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How Do You Teach Phrasal Verbs?

August 8, 2013

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 after resemble
take away (from) learn
take off leave
take on start
take out take on a date
take over replace

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.

Carry on,


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Comments (27)

Eric Roth(Guest)

Thank you for sharing these practical exercises and approaches. Phrasal verbs deserve and require far more time in class than many English teachers realize or standard textbooks often allow.
Personally, I prefer having high intermediate and advanced English students select their own authentic readings on an assigned topic (time management, avoiding plagiarism, hot topic in their field) and asking them to circle all the phrasal verbs they find in their article. Putting them in small groups, and asking them to share makes this exercise more communicative too. Of course, asking students to work with two common verbs (give & take, get & bring, look & go, put and cut) and create as many phrasal verbs as possible (dictionaries allowed) in small groups also works. If time allows, students can go to the board and write their answers on the board.
Bottomline: there are many ways to help students notice and deploy phrasal verbs in their English classes.

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks for sharing your ideas, Eric. Using authentic materials is always a good idea. It really helps students see the grammar point 'in action'!

Becki (Guest)

I like to do a fun activity using videos. First, give the students a list of phrasal verbs. Then, play the video with the sound off. The students' task is to create the dialog using the phrasal verbs. The students enjoy creating interesting dialogs for the characters while learning how to use the phrasal verbs. At the end, the students can act the skits out or do the voices while the video is playing.

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

I love having students write dialogues using phrasal verbs. They enjoy performing and watching each other, and it helps us know that they truly understand the meanings. But I've never tried having them write dialogues based on a video with the sound off. That's brilliant! Thanks for sharing, Becki.

Bisi Ovbiagele(Guest)

I truly thank you for making it easy for me to grasp the suggestions made on teaching phrasal verbs. I'll let you know how it goes afterwards.

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Tanya Trusler(Author)

You're so welcome! I'm glad this post helped you. I'm always happy to hear how it went in class, so please let me know! I'm very sorry that I didn't get notified of your comment, so I only came across now in 2015. :)

yalda (Guest)

hi from Iran. thank you so much! I really like the methods, and I particularly share similar interest in your favorite. We do 'phrasal verbs and idioms' as a part of our advanced levels (fce and above) and it always feels like a headache to get the Ss to first learn them and then employ them. I'm sure gonna try this... Thanks again.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

I'm happy to hear you found this post useful! Thanks for taking the time to comment. :)

jinga adeline besanga(Guest)

I really do not know how to say this but your last method has been so useful to me and my students. I did not know how I was going to teach my Franco phone students because my grammar books did not provide me with convincing evidence that I can use to teach them. however, I have use the same textbooks to teach phrasal verbs to English students and they understood but when I use the same text book to teach the same subject to francophone students , they did not understood any thing and I felt bad as a teacher. after I research to your writing about phrasal verbs I decided to reteach the same topics and my students did not only understood the lesson but also perform very well in the exercise . once more thanks a lot

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

That's so great to hear! It's always good to have a variety of methods because not all methods will work for all students. Thanks for sharing your experience!

y. ravi kumar(Guest)

simple, clear and to the point. very useful. thank you.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks for your comment!


I like all the methods of teaching phrasal verbs , I hope I fulfill my students to come over the obstacle regarding phrasal verbs. Thank you very much , really it's very useful for every one .....

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

I hope your students will find these methods helpful! Thanks a lot for commenting.

Sajad (Guest)

Hi there
Really starting to dig into the stuff you've put here. Many Thanks for taking the time and sharing your knowledge and experience.

See you around

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks for your comment, Sajad!

Umar Farooque(Guest)

It is very useful for me. Plz do say how to teach to ESL students.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Glad to hear it, Umar!

Simon B(Guest)

Very helpful article. I've been looking for different ways to teach phrasal verbs and this has been great.

Also, there is a resource, called https://www.phrasalverblist.com which is good for quizzes in phrasal verbs.

You should check it out too.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks for the comment and suggestion, Simon!

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