A Brief History of Phrasal Verbs

The overview

Phrasal verbs are notorious in the realm of English teaching. Students hate them, teachers hate teaching them, and examiners love including them. The last part of the previous statement is why we need to focus on them in our classes. 

Shying away and suggesting a phrasal verb dictionary download is one way of dealing with it, but taking phrasal verbs head-on and making them your friend is a better way of taming this monster.

Start by telling your students what is known as the Truth, or a Legend, depending on how accurate you like your history to be. It explains why phrasal verbs are difficult to learn and why they are meant to be hard too.

As stated, this could be either fact or fiction, but the brief history of phrasal verbs goes something like this:

Once upon a time, there were three groups of people living in England. The locals (the farmers), otherwise known as the English, the aristocrats, who spoke French, and the clergy, who spoke Latin.

The farmers, the English, did very well speaking English, but if they were going to overthrow the French in the 100-year war, they needed a weapon. 

We do not know if it was designed to be a secret language or if it landed up that way, but when the English started using phrasal verbs to communicate with each other, nobody else had any idea what they were on about. Thus, their weapon had been formed – a figurative part of speech that is not easily understood, on purpose.

It must have been the phrasal verbs combined with some brilliant strategies (later seen in the rise of English football) that got the French out of England, allowing the Great British Empire to form and take over the world.

Why phrasal verbs are difficult

Before we go further, we should, perhaps, define a phrasal verb. It is a verb, noun, or adjective plus participle (preposition or adverb) that has a meaning, or two or three, that must be learnt. You can’t always understand what it means by hearing it or just seeing it. You do actually have to learn their meanings and uses.  

It is for this reason that they are difficult. As stated, the meaning of a phrasal verb is usually figurative not literal, though of course, to aggravate, frustrate, or otherwise challenge a learner, there are literal meanings too.

How to teach phrasal verbs

You can teach phrasal verbs in three main ways.

1) by topic, 2) by verb, or 3) by particle.

When you teach by topic, you use the most common phrasal verbs organised by subject. 

For example, if the topic is work, you would gather the most common phrasal verbs people use about work. It doesn’t matter if they use different verbs or particles, because what matters is that they can be remembered in context. ‘Clock in’ and ‘clock out’ are phrasal verbs that refer to when you start and end work, but neither of them uses the word ‘work’.

Some people prefer to learn phrasal verbs by verb, say all them starting with the word ‘work’. Work out, for example, can refer to being at the gym or it can mean to figure something out. 

Learning phrasal verbs by the particle is probably the hardest way of doing it because all of the phrasal verbs end with the same preposition or adverb. Jump in, dine in, fly in, set in, etc., but there are students who prefer learning them in this way. 

Making your own phrasal verb materials

After having explored the different ways of learning, practising, and producing phrasal verbs, an interesting, but possibly difficult way of seeing them in context is by taking an article from a magazine, website, or newspaper and using the phrasal verbs in that article. 

You could ask students to scan the text to find and underline the phrasal verbs in them. Next, in pairs or small groups, the students must try to identify the meanings of the phrasal verbs. The context could help, but it could also be a case of ‘need to have learnt them to know what they mean’. 

After you have given the students enough time to figure out the meanings, write the definitions on the board, and get the students to match the definitions to the phrasal verbs.

Another phrasal verb practice task you could do is more time-consuming for the teacher, who has to prepare the task, but good as a warmer for your class. Start by gathering as many phrasal verbs as you can, organised by verb, noun, and adjective. The internet has many such worksheets online that could also be free to download. 

Cut up the phrasal verbs, their meanings, and the example sentences. Put students into pairs or small groups, and give them a time limit. You could put a song on in the background if you want to keep it shorter, and when the song is over, they have to stop the matching task. 

Remember that if you can laminate the strips, it will be a matter of doing it once and keeping the task forever for later classes. Even though this particular part of speech has a bad reputation for being really difficult, if you get organised, you can get a handle on them.

Teaching students how to learn them in their own time can help with their confidence. They’ll have developed life-long phrasal verb learning skills, which is very helpful as there are billions of phrasal verbs in English.

Don’t forget how often they come up in the Use of English exams, and other higher-level English exams. In terms of daily speech, English speakers use them every day in many ways. 

Daunting they maybe, but you can get a hold of phrasal verbs, and your students will be better off because of it. The phrasal verb is, after all, a secret weapon that in its own humble way, helped the English to become England.

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This article was originally published on January 28, 2020 and was last updated on February 12, 2020.

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