4# tips on how to teach phrasal verbs to EFL students and a phrasal verb game

June 9th, 2016 / Teaching

TEFL teaching: how to teach phrasal verbs esl/efl

Time and again ESL students say that the hardest thing about learning English are the phrasal verbs. When you think about it they make no sense. The verb bares no relation to the action you are talking about and if you get the preposition wrong you create a completely different meaning.

Follow these tips on how to get on how to get those phrasals to stick.

Tip 1# – Select your phrasal verbs  

Choose which phrasal verbs to teach carefully, considering in what context your students use their English and therefore which phrasal verbs they are most and least likely to hear. A business person is unlikely to come across the phrasal ‘wipe out’ for example in their daily life.

Tip 2# – Categorise phrasal verbs by vocabulary subject not verb

If you try to teach, let’s say, all of the ‘take’ verbs together (‘take on’, ‘take in’, ‘take up’, ‘take out’ and so on) your students will never remember which preposition is for which action.

Your students stand a much better chance of learning phrasal verbs if you instead teach them as part of a vocabulary set. For example, ‘take up’ could be taught as part of a sports lesson (‘take up tennis’) along with other verbs such as ‘kick’, ‘hit’, ‘bounce’ and so on.

Tip 3# – Only teach one meaning at a time

The definition of phrasal verbs is that they carry more than one meaning. ‘Work out’ for example, means ‘to exercise’, ‘to calculate’ and for something to ‘result well.’ Teach only one meaning at a time within its proper vocabulary set or your students will get confused.

Tip 4# – Create a mental picture for the verb

If you take only one tip away from this blog post, let this be the one.

Consider this: if phrasal verbs are so complicated, how did we natives learn them as children? Well, we did it by making a mental picture from the verb and preposition which relates to the action. We did it so long ago that we probably don’t remember, but that is how they stuck.

For example with the phrasal ‘set off’ for ‘to start a journey,’ I imagine people at the start of a race (the race has been ‘set up’) and then the gun goes off to signal the start. For the phrasal ‘take on’ for ‘to assume more work or responsibility’ I imagine someone ‘taking’ files and paperwork on their body, rather like putting on an overcoat.

Get your students to practice the same thing in a speaking activity whereby in pairs look at a few phrasal verbs and discuss what pictures they can conjure to relate to the action. Let’s be clear, this activity takes time, meaning that after 20 minutes or so they will have learnt three phrasal verbs. But it does REALLY work. It is better to spend time learning three words that they will commit to memory forever than learning 10 which will disappear as soon as the lesson ends.


The phrasal verb teams game: ‘Call My Bluff’ Phrasal Verbs

To teach the second or even third meaning of common phrasal verbs, try this game.

Call My Bluff is an old British TV show where contestants must guess the meaning of obscure words.

First divide the class into teams of two and then pair two of those teams together.

Give Pair A a phrasal verb they know, and give them one minute to guess the other meaning (Note: They never get it). For example, Pair A already knows that ‘to give away’ means ‘to give for free’ but they don’t know its second meaning which is ‘to reveal a secret.’

Next give the definition of the second meaning to Pair B. When the minute is up Pair B must explain it to Pair A without using any of the words in the definition. To be sure that they have the right meaning Pair A may have to answer in their own language and so have the translation on hand to check if they are correct.

If Pair A correctly guess the meaning without help they receive 2 points. If they correctly guess the meaning with Pair B’s help then both Pair A and Pair B receive one point each.

The game creates a memorable, fun experience and amazingly students almost always retain the vocabulary.

Examples of double or triple meaning phrasal verbs:

Give away – To give for free / To reveal a secret.

Make up – To invent / To reconcile / To compensate, for example, ‘I will make it up to you.’

Pick up – To collect or take something / To pick someone up in a bar for romantic purposes.

Work out – To calculate / To exercise in a gym / To result ‘well,’ for example, ‘Taking the train worked out cheaper than the bus.’

Hang up – To hang up clothing or a picture / To put down the telephone.

Bring up – To raise a child / To raise a subject with someone, example, ‘I will bring up the problem at the next meeting.’

Give up –To stop doing something / To surrender.


Want more on phrasal verbs? 

Here is a video on a tough language point. Phrasal verbs with ‘to fall.’


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