Look it up…
As if there wasn’t enough vocabulary for our students to learn, English has certain multi‑word expressions that have a different meaning as a whole than the meaning of the separate parts. The most common types of these expressions are idioms and phrasal verbs, and they can be difficult for students to master. Because phrasal verbs are so prevalent in our culture, they are important to becoming fluent in English. So what exactly are phrasal verbs? What’s the best way to teach them? Read on to get some ideas, and feel free to share your favorite method in the comments section below.
What are phrasal verbs?
A phrasal verb is a phrase with two or more words, usually involving a verb and a preposition. (This is how most grammar books present it, and it is easiest for students to understand if you explain it in this way. Technically speaking, though, some phrasal verbs involve a verb + adverb combination. See my post Preposition or Adverb? for more information.)
A regular verb + preposition combination has two meanings whereas a phrasal verb has one meaning. For example, the verb look means to use your eyes to see something and the preposition up means the direction above, as in look up at the sky. This is very different from the phrasal verb look up, which means to check, as in look up a word in the dictionary.
Make sure your students (and you!) always write phrasal verbs as two separate words. Phrasal verbs are never hyphenated or combined into one word, though their noun or adjective forms often are.
How do you teach phrasal verbs?
The following methods are some that I’ve tried over the years. The third method is my favorite because my students seem to catch on and retain phrasal verbs better with it.
1. From a list
A lot of textbooks/classes will have a list of phrasal verbs that are relevant to the course, such as Business English, TOEIC, TOEFL, IELTS, etc. A long list like this can be overwhelming to students, so consider presenting five phrasal verbs a day or using fun vocabulary activities such as cutting up the phrasal verbs and their definitions and having students match them up. See my posts 4 Ways to Teach New Vocabulary and 4 Activities for Reviewing Vocabulary for more ideas.
2. In context
A fun way to teach phrasal verbs is in the context of a story. Seeing the phrasal verb in context helps students grasp and retain the meaning. I’ve seen some textbooks dedicated to idioms that are grouped into themes, and a lot of them include phrasal verbs. At ESL Library, we have three sections (a detective series, a love story, and a story about college life) that make learning phrasal verbs and idioms fun and relevant. Try our Detective Series – The Case of the Missing Ring, Everyday Idioms, and Everyday Idioms (Part 2) lessons. Everyday Idioms (Part 3) is coming soon, too!
3. As groupings
Grouping phrasal verbs into categories based on the same verb is another way to go. This is my preferred method because it presents phrasal verbs in small, logical, and manageable groups. I think students remember the phrasal verbs more easily this way. Here are some common groupings to try with your students:
Phrasal verbs with “look”
|look after||take care of|
|look down on||think less of|
|look into||investigate, find more information|
|look out||be careful|
|look over||review, examine|
|look up||check, find|
|look up to||admire|
Phrasal verbs with “take”
|take away (from)||learn|
|take out||take on a date|
Phrasal verbs with “get”
|get along (with)||have a good relationship|
|get away||go on vacation|
|get away with||not get caught while doing something bad|
|get out of||no longer have to do something|
|get over||recover, overcome|
|get through||suvive, bear|
Separable or Inseparable?
Which phrasal verbs can have an object between the verb and preposition, and which can’t? For example, you can say I called on my cousin yesterday but you can’t say I called my cousin on yesterday, so call on is inseparable. You can say I picked my cousin up at the airport or I picked up my cousin at the airport, so pick up is separable. (Remind students that while noun objects can go between or after the phrasal verb, a pronoun object can only go between the phrasal verb. E.g., I picked her up is correct. I picked up her is incorrect.)
Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to tell which phrasal verbs are separable and which aren’t. Giving students a list can help. Good lists are available at English Club and the University of Victoria.