Do your students love phrasal verbs? Probably not, right?
Phrasal verbs are tricky. They’re difficult for students, and therefore difficult for teachers.
Teaching phrasal verbs doesn’t have to be painful, though. Follow these 13 tips to make teaching phrasal verbs a bit more manageable.
1. Group phrasal verbs by particle and teach the tendencies in meaning
Phrasal verbs are idiomatic, but this doesn’t mean the particles were chosen at random. There are some tendencies in meaning you can teach your students. Once students understand these tendencies, phrasal verbs become less confusing.
on often communicates to continue.
keep on – to continue doing something
move on – to continue with the next thing in a series, agenda, etc.
dwell on – to continue thinking about something
drag on – to continue for far too long
up often communicates to finish
use something up – to finish the supply of something
wrap something up – to finish something and bring it to a conclusion
drink up – to finish one’s drink
eat up – to finish one’s food
around often communicates many different (with many different people, in many different places, etc.)
shop around – to compare prices at many different stores
run around – to run in many different directions
ask around – to ask many people the same question
Dave Nicholls has a phenomenal series of videos on these tendencies. I’ve embedded two of the videos below and included links to the rest of the series. There is an accompanying quiz for each video (links provided in the video description).
The rest of the series:
phrasal verbs with “up” part 1
phrasal verbs with “up” part 2
phrasal verbs with “down” part 1
phrasal verbs with “down” part 2
phrasal verbs with “out”
phrasal verbs with “in”
phrasal verbs with “over”
phrasal verbs with “around”
phrasal verbs with “through”
Some additional comments on the videos:
Dave is British and uses some phrasal verbs that are uncommon in American English. If you’re teaching American English, you’ll need to explain this to your students.
To use these videos as part of a complete lesson, have students:
1. Watch the video.
2. Take the quiz.
3. Use the phrasal verbs in a small group discussion or game/activity (see these phrasal verb game and activities for ideas).
2. Group phrasal verbs by topic and teach them alongside other vocabulary terms
This does three things: (1) it shows students that phrasal verbs are a normal part of English, (2) it ensures students don’t get overwhelmed by too many phrasal verbs at once, and (3) it gives students practice using phrasal verbs in the correct context.
3. Only group phrasal verbs by verb (phrasal verbs with get, go, take, etc.) when the phrasal verbs are similar in meaning
Not similar in meaning (shouldn’t be grouped together):
get away with, get around to, get down, get off, get by
come across, come back, come down with, come down to, come up with
count down, count on, count out, count off
make out, make up, make away, make up for
Similar in meaning (could be grouped together):
get in, get out, get off, get on, get up, get down
look down on, look up to, look forward to
go after, go before, go back, go forward, go through, go towards, go under
put aside, put forward, put away, put down, put together
Don’t make phrasal verbs harder than they have to be. Group phrasal verbs in ways that make sense.
4. Teach that phrasal verbs are unavoidable
Some students believe they can always use a non-phrasal verb instead of a phrasal verb. This is not the case. For example, the sentences below are either A) incorrect, B) too formal, or C) awkward because a non-phrasal verb is used instead of a phrasal verb.
I approached John’s desk and asked to borrow a pen.
This is too formal. A better choice would be I walked up to John’s desk, I went up to John’s desk, or I went over to John’s desk.
Unless we’re talking about a battle or a war, this is awkward phrasing. Don’t give up or Don’t back down are better choices.
I filled the forms.
We fill out forms. Fill forms in incorrect.
Our company eliminated the English program.
This sounds awkward. Our company did away with the English program sounds more natural.
5. Teach phrasal verb collocations
Students need to know both the meanings and the collocations of phrasal verbs. This ensures students aren’t overusing phrasal verbs.
For example, make up can mean to create or invent, but it doesn’t collocate with many nouns. We can make up a lie, reason, excuse, or story, but we can’t make up a method, way, idea, or product.
6. Do quick conversation questions to practice phrasal verbs students have recently learned
After a break or at the end of class, you can do some quick conversation questions to practice the phrasal verbs students have recently learned.
For example, if students have just learned catch up, let down, run into, and cut down on, you could ask questions like the ones below.
Is there anything you need to catch up on this week?
Has anyone let you down recently? How?
Did anyone run into an old friend or coworker last week?
Is there anything you’re trying to cut down on now? How’s it going?
7. Use Anki to help students remember phrasal verbs
The digital flashcard program Anki is a powerful tool for learning vocabulary, including phrasal verbs.
Here is an example of an Anki card one of my students made for the phrasal verb go over. The text and photo above the horizontal line is the front of the card. The text below the horizontal line is the back of the card. This is a good Anki card because it A) forces the student to produce something (the missing word), B) is something real the student can relate to, and C) includes a picture.
8. Teach that phrasal verbs often have multiple meanings
With advanced students, you can use this phrasal verbs with multiple meanings practice exercise. With intermediate students, you can teach the most common phrasal verbs with multiple meanings (make out, turn down, check out, take out). Or, if students are using English at work, you can teach the phrasal verbs with multiple meanings that students are likely to encounter at their particular jobs.
Also, it’s a good idea to constantly remind students that many English words (including phrasal verbs) have multiple meanings.
9. Don’t make students memorize which phrasal verbs are separable and which ones aren’t
It’s perfectly fine to teach students about separable and inseparable verbs. But having students memorize a list of separable and inseparable verbs doesn’t work. A better approach is to give examples of how to use each phrasal verb and then have students give similar examples. If a student makes a mistake, follow these steps:
- Correct the error.
- Provide more examples of how to correctly use the phrasal verb.
- Provide further opportunities to practice using the phrasal verb correctly.
10. Teach that many phrasal verbs are informal
This is particularly important if you teach business English. You don’t want your students to use phrasal verbs like freak out or screw up in a formal meeting.
Examples of “informal” phrasal verbs:
cut out, dumb down, freak out, hang around, hang on, hang out, head out, hold on, jack up, kick around, kick back, knock off, mess up, play up, tick off, screw up, shut up
11. Play games to practice phrasal verbs
Try these phrasal verb games and activities with your students. You can use the games as they are or adapt them to fit your students’ needs.
12. Regularly use phrasal verbs in your classes
This seems like obvious advice, but a lot of teachers avoid using phrasal verbs with their students. The problem is that if you never use phrasal verbs in your class, then neither will your students (and we don’t want that).
Some ideas for regularly using phrasal verbs in your classes:
- If something can best be expressed with a phrasal verb, use the phrasal verb. If students don’t understand, they can always ask for clarification.
- Error correct when students say something that could be better expressed with a phrasal verb.
- Incorporate phrasal verbs in thematic sets of vocabulary (see tip #2).
13. Encourage students to learn phrasal verbs on their own
Students can learn phrasal verbs on their own by:
- Creating Anki flashcards (see tip #7).
- Watching (and re-watching) TV shows and movies with lots of modern dialogue.
- Reading articles with lots of phrasal verbs and idioms (WIRED.com is great for this).
- Having conversations with native speakers.
In conclusion, we should: group phrasal verbs in ways that make sense, give our students lots of exposure to phrasal verbs, teach phrasal verb collocations, ensure our students know which phrasal verbs are inappropriate for formal settings, and not ask students to memorize lists of separable and inseparable phrasal verbs.
What about you? Do you have any additional tips for teaching phrasal verbs? If so, please share them in the comments section below.