Tips for teaching phrasal verbs

Over the last two weeks, teaching phrasal verbs is something I have been trying to tackle. I have taught them plenty of times, but usually only when they come up in a text or audio, but recently my students have asked for more focus on them.

My most recent idea started when I wanted to provide my students with an interesting, relevant lesson plan that wasn’t straight from the exam book. The first few lessons back after a break, knowing that they hadn’t been studying much (that’s ok, it’s Christmas!), are usually a bit rusty and I want them to be fun.

As many of us have probably done this month, I decided to use New Year’s Resolutions as a topic for this lesson, although at first I wasn’t sure what the grammar / vocabulary focus would be. I went back through my notes of things my students had asked me to study and noticed that phrasal verbs had come up quite a lot, so that helped me make my decision.

‘Up’ phrasal verbs

I wrote a short text about resolutions and improving ourselves, and then turned it into a phrasal verb gap fill. Although I realise it is quite unnatural to have a short text overflowing with ‘up’ phrasal verbs, my students were able to see the phrasal verbs in typical sentences that they could tailor to their own lives if they changed a few words.

I was proud of how my lessons went with one student and I decided to use the same materials with all of my B2 and C1 students during the first week. I was able to change the text to make it a bit easier / trickier and included a few different exercises for revision too.

If you want to see the lesson plan, it’s here (and there’s still 10 days for you to use it!)

A few people have ‘warned’ me about creating unnatural texts or songs for teaching phrasal verbs, but I don’t think my text was too far-fetched and Phrasal Verbs in Use does exactly that and I think it’s fine. On the other hand, Collins Work on your Phrasal Verbs organises them by topic (movement, feelings etc) and I think that is also a good way of teaching them.

To be honest, what works for some students will not work for others. My lesson plan definitely didn’t work for two of my students and I had to break it down completely and start again, which was a great learning experience for me.

Scanned image from Cambridge English Phrasal Verbs in Use Unit 13

Tips for teaching phrasal verbs

  1. Teach them in context.

I used the topic of New Year’s Resolutions to teach ‘up’ phrasal verbs. I could have taught phrasal verbs like ‘try out’ and ‘work out’ but I decided not to over complicate it. I ended up with 24 phrasal verbs to use in a gap-fill text. For their first go, without my help, the lowest score was 6 and the highest was 22. With my help, the lowest score was 12 and the highest 24. Some of my students only speak English when they’re with me, whereas other speak and hear English at work all day and I think exposure plays a big part.

For the students that scored below 50%, I picked 6 phrasal verbs for them to focus on:
Sign up, join up, take up, start up, pick up and give up.

I created several activities for them to practise these.

  1. Phrasal verb definition match
  2. Individual sentences where the main verb could be replaced by a phrasal verb and they had to choose the correct one (sometimes more than one was possible)

3. The phrasal verbs were on the screen and they had to tell me the meaning and they create a sentence with it.

*Please note: These are only snippets of my screen and not everything that was written / discussed.

2. Use pictures or videos

Given time, I can draw flowers or mandalas. Shove me in a classroom and I can’t draw to save my life. Although we came up with drawings for ‘glow up’ and ‘brush up’ in my C1+ lesson, I actually didn’t use any for the other lessons (Teacher fail!).

Thanks to Emily Bryson I remembered how important it is to use visuals for tricky vocabulary and grammar, and she also shared some lovely drawings with me via Twitter.

There are some other useful links here:

Really Learn English

Funky English

3. Use synonyms!

Phrasal verbs are tough and students won’t always remember them. When you teach a phrasal verb it’s a really good idea to provide your students with synonyms.

One that worked well for me was ‘keep up (with something)’. We ended up with loads of synonyms and my students have definitely remembered them all.

Keep up: to continue, to carry on, to maintain sth, to match someone’s pace, to be at the same level / pace / speed as another person.

4. Teach them as they appear (don’t ignore them)

If you’re reading a text or listening to an audio and a phrasal verb pops up, highlight it! The students may or may not mention it, perhaps they didn’t even hear it or they don’t want to admit they don’t know what it means. Write it on the board and ask if anyone can explain it, or provide an example. If they can, great! Grab some examples, ask other students to try and use the phrasal verb in their own sentences too. If they can’t, you now have a teaching / learning opportunity for everyone.

Provide examples, encourage the students to create their own and, as I’ve already learnt, try to use images as well (if you can’t draw, a quick Google search should be able to help you out with a suitable image!).

Things to remember:

Don’t over do it.

I noticed that for two of my students 24 phrasal verbs weren’t a problem at all. They were confident, they were able to guess and / or remember them quickly and they were able to use them correctly in a variety of ways. For the others, 24 was far too many. I think 6-10 per week is a reasonable amount for B1-B2 students as long as they’re given lots of examples and opportunities to practise them.

They don’t (often) translate.

Many, many phrasal verbs don’t make sense to learners of English. They don’t often ‘hint’ at what they mean, and they rarely translate into other languages. Some languages don’t even have phrasal verbs! These points make it really tricky for learners to remember so the key is to stay patient.

Don’t force them to remember all of them and give them plenty of revision.

Other great resources for teaching phrasal verbs:

Collins: Tips for Teachers

EFL Magazine

Phrasal Fanatics

Phrasal verbs translated into English

Phrasal Verb dictionary app for Android users

I hope you find some of these tips useful, but I strongly recommend checking out the links I’ve provided above as they have been written by both experienced and creative teachers.

I’m still trying to come to terms with blogging about my teaching ideas and practices and realise that I am still inexperienced compared to many. However, I do really appreciate the support I’ve received through my blog and Twitter, and I’ll keep on writing!

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