Published 11th November 2015


Phrasal verbs: the one grammatical structure in English that no native speaker knows exists and the one that EFL students are very keen to learn.

So what are phrasal verbs?

Phrasal verbs are (usually) a two-word combination of a verb and an adverb or a verb and a preposition. Phrasal verbs can have more than one meaning and they can have literal or figurative meanings – The armed robbers held up the bank; Charles held up his hands. They also follow a specific grammar which can be quite confusing. Consider that we can say Please turn up the volume or Please turn the volume up or Please turn it up, but not Tonight I’m looking the children after.

When do we teach phrasal verbs?

Because phrasal verbs are so common in English, it makes sense to teach phrasal verbs very early in the EFL classroom. There are numerous phrasal verbs our students will encounter which will be confusing to them as they won’t realise they are not the sum of their parts. As our students advance, so the number and complexity of the phrasal verbs we teach should advance to.

How do we teach phrasal verbs?

The first thing to know is that there is no need for your students to know all the phrasal verbs in the English language. In other words don’t overload your students! The human brain can only learn seven chunks of new information at one time, so limit your phrasal verbs to approximately five. Keeping the number down will also ensure your students get a good understanding of what they mean and how to use them.

Then, decide whether you want to teach phrasal verbs by topic or by verb. You can categorise phrasal verbs according to what they refer to – phrasal verbs relating to relationships, for example – or by the common verb – such as phrasal verbs with get. Categorising phrasal verbs in this way will help your students keep them clear in their minds and so be able to use them better.

Lastly, don’t forget to look at form, function and meaning. In order to fully know a word, a person needs to be able to know when to use a word and how to use it appropriately. Because phrasal verbs can have a number of different meanings, usages and grammatical patterns, it pays to spend some time looking at phrasal verbs in depth.

In general EFL learners find phrasal verbs to be confusing and difficult. Ensuring that you spend sufficient time looking at the in context and in detail will help your learners learn them more easily and be able to utilise them.