Monday, March 8, 2010

Focus on Phrasal Verbs

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
mailto:Belgiumjonestamara@hotmail.com

Don’t Put it off! Covering Phrasal Verbs, that is.

Phrasal verbs are, at best, an irritation to many English students. They are arbitrary in that the verb and preposition combinations often have nothing to do with the actually meaning of the phrasal verb. However, they are also ubiquitous. Once thought to belong solely to the realm of spoken or casual English, phrasal verbs are now acknowledged as being a part of almost every type of English, from news broadcasts to novels to college lectures to thesis papers. They are everywhere. Students have no choice but to learn them, no matter how frustrating the chore may be.

Quite often, phrasal verbs will appear in the later chapters of a grammar text. While I strongly support any exposure to phrasal verbs students can get, I wonder if this is the best place for them. In my opinion, phrasal verbs are more like discrete vocabulary items than grammatical patterns that can be learned and applied in a variety of situations.

Ideally, in my experience, phrasal verbs are best learned in a Listening / Speaking class. (However, because phrasal verbs show up in all kinds of written English as well, they could be certainly addressed in a Reading / Writing context as well.) I think that a Conversation class is a good fit for a phrasal verb lesson because, not only do students need exposure to this target language to be fully effective communicators, but it also gives teachers something concrete to teach in the class, in addition to doing “conversation practice” which can be a bit more difficult to measure. Learning phrasal verbs gives Conversation students the feeling that they are learning something tangible in a subject area which is not.

Getting on with the Business of Teaching Phrasal Verbs

First, I usually begin with a warm up of some sort that reviews the phrasal verbs from the previous lesson. I sometimes give students one index card each with either the phrasal verb or a gapped sentence and instruct the students to walk around the class until they find their match. Or, I might divide the class into groups of three or four students and have one student from each group turn with their back to the board. I write a phrasal verb from the previous lesson on the board, and the group has to give their partner clues until he / she shouts out the phrasal verb. The goal is to re-activate the vocabulary from the previous day and get students ready to think about English.

Then, we check the homework as a class. I strongly believe in assigning written practice with phrasal verbs. Keith Folse, in his wonderful text, The Art of Teaching Speaking, argues for the need for students to have time to prepare to speak. In my own experience as a French student, I know that I am better able to use vocabulary I have had written practice with. In addition, as a lazy student, I tend not to learn that which I am not forced to learn, and the pressure of homework is a great motivator. If the homework assignment was to use the phrasal verbs in sentences or a story, I collect them and check them myself. However, if the homework was a gap-fill or matching activity, we usually go around the class and check the answers aloud. This is a great opportunity for me to correct any pronunciation errors (especially associated with the stress that belongs to the preposition in this unique case) on an individual level.

Then, students have time in groups to continue with some controlled practice. If we are tackling new phrasal verbs, I often give them a dialogue or sentences which give the phrasal verbs context. Students work in pairs to “guess” what the meanings are. If students are recycling previously learned phrasal verbs, they would work in pairs to complete some kind of written activity which elicits the target language. At this point, we are focusing on the meaning of the phrasal verbs and whether or not they are separable (the object can go between the verb and the preposition) or inseparable (the object can only go after the phrasal verb) or intransitive (the phrasal verb does not take an object) in this particular meaning. One of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with phrasal verbs is that these rules change when the meaning of the phrasal verbs changes.

Once I feel comfortable that the majority of students have grasped the ins and outs of the target language, we move on to a less controlled, more conversational practice. I either present the students with conversation questions containing the phrasal verbs we have studied or I assign them some kind of performance task (for example: plan a news report using five of the phrasal verbs or plan a family argument using five of the phrasal verbs, etc.), or I ask them to reach a group consensus about a subject that prompts use of certain phrasal verbs. This less-controlled task gives students freedom to experiment and make mistakes they can learn from.

Getting Students Caught up in their Own Learning
This process is, admittedly, a little slow for some students. It can take hours just to get a handle on 10 or 15 phrasal verbs. For more motivated students, a phrasal verb journal might be useful. When students hear or see a phrasal verb, they write it down and refer back to it often in order to commit it to memory. Students wanting a little more self study also might like Michael McCarthy and Felicity O’Dell’s English Phrasal Verbs in Use. I like this text a lot because it divided the phrasal verbs into manageable subject areas.

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