• Taking On Phrasal Verbs

Cover phrasal verbs screen shot

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

YouTube This posting is discussed on my YouTube video Big Mistake ESL Teachers Make With Phrasal Verbs:

Ernesto was looking unusually pale when he walked into my class. I asked him if he was feeling all right, and he said that his stomach was hurting. Then I asked him:

“Do you feel like you are going to throw up?”

He just kind of looked at me, not knowing what to say. I realized that he didn’t understand the phrasal verb, “throw up,” and I was sure that he wouldn’t understand “vomit,” so my only recourse was to pantomime someone throwing up.  Then he got it.

According to The Grammar Book by Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman, outside Germanic languages (English, German, Dutch and the Scandiavian languages), few languages have phrasal verbs. “Thus most ESL/EFL students will find such verbs strange and difficult. Yet they are such an important part of colloquial English that no one can … understand conversational English easily without a knowledge” of them.

About once a term at my college, we invited a guest speaker to give a talk to all the international students, from beginning-skill levels to advance. For example, a policeman talked about how to stay safe on and off campus; a counselor discussed common misunderstandings students have with plagiarism; a student leader provided information about campus clubs and activities.  Even though the speakers were making an effort to make their talks comprehensible to non-native speakers, they couldn’t help but continually peppered their speech with phrasal verbs. Some examples:

Policeman: If you drink and drive, you could end up at the police station.

Counselor: One reason students copy from a classmate is because they’ve taken on too many courses.

Student leader: We hope you’ll help us put forward some ideas for improving our clubs.

Imagine substituting these phrasal verbs with phrase blah-blah.  This is kind of what many of the students heard:

     “… you could blah-blah at the police station”
     “…they’ve blah-blah too many courses.”
     “…help us blah-blah some ideas.”

No wonder so many of students had blank looks on their faces.

Working on phrasal verbs. Where to start, knowing that there are over 10,000 of them.

Our students will often be confused in classes, off campus and in social situations if they can’t understand common phrasal verbs when they hear or read them, so this is where we want to focus our time and energy on. They will do just fine communicating with others even if they don’t actually use them in speaking and writing.

Why it makes most sense to teach phrasal verbs for comprehension (listening/reading) rather than for production (speaking/writing).

Students can build up their passive knowledge of phrasal verbs relatively quickly, but trying to learn how to use them for production can take up a lot of class time and effort because there are so many rules.

Some examples of rules

With some types of verbs, we can separate the verb and particle, but it depends on the object: e.g. put on

  • He put on his hat.
  • He put his hat on.
  • He put it on.
  • He put on it. (mistake)

Some phrasal verbs require a preposition and cannot be separated: e.g. get away with

  • Jeff got away with cheating.
  • Jeff got cheating away with. (mistake)
  • Jeff got away cheating with. (mistake)

Some phrasal verbs require a gerund: e.g. keep on

  • They kept on talking.
  • They kept on talk. (mistake)

But others require an infinitive: e.g. turned out

  • The winner turned out to be my brother.
  • The winner turned out being my brother. (mistake)

Teaching phrasal verbs for comprehension

As I had mentioned earlier, there doesn’t seem to be much justification for making students produce phrasal verbs when speaking or in writing tasks.  Below are the steps that I have found successful in helping students learn common phrasal verbs that they will see when they read or hear something.

Step 1) (You, the teacher) Think about an everyday topic that can provide the context for introducing some phrasal verbs, for example, dating or problems with a boss.

Step 2) Write a short paragraph about the topic and includes some phrasal verbs. For each lesson, you’ll want to introduce only about 6 phrase verbs, so you might use 3 in one paragraph and 3 others in a second paragraph (perhaps on a different topic.)  Here is a list of common phrasal verbs  List of phrasal verbs that you might want to refer to.

Step 3) Present a variety of listening and reading EXERCISES to reinforce the meaning of the phrasal verbs. In this handout Phrasal Verb Ex. Handout 1 which you can download to use with your students, you’ll see four exercises that recycle the phrasal verbs in different contexts:

     (Ex. 1) Listening passages and fill in the blanks with the six phrasal verbs which are listed at the top of the exercise. 

     (Ex. 2) Using inductive reasoning, matching the phrasal verbs used in Ex. 1 with its definition.

     (Ex. 3) Reading passages that include those same six phrasal verbs. 

     (Ex. 4) Comprehension questions about the Ex. 3 passages in which the students use the six phrasal verbs in their written answers

Here is a link to a second set of downloadable phrasal verbs and exercises: Phrasal Verbs Ex. Handout 2

For more inductive exercises for writing/grammar skills similar to these, see Write After Input

For more postings about inductive exercises, see  Categories: Inductive Approach and Exercises

Earnesto asked me if he could leave class early because of his stomach. The next day in class, he was looking much better. I had to smile when he told me that when got home, he threw up three times. He thought it was caused by something that his roommate had made for dinner. He not only remembered the phrasal verb but also was able to activate it on his own.

David Kehe

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