, is lost in the ether.

Another strategy which may help to resolve this issue is to tie disparate lessons together with the help of phrasal verbs- ones that can be applied in different circumstances but without confusing changes of meaning. For example, during a lesson focussing on the central topic of ‘sport’ the phrasal verbs ‘take up’ and ‘take to’ might be incorporated among others (e.g. Surfing should be taken up from a young age/ He took to the game immediately). For the next lesson, which has ‘music’ as its theme, these phrasal verbs are reintroduced with the same meaning (He took up the piano when he was eleven/ I didn’t take to the guitar initially) so that their use is consolidated for the students and effectively reviewed in a way which does not necessitate ‘going back’.

It would be great to hear from you about your own experiences of teaching phrasal verbs, so don’t forget to leave your thoughts, and for those who aren’t doing so already, following this blog is as easy as clicking the FOLLOW sign on the right and leaving your details!

Tristan Francis

Director of Studies