Over the last 6 years I have spent a lot of time teaching and thinking about how best to teach phrasal verbs, unfortunately, I haven’t come up with a magic bullet! But, I have found more and less effective strategies.

The first thing to say is that if your goal is to communicate with, listen to and understand native English speakers there is no escaping phrasal verbs! This is why I will almost always include some focus on phrasal verbs in all my sessions. They are an essential part of English vocabulary and too often neglected in traditional language teaching in favour of a focus on Grammar. ‘Without grammar little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed’. Wilkins, 1972 (cited Thornbury, 2002).

There are 2 ways you can think about phrasal verbs as a learner of English. The first and, probably most common, is to see them as your enemy, as completely illogical, unnecessary and created only to make life difficult for English learners. Or, you can try to make friends with them! To begin to look at them as very often having a logical basis (even if, at first, it is not very obvious. And, in quite a lot of cases that logic has been lost over time as the way English is used has changed, they have become idiomatic.) and see them as allowing an increased level of richness and meaning.

Key to understanding and remembering new phrasal verbs is  making them personal to you, thinking about them in ways that mean something to you and also conceptualising them, visualising the action being described

If we look at some of the most common prepositions used in phrasal verbs and we can try to understand the ‘movement’ contained in them, or what is called orientational metaphor!

UP: More visible, more audible, more accessible (speak up I can’t hear, open up new markets, show up)

       Also it relates to completing, stopping things (close up, dry up, shut up)

DOWN: Making lower, decreasing, defeating and suppressing (break down, calm down, beat down, turn down)

Into: This can relate to changing (turn into. Caterpillars turn into butterflies).

          Also, it relates to involvement and to meeting (enter into the conversation, run into an old friend).

OUT: Is about searching/finding & understanding (figure out the solution to the problem, I can’t make out what he is trying to say).

       Also, remove/exclude (rule out, leave out).

OFF: Is about departure and separation ( I get off work at 7.00, aeroplanes take off from the ground).

         Also it’s about stopping and cancelling (I have paid off my debts, the concert was called off).

         And about prevention and protection (keep off the grass).

So, I hope I have not added to the general confusion. If I have (and even if I haven’t) here are some links to some very good websites which should help to make phrasal verbs a bit clearer:

http://esl.fis.edu/vocab/phrasal/phrasal-important.htm this contains a list of idiomatic phrasal verbs

http://www.phrasalverbdemon.com/ this one explains the structure of phrasal verbs

This one is useful for both teachers and learners: http://esl.about.com/od/esl-worksheets/a/How-To-Study-Phrasal-Verbs.htm


Categories: Vocabulary

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