How to Teach Phrasal Verbs to ESL Learners

Watch out when you bring up phrasal verbs.

About phrasal verbs

Did you notice all the phrasal verbs in the first sentence above?

In all my years of experience, maybe the number one thing that my English students report having a hard time understanding is the concept of phrasal verbs.

Yes, they find the past perfect tense or the third conditional bizarre and complicated-but they're also not so common or necessary in their everyday English-speaking life.

Pronunciation of words such as "through" as opposed to "though" as opposed to "tough" is also a challenge, but practice can make perfect when it comes to

Modals can throw English student for a loop, but they are so common and useful in everyday speech that progress often comes quickly.

For whatever reason, phrasal verbs are sometimes the ultimate challenge. It's hard for many students to grasp the idea that two words (and sometimes three!), a verb plus a preposition or adverb (or both) and can all go together to create a new meaning that is different from the meaning of any of the words by themselves.

Why exactly, does "it turned up" mean that something lost was unexpectedly found? Can students put up with three-word phrasal verbs? (Note: technically, words like "up" in "put up with" are particles, not adverbs.)

When you add in the fact that some phrasal verbs can be separated in a sentence, that you can break many phrasal verbs a long distance apart in a sentence, students can start to become totally befuddled.

Not to mention that some phrasal verbs need an object ("put it down") and others don't ("I get up at 8.") And of course many phrasal verbs have multiple meanings: to make up a story versus to make up with a person.

Last but not least, some phrasal verbs are so common that there are no regular words to replace them. Though we can teach "to come back" as a synonym for "to return," what is the synonym for "to get up (in the morning)"? "To arise"? No one says that. "To wake up"? That's another phrasal verb!

But there is some good news. First of all, though some phrasal verbs don't seem to make much sense in terms of the meaning being connected to the words themselves (like "turn up" above), many of them are pretty obvious in the connection. Like to take down a picture and put up a picture. It's much easier to successfully teach the phrasal verbs that make some sense, and many do.

The last bit of good news is that once students start to get it, teaching and learning phrasal verbs can be fun. More about fun exercises below.

A tip about teaching phrasal verbs

One tip that I discovered over my years of teaching when teaching phrasal verbs is to encourage students to somewhat ignore the fact that they are two (or three words) and to think of them as just one.

Using synonyms is a good way to get students to think of phrasal verbs as one word. Having students chant "Please come back. Please return," "Please go away. Please leave," etc. makes phrasal verbs seem like simple alternatives to easy non-phrasal verbs.

This works when introducing phrasal verbs as a new subject (when you show the students phrasal verbs without separating them), or when there is a phrasal verb in a beginner class on another subject.

Yes, phrasal verbs sneak into lesson plans before you ever formally introduce them. Any beginner class on daily activities will include to get up or to wake up. In this case, present the phrasal verb along with the other verbs and activities (to eat, to drink, etc.)

With the example of to get up or to wake up, you can just write the words next to an image on the board the same way you do with the other verbs. If you're lucky, students will accept it or recognize it and learn it as is; you won't have to explain phrasal verbs just yet.

A technique to teach the concept

If you do get a question about a phrasal verb in this situation (a classroom lesson on a subject other than phrasal verbs), here is a technique to visually demonstrate the concept:

You can simply point to the words with two fingers on one hand (your index and middle finger), say "two words," bring your fingers together, then lower your middle finger so you are holding up just one finger, and say "one action." (Use three fingers if the phrasal verb has three words.)

This technique would be reinforced when you do the verbal repetition drills, as they get used to "get up" or "wake up" being spoken like one word: [geddup] or [gettup] and [waykup]. Then it will be further reinforced when you act out the verbs: you can pretend to be asleep and have the students tell you to "wake up!"

Teaching the literal meaning and the phrasal meaning

Sometimes it's necessary to differentiate between a phrasal verb's meaning versus the literal meaning of the two words.

For example:

to look up a word in the dictionary = phrasal

to look up into the sky = literal

to drive up to a house (to arrive by car) = phrasal

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to drive up a mountain = literal

to run into a friend = phrasal
to run into an object (to collide with it) = literal

This can also help students understand the phrasal verbs. By learning both meanings of the word pair, they understand both more clearly.

