How to Teach Phrasal Verbs

How to Teach Phrasal Verbs by James Heywood

This is a guest post from James Heywood at Off2Class. Take it away James…

Teaching phrasal verbs is an inevitable step as students gain proficiency and aim for a more natural speaking style. Native speakers use phrasal verbs frequently and it is likely that your students will have already asked about the meaning of common phrasal verbs, such as get out, fall off and break down, even before you make them a specific lesson topic.

The challenge with phrasal verbs is that it is often just as challenging for the teacher as for the student… Today I’m going to lay out the general attack plan I use to tackle phrasal verbs with my own students.

Disclaimer #1: I focus on teaching one-on-one lessons online and have developed a set of my own phrasal verbs resources that I use to teach online, though most of my strategy (and resources) can be adapted for an in-person or group teaching approach.

Disclaimer #2: Teaching your student phrasal verbs is not a skill that you can cover in one lesson! You’ll need a series of sessions with your student before they feel comfortable weaving even basic phrasal verbs into their everyday speech. We suggest introducing one grammar concept at a time then return regularly to lessons focused on phrasal verbs.

Disclaimer #3: You must introduce the necessary grammar with your students so that they can make sense of constructions. Many teachers feel awkward answering students’ questions about phrasal verbs, and it’s generally because many teachers do not possess the knowledge of the grammar to answer the question.

Additionally, teachers don’t agree on the grammatical terminology (I actually prefer multiword verbs to phrasal verbs but I won’t get into that here). Whatever you call this area of grammar, just be sure to know your terminology. You need to pick a set of resources that you are comfortable with and stick with it!

Without covering some grammar you will have difficulty eventually explaining that these sentences are correct:

– I completed my assignment and handed it in on time.
– The policeman let him off.
– The children picked on me.

While the following are incorrect:

– I completed my assignment and handed in it on time.
– The policeman let off him.*
– The children picked me on.

My Approach to Teaching Phrasal Verbs

First, multiword verbs can belong to three main groups:

  • Phrasal Verbs – verb + particle

look up, call off, run into, take off

  • Prepositional Verbs – verb + preposition

decide on, apply for, stand for, depend on

  • Prepositional Phrasal Verbs – verb + particle + preposition

put up with, look forward to, run up against

A particle is not an adverb or a preposition, but yet, has the same form!

I prefer the grammar terms used by Cowan in ‘The Teacher’s Grammar of English’, which define groups such as:

Transitive or intransitive (transitive phrasal verbs require a direct object intransitive do not)

Transitive Phrasal Verbs

Separable Transitive Phrasal Verbs
Separable or inseparable (for separable phrasal verbs, the direct object can come between the verb and the particle)

Separable and inseparable phrasal verbs

At times, the grammar can feel a little intense!

I like to introduce one grammatical concept to a student at a time, such as the properties of separable transitive phrasal verbs, and introduce some common phrasal verbs definitions and examples in context. We then take a break from the topic, and come back to attack the next section of grammar and common phrasal verbs definitions and examples.

At Off2Class, in addition to covering all the grammar, you’ll find 19 phrasal verbs lessons that contain no grammar at all – they introduce common phrasal verbs and provide examples and context for each verb introduced:

Back Down Phrasal Verb

Teaching Phrasal Verbs

A note on dictionaries: A good dictionary is vital to understand and use phrasal verbs for your students. This can be either an online resource or a regular hardcopy dictionary.

Phrasal Verbs in Dictionaries

So as a summary: You must introduce grammatical terminology to allow a student to reach high proficiency with phrasal verbs. However, go slowly. Introduce the grammatical properties one at a time, and then introduce a number of common phrasal verbs that possess the property. Move from controlled to free activities slowly. And most importantly, return again and again to the previous grammatical terms and properties covered.

*In no time at all your student will understand that let someone off is a permanently separated transitive phrasal verb!

Phrasal Verb Webinar

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About the Author

James is an online ESL teacher and co-founder of Off2Class. He has a background in language and linguistics and has logged over 4500 hours of online ESL tutoring in the last 3 years. You can read more about him here. He is head of content creation at Off2Class and has recently released our Phrasal Verbs category, which includes 32 lessons designed to get you teaching Phrasal Verbs to your ESL students.


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Second Conditional Lesson Plan

Lesson Plan #3 – How to Teach The Second Conditional

Teaching the second conditional can be a lot of fun if taught in an engaging way. This lesson plan will involve videos, songs, explanations, and exercises to ensure that your students know how to use the second conditional and when to use it.

Level: Pre – Intermediate + (can also be adapted for lower levels)
Language: The second conditional.
Type: Grammar

Approaching and Introducing the Second Conditional

Please note: I teach one-to-one online and, on the whole, teach grammar when the need naturally arises during a lesson. The following plan is not a rigid one, can be stretched out over several lessons, and is based on how I teach; but, it can be adapted for different teaching situations. Use what you feel is necessary, and adapt and improve on everything here.

Usually, the need to teach the second conditional comes about during conversation, something like this:

Me: So, what did you do yesterday?
Student: I was really busy yesterday.
Me: Are you normally busy?
Student: Yeah.
Me: If you had more free time, how would you spend it?

