How to Teach Phrasal Verbs

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Prepositions. Adverbs. Conjunctions. Determiners. Adjectives.

There are a lot of different parts of speech that English language learners need to get their heads around (as well as TEFL teachers who need to teach them!) but one of the trickiest has to be phrasal verbs.  Phrasal verbs are idiomatic phrases consisting of a verb-adverb or a verb-preposition combination, and they are guaranteed to stump your EFL students.

Why do students have problems with phrasal verbs?

Firstly, the fact that they are idiomatic is problematic. Idioms are always going to be tricky to understand because their meaning cannot be guessed from the sum of their parts. To pass out, for example, can quite easily be understood as to hand something out but the alternative meaning of to fall unconscious is not so clear. Then there is the fact that some phrasal verbs have different meanings (He looked up to his uncle vs He looked up to the sky). Finally, there are so many phrasal verbs that students can feel quite daunted before they even start learning them.

How can we teach phrasal verbs to make it easier for our students?

The one idea is to teach phrasal verbs according to a theme. For example, if you are talking about relationships you could teach:

Go out with

Split/break up with

Take after

Make up

Or, you could teach a set of phrasal verbs according to the verb or the particle. For example, you could teach a set of phrasal verbs which all have the verb take, such as

Take up

Take after

Take off

Take over

Or a set of phrasal verbs which all have the preposition off, such as

Call off

Put off

Take off

Write off

As to which of these strategies is the most effective, the jury is still out. A number of researchers feel that grouping phrasal verbs by verb is not a good idea as the phrasal verbs are likely to be unrelated in meaning, while a similar argument can be made for grouping them according to particle. However, you will find both strategies employed in EFL coursebooks and there are advantages and disadvantages to both. We’ll have to wait for more research to be done to see which way is better!

On the whole, though, it seems that the key to teaching phrasal verbs is by meaning. Whatever topic you are dealing with in your lessons, think of some related phrasal verbs that can be incorporated into your lesson. Add to this recycling activities, personalisation exercises and plenty of opportunities for practise and your students should not only become aware of these phrasal verbs but also start to use them in their own language output.

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