There is something about the sly way that phrasal verbs masquerade as familiar verbs that leads most English language learners to despise and distrust them. The consummate wolf in sheep’s clothing, the phrasal verb poses a unique challenge that often leaves students and teachers at a loss for words. In this article, we’ll discuss the various methods teachers can help their students learn phrasal verbs, focussing specifically on the use of context as a tool for learning English.

What is a phrasal verb?

A phrasal verb is an idiomatic phrase comprised of a verb and another component, usually a preposition or adverb, or a combination of both. Some examples include: get on, get off, warm up, cool down, fall down, cut up, and the list goes on and on. For native speakers the various meanings might not immediately jump to mind, but we certainly have no problem understanding and using them because phrasal verbs are intuitive for us.

Why are phrasal verbs so difficult for non-native learners?

The answer is simple: phrasal verbs don’t make any sense unless you’re familiar with them. Let’s take cut up as an example. When somebody who is not familiar with this phrasal verb imagines it, they might picture a sword slicing in an upward motion, some scissors being used in a tree house, or maybe a vertical scar on somebody’s face.

Trying to understand the meaning by considering the verb is often hopeless, especially when you try to apply logic to what should be the opposite phrasal verb. Many students say: “Okay so if cut up means ‘to slice something into many pieces’, then does cut down mean ‘to assemble something’”? Unfortunately, things are not that simple.

As language teachers we often want to explain the reasoning behind the language instead of simply saying ‘cause it’s like that’ and with phrasal verbs we have to get a little creative to flesh out the connections.

How can we teach phrasal verbs?

The best way to make phrasal verbs stick is by putting them in context. Without context, phrasal verbs and their meanings become abstract things to memorize and inevitably forget.

Using categories to create context

A very common and successful approach is grouping phrasal verbs into various categories and then arming students with these isolated meanings within the greater categorical context. If a class is learning about money, you can add a manageable set of phrasal verbs that will help them express ideas related to money. Some examples might be: buy up, pay down, save on, pay up, save up, cash in, buy out, and pay off.

When we teach phrasal verbs in this way we are not focusing on the phrasal verb itself, we are focusing on the idea that it expresses and therefore it is natural to apply it.

The drawback to this method is that it doesn’t take into account the various other definitions of the phrasal verb, thus leading students to be confused when they see it in another context where it has a totally different meaning.

Using definitions to create context

The second approach is to isolate a phrasal verb and then use examples that illustrate the various meanings. To do this, pick a phrasal verb and then put the various meanings in context. This can be done with stories, characters, vignettes, examples of students in the class etc.

The idea here is that the context should be rich enough that students will be able to remember the situation where they encountered the phrasal verb, because of what the character etc. had at stake.

If a character’s wife ran out on them and they feel sad, students are more likely to remember the event because they can sympathize with the character. For examples of this in action, there are channels that can help you on Youtube.

The downside to this approach is that the meanings can often be so different that there isn’t one single thread that can be drawn across all of the uses. This approach might also require many examples or frequent repetition to be successful.

Using the preposition or adverb to create context

This last approach seeks to explain phrasal verbs based on the preposition or adverb, and examine the various meanings according to a broader understanding of what the preposition or adverb could mean. For example, the teacher might choose the preposition ‘up’ and then fit a set of phrasal verbs around the general meaning of ‘increasing’, ‘rising’, or ‘getting higher’. Some examples might be: blow up, dress up, and bring up.

Taking one of the meanings of each phrasal verb we can see that each of them can be related to some kind of increase. Blow up can mean an increase in popularity, dress up can mean an increase in beauty through nice clothing, and bringing up a person can mean taking care of them as they increase in age. It may seem a bit far-fetched at first glance; however drawing parallels of context like this is part of the way that native speakers intuitively understand phrasal verbs—if you don’t believe this just try to explain one!

The major issue that arises from this way of teaching phrasal verbs is that teachers might be stretching it a little when they explain the use of the preposition or adverb.

Likewise, they might have problems stringing a common prepositional or adverbial meaning across different definitions or other phrasal verbs with the same preposition. For example: shut up, show up, and set up don’t have any obvious increase associated with their basic meanings.

Working backwards from source material

Phrasal verbs are around us at all times and this can make it easier for people to learn them. Students do not really need to sit around all day memorizing the exhaustive definitions. It’s much better to be exposed to the concept of phrasal verbs in the classroom (through one of the above methods—or others), be given the tools to use some of them, and then simply go out and find them in their natural context.

Any self-directed student can google ‘warm up phrasal verb’ and check out the numerous explanations and examples that will probably help them to understand what they’re reading, watching, or listening to. In this case the teacher is not necessarily helping them with all the meanings of ‘warm up’, they are simply clueing students into the fact that they need to consider the verb and the preposition together when searching for the meaning on their own.

As teachers, our main responsibility is to show students that phrasal verbs are ubiquitous in the English world, and that through some effort they can acquire and make use of them.

Author bio:

This article was written by Jonathan Smith. Jonathan is a former IELTS examiner and currently the general manager of IELTS Scores — an online IELTS Writing and Speaking study resource. Jonathan still teaches in the classroom a few hours a week and is responsible for producing the series Phrasal Verb Friends on Youtube.

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