Focusing on phrasal verbs that use the same base verb

Sometimes phrasal verbs are introduced by using examples of phrasal verbs that all start with the same base verb; textbooks often do this. A whole classroom lesson could be designed around phrasal verbs with get:

Get away

Get by

Get at

Get over

Get down

Get across

Get along

Get around

Get on

Different students learn in different ways, and this approach works for some. Certain kinds of learners will get excited by all the different meanings they can squeeze out of get by adding another word to it.

But often students don't react well when just presented with a list of words that all look similar. It can be an added burden for students to have to suddenly differentiate between all the "get" phrasal verbs in one classroom lesson, to have to remember each different meaning of a bunch of similar-sounding word pairs.

Doing the lesson this way can also detract from the benefit of naturally including phrasal verbs in a lesson based on a theme, a text or dialogue.

Don't automatically reject this method if your textbook or class requires it. But in my experience it's best to introduce common phrasal verbs a few at a time during classroom lessons, and when it's time to do a lesson on only phrasal verbs, to make it a varied selection instead. The varied selection can be included in a classroom lesson introducing phrasal verbs as part of a theme, like daily activities, cooking, work, etc.

Here are some commonly used phrasal verbs that beginner or low-intermediate students should know:

get up

grow up

take off

get away

come over

put down

get off

put on

pick up

deal with

find out

give up

look after

check out

look for

do over

come back

Time for fun

As always, having the students do a fun activity is the best way to teach English. In a previous lesson we discussed TPR (Total Physical Response), and TPR is a natural fit with phrasal verbs when you have the students stand up and act out put on your jacket, take off your jacket, put down your pen, pick up your pen, etc.

TPR also is a part of some the following games and activities that can be used in teaching phrasal verbs. These game and activities can be adapted for teaching many other kinds of grammar also.

1.    Charades:

This activity works well with phrasal verbs and can also be incorporated into many other classroom lessons.

This game involves one player acting out or miming the meaning of a word so that the other players have to guess the word.

This activity should be done after the students have already been presented the phrasal verb vocabulary of the day.

Put the students into small groups and give each group pieces of paper or index cards with a different phrasal verb on each one. Then one student takes the first card and acts out the word while the students in the group try to guess what the word is.

Before you start the game, model the exercise in front of the groups by doing it yourself. Say "what word?" and then act out an easy one, like "to wake up" until someone guesses it. (This in fact is similar to the eliciting that you do in every class.)

Then show them the cards and pass them out. You can then go to each group and show them individually how to proceed, having one student in each group start, telling them to take turns.

2.    Taboo:

This is a game where one person tries to convey what the word is without saying any of the words itself. This game is better than charades when the meaning of the phrasal verbs are not physical actions, like to make up (your mind).

Start the game the same way as with charades, with small groups and the words on pieces of paper. Again, model the activity in front of the group before having the groups do it themselves.

3.    Bingo:

You can find free bingo card generators online. Make bingo cards with the phrasal verbs on them.

You can play this game by calling out the synonym for the phrasal verb (you call out "return" while the students have "come back" on their cards.) You can also act out the phrasal verb instead of calling out the synonym. You can do a variation on the Taboo game: for "wake up" you might say, "first thing in the morning." You can do all of them combined, especially when the phrasal verbs are a mix of verbs with some that can be acted out and some that can't.

4.    Stories:

Any narrative that students can follow really helps them understand phrasal verbs in the context of real life. You could teach a whole lesson plan based on the following text, and then have the students write their own story as an exercise: 

My weekend 

Last Saturday I got up 7 a.m. I put on my clothes, had breakfast, and then I went to the shopping center. I went alone, but at the shopping center I ran into my friend. We decided to hang around for a while, so we went to a caf and talked. We made a plan to get together on Sunday night and check out a movie.

Unfortunately, the next day my friend called me and said she was sick, too sick to get out of bed. So our plan to go to the movie fell through.

After that, I didn't know what to do. Go to the movie alone? Get together with my family? In the end, I didn't make up my mind, so I just chilled out at home.