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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