How I use the following materials and suggestions all depends on how my student deals that question.

If you want to introduce the second conditional specifically (for example, for an exam, or if you know that your student(s) don’t use it properly), you can talk about the lottery and use the first video (see below). Here are a couple of questions that you can ask that lead into the key question:

– “Do you play the lottery?” -> follow up questions.
– “How much money can you win playing the lottery?” -> followup questions.

Have a little conversation about this, and then ask the key question:

“If you won the lottery, what would you buy?”

It is the question that most students are familiar with when it comes to the second conditional, and usually they can answer this one. When they can’t answer this, they usually understand the concept behind it.

If not, go through the different forms used (if + past simple, would | would + if past simple) and that they can be reversible. For example:

– If I won the lottery, I would buy a new car
– I would buy a new car if I won the lottery.

Now it’s time to talk about when it can be used before going into more examples.

When to use it

The next stage is to explain when the second conditional can be used: for imaginary / unreal situations. From the first example, winning the lottery is an unreal situation, therefore, we use the second conditional (with would) to talk about what we would do if that situation were true.

The if clause uses the past simple. At this point, I usually ask my student to complete some sentences, and here are some examples:

– If I had more time, I…
– I would be really happy if…
– If I could travel anywhere in the world, I..

Try and think about more questions that are specific to your students and correct where necessary.

Introduce a video

Now is a great time to introduce a song (or this can be used as a warm up along with the talk about the lottery). The following song by the Barenaked Ladies, fits perfectly with this lesson plan. It’s called, “If I had a Million Dollars.”

After your student has watched the video, go over some of the lyrics. But first, introduce the contracted form used in the song (I’d = I would). A good way to lead into this is to ask your students if they noticed the contracted form, or by asking them to look out for it before the video.

Next ask, “What would the singer of the song buy or do if he had a million dollars?”  There are lots of examples in the video, including: a house, a car (K-Car), a tree-fort (with a fridge), a fur coat (not a real one), an exotic pet (llama or emu), John Merrick’s remains, crazy elephant bones, your love, expensive ketchups, art, and a monkey.

Some good conversations can result from this video.

How it is used for advice and was -> were

After you have gone through the video, put the following into Skype or on the board:

– If I _______ President, I would…

Most make the mistake here of putting in was instead of were. Show your students that was -> were when using the second conditional. This is great to lead into the next use of the second conditional: Using it for advice; here is an example:

– I wouldn’t do that if I were you.

At this stage, I usually explain that this can be used for advice, similar to using should. I then put some problems into Skype and ask my students to answer them starting with, If I were you.. 

Use problems that are specific to your student, but some general ones are relationship problems (“I think my boyfriend is cheating on me.”) or work problems (“I need a pay rise.”) I then go on to explain that in most situations, the if clause (if I were you) is omitted.

Using ‘could’ and ‘might’ instead of ‘would’

I also like to point out that we can use could and might in place of would. To do this, I give my students the following sentences and ask them to explain the difference.

– If I had more time, I could start learning the guitar.
– If I had more time, I would start learning the guitar.

Do the same with other sentences that are specific to the student.

A little practice

This can be done at anytime during the lesson, but it is a good idea to just do a few exercises to make sure that your students understand how to form the second conditional. The following questions can be done in class.

I always ask my students to read out the sentences instead of writing them out. These can also be given for homework. I then try and ask similar questions related to my student after each question.

Comparison with the first conditional

Depending on what you have already taught, or what the student already knows, you can go into the comparison between the first and second conditionals. The best way to do this is firstly show some examples of the first conditional, explaining that this is used for real situations, and then show them the following sentences, asking what makes them different.

– If I won the lottery, I’d buy a car.
– If I win the lottery tonight, I’ll buy a car tomorrow.

In the second sentence, the person has a ticket and is playing the lottery, while in the first example, the person is imagining what it would be like to win the lottery.

Comparisons with the third conditional and wish

Going through the third conditional is perfect after the second conditional. I actually think the best time to introduce this conditional is after reviewing the second conditional in a separate class. (Third Conditional lesson plan to come).

Also, it is really beneficial to introduce the verb wish and how this is related to the second conditional. The following will show this:

– I wish I had more time. If I had more time, I could do so much more.
– I wish we had more money. If we had more money, we could go on vacation this year.
– I wish it wasn’t raining, then we could go to the beach.

Explain how this relates to the 2nd conditional and that we use wish when we want a change of circumstance.

Further videos and homework

For homework, I usually give a couple more videos and set a writing exercise. The first video is an interview with different people asking them what they would buy if they won the lottery, and the second video has lots of songs that use the second conditional:

For homework, you can give the above videos, more exercises, and ask your students to write some sentences using the second conditional and wish.

Problems with pronunciation

A lot of students have problems with pronouncing would and it sometimes sounds like they are saying good. To get around this problem I ask my students to say the following words:

  • Win
  • Wing
  • Wood
  • Would

Usually, the problem isn’t the w sound, but confusion about how would is pronounced. Practice the difference between would and good until your students can say them both clearly.


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Please Share

If you have found this lesson plan useful, then I would be really grateful if you could share it with other teachers. Thanks so much in advance, and please also get in contact if you have any questions or suggestions.