5 ways to teach phrasal verbs

Combining the difficulties of idioms with the treacherous grammar requirements of verb usage, often fusing totally unrelated words together, and eventually coming up with a whole different meaning than you might expect, these bad boys certainly aren’t the easiest aspects of learning English as a second language. No wonder then that there’s typically an audible gasp from the class the moment you announce you’re about to teach phrasal verbs!

The problem is made even worse by the fact that that most teachers find it uber-difficult to explain why that particular preposition and that particular verb can be squeezed together and mean something pretty darn niche. It’s, if you like, just one of those things you come to accept as given as a native speaker. However, it’s not all doom and gloom for the would-be grammar maestro in the classroom…Just check out myTEFL’s handy guide to the five top ways to teach phrasal verbs below. Enjoy!

teach phrasal verbs
English Class at Poder Learning Center | © Daniel X. O’Neil/Flickr

Use storytelling

Ditch the stale lists of multi-word verbs that you can often find in the appendixes of those textbook tomes, and opt instead to impart the knowledge of these nearly-idioms by using the age-old technique of storytelling. The benefits of using this method to teach phrasal verbs are many, but two really stand out: you’ll be engaging students’ imagination, and you’ll be getting in valuable speaking time with the target language to boot. The result is an activity that keeps the class focused and on-point, whilst also maximizing that all-important student talk time. There are multiple ways to start the storytelling method. You can do it as a casual lead-in, and force pupils to re-use the phrasal verbs they’ve learned before (one per sentence added to the story is a great idea). Or, you can even do it as a writing task, asking your class to replace normal verbs with phrasal verbs in their text (you know, ‘he reviewed the book’ becomes ‘he looked over the book’, and the like).

Act them out

A way for the more active and energetic (this is certainly a post-morning coffee option) TEFL grad to teach phrasal verbs, acting it out means exactly what it says on the tin. Get up there in front of the class and ask students to identify precisely what it is you’re trying to show as you nudge your imaginary car into that imaginary layby (‘pull over’). Watch as they scrawl their answers in their textbooks as you meet your imaginary friends in that imaginary café (‘hang out’). Okay, you get the idea! Remember though, this one’s best suited to students who already know their way around the vocab.

teach phrasal verbs
Lenses | © Ben Chun/Flickr

Matching exercises

One of the curious things about phrasal verbs is the way that there are actually often several verbs to fit each meaning. Just think, how different, really, are the likes of ‘look after’ and ‘take care of’, ‘made up’ and ‘think of’? The benefits of identifying such groups with similar meanings are great for those coming to teach phrasal verbs, and mainly because it leaves the door open for a classic matching exercise or two. For example, you could cut up verbs that mean the same thing and play a little random matching game. Or, you could write muddled-up pairs on the whiteboard and put your class into teams, adding a little adrenaline to the task by asking them to match each up in a short time limit.

The missing phrasal verb

After getting the initial intro to that target language out of the way, and making sure each student has a fair understanding of the several phrasal verbs you’re going to be focusing on that lesson, this activity is a great option for hammering home their meanings. You’ll need to do a little prep beforehand. Create a worksheet with up to 20 sentences (after that many, I’ve found that students’ eyes tend to start drifting towards the window – it’s not the most riveting grammar, after all!), each with its own phrasal verb. However, leave a blank space where that target language is required. The class is tasked with filling them in. The beauty here is the versatility: this one can be used as a homework activity, as a quiet activity for personal work, or as a group quiz – it’s up to you.

teach phrasal verbs
Homework | © Chris Yarzab/Flickr

Phrasal verbs charades

The phrasal verb edition of everyone’s favorite Christmas game is a great choice for bringing this tricky piece of English grammar and vocab to the classroom with ease. Start by separating your class into pairs, give each pair a pile of cut-out sentences that all contain phrasal verbs, divide them in half and give equal amounts to each participant. Then it’s time for the fun and games. Ask each half of each pair to begin acting out the meaning of their sentences. Their partner is tasked with guessing the whole shebang, but is limited to only using phrasal verbs themselves. Points are added for right answers and deducted for use of normal, single-word options. You might just be surprised how many phrasal verbs your students actually know when you set this snowball rolling down the proverbial hill of English grammar!


Can you think of any other great activities and methods for those coming to teach phrasal verbs this year? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below…Or, do you think it’s time you took the plunge and hit the classrooms for a TEFL adventure of your own? Then be sure to head over to myTEFL’s courses page for the lowdown on getting qualified.

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