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 favourite 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 favourite 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:

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

Take after – resemble

Take away (from) – learn

Take off – leave

Take on – start

Take out – take on a date

Take over – replace

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 – survive, 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 for separable verbs, a pronoun object must separate 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. English Club and the University of Victoria have good lists available: http://www.englishclub.com/vocabulary/phrasal-verbs-list.htm and  http://web2.uvcs.uvic.ca/courses/elc/Sample/Advanced/gs/gs_04.htm.

Carry on,


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Tanya Trusler

Tanya is a freelance editor and writer with an extensive background as an ESL teacher. She edits lesson plans, creates new materials, and writes weekly blog posts for ESL-Library and Sprout English. Her company is Editing to a T. Follow her on Twitter (@tanyatrusler) and Google Plus.   Website: http://editingtoat.com   Twitter: @tanyatrusler