Challenging Advanced Students with Phrasal Verbs

For some reason I’ve always liked phrasal verbs. They’re one of the things that make English the crazy language it is. Why would turn against, turn around, turn away, turn back, turn down, turn in, turn into, turn off, turn on, turn out, turn over, and turn up have at least twelve different meanings — actually, many more — that don’t have anything to do with each other, or, in most cases, much to do with the physical act of turning?

Many English verbs acquire a different meaning when they are combined with a particle, that is, a preposition or an adverb. The combination of verb + particle is called a phrasal verb, and there are thousands of them in the English language. There’s no rule for forming them, no shortcut to learning them, no way to intuit their meanings. It’s sheer memorization.

If I were an ESL student, I don’t think I’d like phrasal verbs very much.

Easy Phrasal Verbs for the Classroom

The Ventures series  introduces phrasal verbs in Level 3. Here are some of the combinations they teach, as well as some others that are easy to demonstrate and practice in the classroom:

stand up                                        turn over a paper
sit down                                        hand out worksheets
turn around                                  go over exam questions
go out                                            throw out (or throw away) a tissue
come in                                         turn up the music
go away                                       turn down the music
come back                                   call someone back
turn on the lights                        put away your cell phone
turn off the lights                       fill out a form
pick up a pencil                          get up in the morning

Phrasal Verbs with Two Particles

Most phrasal verb combinations use one particle, but some use two. For example:

The thieves made off with the loot.
The project ran up against financial problems.
The car ran out of gas.
I’m coming down with a cold.
Lulu comes across as rather self-centered.
The children look up to their teacher.
Julia is going out with Ted.
These two students don’t get along with each other.
Look out for ice on the road.

Phrasal Verbs Can Have Several Meanings

To complicate things further, a given phrasal verb combination can have multiple meanings. For example, to make up has at least five distinct meanings:

The two friends had an argument, but they made up afterward.
I let the cosmetics saleswoman make up my face.
The children made up a story to explain why they were late.
I need to make up the exam I missed.
The housekeeper will make up the room.

And while to look over something is to examine it carefully, to overlook it has nearly the opposite meaning, suggesting carelessness. Aaargh!

Intransitive and Transitive Phrasal Verbs

Once students have learned some phrasal verb combinations, we then face the next hurdle: teaching where to put the direct object.

Some phrasal verbs are intransitive, meaning they don’t take a direct object at all. Examples include back down, catch on, come back, come over, drop out, get ahead, get away, get well, grow up, look alike, run away, watch out.

Identical twins look alike.
The robbers ran away when they heard police sirens.
Get well soon.

But many others are transitive, meaning they do take a direct object. The direct object can be a noun or a pronoun.

George developed a drinking problem and quickly ran through his money.
Lilia called to ask about the party; please call her back and tell her it’s at 8:00.

Inseparable and Separable Phrasal Verbs

Transitive phrasal verbs are further subdivided into two groups, according to where the direct object is placed: inseparable and separable.

With inseparable phrasal verbs, the direct object can only go after the particle. You can’t put anything in between the noun and the particle; they have to stay together. For example:

Burglars broke into the house. They broke into it.
(Not: They broke it into.)
The bully picked on younger children. The bully picked on them.
(Not: The bully picked them on.)

With separable phrasal verbs, if the direct object is a noun, there is a choice: the object can go after the particle, or it can go in between the verb and the particle. For example:

Clean up this mess! Clean this mess up!
She turned on the light. She turned the light on.

However, if the direct object is a pronoun, it can only go in between the verb and particle:

The students wrote down the assignment. They wrote it down.
(Not: They wrote down it.)
I pick up my daughter from school every day. I pick her up from school every day.
(Not: I pick up her.) has a simple chart that shows the placement of direct objects.

Phrasal Verb Speed Dating

Here’s an idea for a classroom activity. Make a list of phrasal verb combinations that students have already been introduced to. Using the list, make two sets of index cards: verbs (in one color) and particles (in a different color). Give each student two verb cards and two particle cards, preferably ones that do not form phrasal verb combinations by themselves.

Students then circulate around the room, matching up cards with other students to form phrasal verbs. As soon as two students have a pair of cards that form a phrasal verb, they write a sentence on the board that uses the combination. Encourage students to make as many matches and sentences as they can. You can make it a competition by giving each student one point for a sentence that uses the phrasal verb correctly and makes sense.

Many online sites have lists of phrasal verbs and exercises for learning them, such as Purdue Online Writing Lab,, Dave’s ESL Café, BBC English, Caroline Brown English Lessons, and many more.

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4 Responses to Challenging Advanced Students with Phrasal Verbs

  1. Like the speed dating idea! Confusion about phrasal verbs (perfectly understandable) can sometimes lead to amusing results. I recall one student who used “make out” instead of “make up” to answer a question on a test, with the result that the sentence read, “John and Susan had a fight, but then they made out.” Also, I discovered in one class that every student thought the adjective “outgoing” (as in “friendly”) referred to someone who was actually going out of a room.

  2. Anne MacAskill says:

    I enjoyed this a lot. So well explained and done with a smile.

  3. brent goo says:

    very nice presentation–clear and easy to explain. brent goo

  4. Pingback: Phrasal Verb Worksheets for Intermediate to Advanced ESL | LETC Teachers' Corner

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