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9 Tips on Teaching Phrasal Verbs

The author of the ebook “1000 Phrasal Verbs in Context” suggests practical ideas to make teaching phrasal verbs easier and more productive

Matt Errey

Matt Errey is the author of “1000 Phrasal Verbs in Context”

Phrasal verbs, or multi-word verbs, consist of a verb and one or more particles, as in “Our science teacher comes from India” and “I’m looking forward to the party”. There are hundreds of phrasal verbs that your students will have to learn on the road to fluency, and in this article Matt Errey, author of 1000 Phrasal Verbs in Context, gives you some useful tips on teaching them.

1. Find books, e-books and online resources on phrasal verbs. Look for a dictionary of phrasal verbs or a similar reference with lots of contextual sentences, like 1000 Phrasal Verbs in Context. Also look for resources with phrasal verb exercises, including gap-fill exercises and matching exercises, as well as phrasal verb quizzes and games. Spend a little time browsing them to get an idea of how you can use them.

2. Learning the grammar of phrasal verbs can help some students, and you can teach the basics in a brief introductory lesson. Cover topics like transitive and intransitive, separable and inseparable, and the use of pronouns. For students who find this difficult, tell them that native speakers use phrasal verbs perfectly well without studying the grammar, and they will too if they keep on reading and speaking English.

3. Don’t waste time teaching the parts of speech in phrasal verbs. If you need to refer to a phrasal verb’s preposition or adverb, use the word particle instead. Knowing whether the word “up” in break up is a preposition or an adverb won’t help your students, and teaching them this could confuse or bore them. Native speakers can’t name these parts of speech, and your students don’t need to either.

4. To teach individual phrasal verbs, use clear contextual sentences to elicit the meaning rather than simply providing a definition. For example, give your students a sentence like “If it starts to rain, put on your coat” and ask if anyone can guess the meaning of put on. When someone says they can, ask them to act it out, or use it in another contextual sentence, or explain the meaning if they can. After teaching a group of phrasal verbs, use quizzes, gap-fill exercises, matching exercises, etc to test your students’ understanding.

5. Have your students create a phrasal verbs notebook. Teach them shorthand like (sb) and (sth) that will help them remember how to use the phrasal verbs correctly. Give examples like find (sth) out, help (sb) out and look after (sb/sth). Explain that (sb/sth) means the object can be somebody (human) or something (non-human). If (sb), (sth) or (sb/sth) is placed between the verb and the particle(s), it means the phrasal verb is separable, but if it’s placed after the verb and particle(s), it’s inseparable. Check a phrasal verbs dictionary for other forms of shorthand you can teach your students.

6. Tell your students to use whatever works best for them when adding definitions or memory prompts in their notebooks. For some students a contextual sentence or two will be enough to prompt their memory, while for others adding a definition in their native language will help. For more advanced learners, writing a dictionary-style definition in English might work best, as in “make (sth) up = to invent something such as a story or an explanation”. Definitions like this aren’t very useful for less advanced learners however as they usually contain Latinate verbs (like invent) and other words they may not know, so tell them not to just copy definitions like this from a dictionary. Teach them how to make up their own prompts and definitions like the ones described above instead.

7. Try to avoid using synonymous Latinate verbs to define phrasal verbs when you’re teaching. Even though Latinate verbs are often found in dictionary definitions, they aren’t very useful in most classes. If you say “to speed up means to accelerate”, most of your students won’t know the word accelerate. Instead of learning what “to speed up” means, all they’ll have is two roughly synonymous vocabulary items, neither of which they understand. Elicit the meaning instead, as described in Tip 4. Also, exercises in which learners match phrasal verbs with Latinate verbs are very common, but they should only be used in advanced classes.

8. Try to be methodical in the way you teach. Many teachers find it useful to create small groups of related phrasal verbs they can teach together in a class. They can be phrasal verbs that begin with the same verb, like get up, get out, get in, etc, or end the same way, like get out of, run out of, talk out of, etc. They can also be grouped by topic, as in wake up, get up, sleep in, etc. Group them in a variety ways when teaching if you like.

9. One final tip you can pass on to your students. If they want to use a phrasal verb but can’t remember if it’s separable or inseparable, tell them to use the unseparated form (“Look up the word”) instead of the separated form (“Look the word up”). If they do this, they’ll always be correct.

Suggested Texts

1000 Phrasal Verbs in Context
by Matt Errey
TEFL Games Co.

English Phrasal Verbs in Use
by Michael McCarthy and Felicity O’Dell
Cambridge University Press

Suggested Online Resources

Written by Matt Errey for EnglishClub | August 2016
Matt has been teaching English for over thirty years and is the creator of Word Up, the world’s best-selling ESL board game, and the author of Matt’s ESL Games and Quizzes Book 1.

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