I was going to title this “Phun with Phrasals,” but decided that might be a tad juvenile. As a matter of fact, though, I do think phrasal verbs are fun. More to the point, I think they’re one of the keys to natural-sounding English speech. As native speakers, we use phrasal verbs just about every time we open our mouths, though we may not realize it. Phrasal verbs are tricky, though. There’s often no way to figure out what they mean based on the meanings of the verb and the preposition that form the combination. Students can know the meaning of give, and the meaning of in, and still have no clue that give in means to yield in an argument. Or they can know the meanings of look, and down, and on, but never guess that to look down on someone connotes condescension. How ever would you know?
No, phrasal verbs have to be memorized. And there are thousands of them. (NTC’s Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs, my go-to for PVs, promises “12,000 idiomatic verb phrases.”) You’d think students would be discouraged about this, but actually they seem to love learning phrasal verbs. They somehow sense their importance to English, perhaps because they hear them all the time and often wonder about their meaning.
Our team has been teaching phrasal verbs to Advanced classes at Language ETC since last spring. The first step is simply to teach some of the most frequently used combinations. For that I’ve developed some simple worksheets with phrasals based on eight common verbs:
These Word files (one to two pages each) may be downloaded for classroom use. There’s plenty of material about phrasal verbs on the Web, but much of it is too complicated, with dozens of examples. To avoid overwhelming students, I tried to focus on a few of the most common combinations for a few of the most common verbs.
The other thing that distinguishes these homemade worksheets is that they don’t provide definitions. Instead, for each phrasal verb, they give a sample sentence that illustrates the meaning. The students can take it from there. We had students read each phrasal verb aloud, read the sample sentence, and then work together to figure out the meaning. Then we asked them to write three or four sentences using several of the combinations they had learned.
Once students have become familiar with a number of phrasal verbs, you can start dealing with the grammar, which is fairly vexatious. Phrasal verbs are either transitive or intransitive, meaning that some take a direct object and others do not. Transitive phrasal verbs are further divided into separable and inseparable, which determines where the direct object goes. Is there any way to know whether a phrasal verb is separable or inseparable? Nope. It just has to be memorized. Moreover, the direct object is placed differently depending on whether it’s a noun or a pronoun. We can say I pick up my children from school or I pick my children up from school or I pick them up from school — but not I pick up them from school.
A blog post from early 2012 explores some of this grammar, provides links to phrasal verb websites, and offers an activity called Phrasal Verb Speed Dating that your students may enjoy.