If you have ever heard students complaining about learning vocabulary, most probably it’s phrasal verbs that bug them so much. Let’s agree: they are quite difficult. They are rarely the same as what the verb means. They have their own rules (with/without an object, can/can’t be separated). That said, it’s hard to imagine communicating without them. And since we can’t avoid them, let’s talk about activities that will make teaching phrasal verbs more effective. Here are some of our favourite easy-to-implement activities (make sure you read to the end as there’s a useful link waiting for you there).
This is one of the easiest tasks for teachers to implement and the most fun for students to do as there is almost never a wrong answer. To play, we need to give each student a phrasal verb and ask them to make associations with it. They might go with obvious topics (e.g. phrasal verbs like put on, take off, try on are likely to be associated with shopping, whereas pay off, go up, chip in are likely to be associated with money). But we can encourage students to get creative and look for more personal and unique associations. They will of course have to explain their choice but it adds more discussion to the activity and that’s always a good thing. With a little more prep, we can put together a list of phrasal verbs and specific topics they should be matched to.
If we have students who work in business, they might need some work-related phrasal verbs like run by, come across, come up with, figure out, etc. After presenting them, we can suggest the following activity. Ask students to imagine that they have come across a mistake/an issue in a working process. Using the phrasal verbs, they need to say what the sequence of their actions would be.
Students may say something like ‘I will try to figure it out. After I come up with a solution, I will need to run it by my boss.’ etc.
We can apply a similar approach when teaching phrasal verbs on any topic of our or our students’ liking. For instance, for going on holiday we’d need words like set off, show around, check in, etc. In the same fashion, we can ask students to describe a regular holiday and use phrasal verbs in the sequence they usually happen (‘Before I set off…, After I check in at the hotel…, I look for a tour guide to show me around…’). This activity can be easily combined with the previous one: first, we ask students to match phrasal verbs with the topics and then use them to describe some processes or sequences.
Stories have always been a fun and efficient way to learn, as they give us context. One way to use them is to ask students to make up stories. They can do it one by one, each using a different phrasal verb. They can also work in pairs and compare how different their stories are despite using the same list of phrases that that we provide for them. As an idea, we might even create a story for them but share only the phrasal verbs from it and ask students to predict/guess what it is about based on them. Let’s imagine that our story is about a person who broke up with their partner and was upset. Then, their friends tried to cheer them up by going out a lot and meeting new people. The person quickly found another partner who they got on well with. They dated for a few weeks and broke up. And the cycle went on. Students only see the highlighted phrasal verbs and try to make up the story. Whoever gets the closest version to ours is the winner. If students really struggle with it, we can read the story sentence by sentence and ask them to continue it.
When teaching phrasal verbs, we must show students how they can enrich day-to-day communication. We can prepare a situation beforehand or use something we hear in the lesson. The main idea is to make students replace regular verbs with phrasal verbs. For example:
A: We don’t have any food left. >> B: OK, let’s eat at a restaurant today!
can be turned into
A: We have run out of food. >> B: OK, let’s eat out today!
A: This is so difficult. I can’t understand what to do with it. >> B: Yeah, but don’t stop trying. can be turned into
A: This is so difficult. I can’t figure it out. >> B: Yeah, but don’t give up.
We can either role play it or ask students to come up with similar dialogues in a different setting (e.g. work-related, connected to free time, relationships, etc.)
This one might require some preparation but with a bit of imagination (and maybe even some help from ChatGPT) we might benefit from it. What we have to do is think up a topic and three phrasal verbs (or two phrasal verbs and a verb + preposition) that have something in common (either a particle or a main verb). Then, we can either create gapped statements or questions which students have to discuss upon completion. For example, we can ask students to talk about relationships and give them the following statements:
a) If a couple manages to make up after a fight, it only makes them stronger.
b) When a couple breaks up, their mutual friends suffer the most.
c) You should never put up with a partner who is still in touch with their exes.
After students have completed all the statements with the missing particle up, they can discuss whether they agree or disagree with them and explain why. Alternatively, we can prepare questions or sentences that students can then complete with their own ideas.
This activity might work well as quick revision or an intro to any other activity we are about to do. There are two ways to go about it. One is to ask students to have a race and group phrasal verbs by any category (their meaning, topic or even type, e.g. with/without an object, separable/inseparable). Another is to use a timer and make students brainstorm as many phrasal verbs as possible during a given time period. Again, it might be based on various categories: a main verb, a topic, a particle, etc.
In order for this blog post not to be just words, we have prepared a standalone worksheet that focuses on teaching phrasal verbs. Here, you can find most of these ideas implemented and designed to be used for B2+ students. We hope they save you some time on preparation or inspire you to create your own engaging activities.