The Curse: When Adam was expelled from Eden, it seems that God had an afterthought… ‘[Because of what thou hast done]… in sorrow shalt thou eat of [the ground], thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee …in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread… Oh – and thou shalt have to study phrasal verbs as well’ (Genesis 3:14 – 19). Yes, I do realise that the last bit is an addition to the original text, but I am sure that this is how many learners of English feel…
What is so special about phrasal verbs? Actually not much. Phrasal verbs are just like any other lexical items in English; that said, there are some good reasons why learners find them such a pain:
- They are verbs and as such they are less concrete and ‘free-standing’ than most nouns (a hammer is a hammer, but what is ‘look up’?);
- Many phrasal verbs tend to have more than one meaning (e.g. make up [an excuse] / make up [as in ‘kiss and make up’]);
- The verb often has no direct connection with the meaning (e.g. ‘What have you been getting up to?’);
- The fact that there are many, unrelated phrasal verbs with a similar form which mean totally different things (e.g. make up/make up for/make for etc.).
How to approach phrasal verbs: Here is the main idea: just because phrasal verbs can be difficult for our learners that does not mean that we have to come up with new ways of presenting or practising these lexical items. In fact, I would like to argue that in trying too hard to help our learners we often do more harm than good (yes, there is going to be a list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ in my upcoming webinar).
So – why should I attend this session? As it happens there are a number of new ways to help our learners. In my webinar, I am going to recommend three research-based strategies discovered by cognitive scientists which are certain to make your teaching far more effective. In fact, I would go so far as to say that by using these simple strategies, you are going to become at least 30% more efficient in teaching phrasal verbs. Here is an added bonus: these strategies also work for anything else you might want to teach your students – whether this is tenses, writing, functional language, history, biology, economics – anything! Here’s a taster of how it works.
Generation: This strategy involves asking the students to do something which they lack the knowledge to do. This could be asking them to solve a type of maths problem they have never encountered before or to list the reasons for the French Revolution which they have not been taught. In our field, this could involve asking students to describe the picture of a living room when they do not yet have the vocabulary to do so, or to write a formal email when they have not been shown how to do it. The idea is that the frustration students experience actually prepares their mind to receive the new knowledge and heightens their level of alertness so they experience an ‘A-ha!’ moment when they see the right answer or the right model. ‘Unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem encourage deep processing of the answer when it is later supplied, creating fertile ground for its encoding, in a way that simply reading the answer cannot. It is better to solve a problem than to memorise a solution. It is better to attempt a solution and supply the incorrect answer than not to make the attempt’ (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014 – p. 88).
Retrieval: Retrieval is the single most effective strategy cognitive scientists have managed to discover. Here is the discovery in a nutshell: whereas most of us teachers focus on input, thinking that the best way to help our students is to structure the information in such a way that it ‘goes in’ more easily, it turns out that students learn best by trying to retrieve the information, that is when they try to get information out of their heads! ‘Retrieval practice occurs when learners recall and apply multiple examples of previously learned knowledge or skills after a period of forgetting’ (Agarwal & Bain 2019 – p. 37). Put another way, you just ask your students to remember things you have taught them. The simplest form of retrieval is when you just ask your class to write down everything they can remember at the end of the session. The more often we do this, the better. As cognitive scientists have shown, the problem with ‘forgetting’ is not so much that we forget – we just cannot access the information inside our head. ‘The more times we draw information from memory, the more deeply we carve out the pathway to it and the more we make that piece of information available for use in the future’ (Lang 2016 – p. 28).
Spacing: The last strategy is the simplest thing you have ever heard: researchers have discovered that while massed practice (cramming) helps students remember things better in the short term (which is why they invariably do this before exams), in the long term this leads to very little learning. Instead, if one were to study exactly the same material but spread the study over a number of shorter sessions, allowing some time to elapse between them, the difference in the resulting long-term retention can be truly impressive. In Carey’s words ‘nothing in learning science comes close in terms of immediate, significant, and reliable improvements to learning’ (Carey 2014 – p. 76). It seems that when we stop studying and we engage in something else, our brain keeps working in the background, organising things and making connections without us realising it. ‘When we let time pass and space things out, students’ knowledge has the time to solidify and ‘simmer’ ‘ (Agarwal & Bain 2019 – p. 100). So, instead of asking students to engage in retrieval at the end of the lesson, you might ask them to do so at the beginning of the next lesson. Here is another idea: instead of giving students homework on what you did during the lesson, why not give them homework on something you did the previous week?
What about those phrasal verbs? So how can we apply all these ideas? How can we use them to facilitate the learning of phrasal verbs? Well, if I were to tell you everything here, you would not need to attend ELTOC 2020, would you?
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Nick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) has been active in ELT for many years as a teacher, examiner, presenter and teacher trainer. He has travelled and given seminars and workshops in many countries all over the world.
He has written extensively on Methodology, though he is better known for his ‘Psychology and ELT’ articles in which he draws on insights from such disciplines as Marketing, Management and Social Psychology and which have appeared in numerous newsletters and magazines.
His areas of interest include Student Motivation, Learner Independence, Teaching one-to-one, and Humour.
Agarwal, P. & Bain, P. (2019) Powerful Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Brown, P., Roediger, H., McDaniel, M. (2014) Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge Massachusetts. Belknap Harvard
Carey, B. (2014) How We Learn. London: Macmillan
Lang, J. (2016) Small Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass