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Teaching Phrasal Verbs – A New Approach | ELTOC 2020

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?

ELTOC 2020

Suffice it to say that I intend to make the session a practical one and give you at least four practical, actionable ideas. So do please register, and feel free to bring a friend along!

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



Don’t give up on idioms and phrasal verbs!

Using idioms and phrasal verbs in ESL

Image courtesy of PixelAnarchy

Stuart Redman, teacher trainer and OUP author, introduces his upcoming webinar on 30th September entitled: “Don’t Give Up on Idioms and Phrasal Verbs.”

Teachers often have strong views about teaching (or not teaching) idioms and phrasal verbs. Read through a cross-section of views below. Which statements do you most identify with? Are there any that you strongly disagree with?

‘I tend to steer clear of idioms and phrasal verbs for low-level learners. They have other priorities, and I don’t want to confuse the students too much.’

‘I teach phrasal verbs and idioms as they come up, even to low-level learners; for example, they need to understand items like ‘write it down’ or ‘take it in turns’ as part of the classroom language I use.’

‘I teach quite a few phrasal verbs, but I don’t really teach idioms. They don’t seem to crop up very much in the course books I use.’

‘Generally speaking, the students I teach are learning English for academic purposes, so I don’t teach many idioms and phrasal verbs because they’re too informal. I just stick to teaching more latinate vocabulary, because that’s what they need for reading, essays and that sort of thing.’

‘I’m quite confused about how to organise the teaching of idioms and phrasal verbs. I always go over the grammar of phrasal verbs, but after that, I’m not sure how to go about it in a systematic way.’

‘I often focus on idioms associated with parts of the body, for instance, ‘have a chip on your shoulder’, ‘put your foot in it’; or animal idioms such as ‘let the cat out of the bag’ and ‘the black sheep of the family’. It’s always fun, so that helps students remember it.’

‘When I studied English at school, we used to learn long lists of phrasal verbs organised by the root verb, for example, ‘take in, ‘take out’, take over’, etc. As a student I found this quite confusing and I felt overloaded.’

‘It’s all very well teaching idioms and phrasal verbs, but the big problem is how to practise them. I think students get bored by just doing gap fill exercises, and that’s the kind of thing I come across most often.’

‘I don’t bother much with teaching idioms because a lot of learners tend to use them inappropriately or they just stand out like a sore thumb.’

Look again at the statements. Can you find fourteen idioms and phrasal verbs, not including the examples given in inverted commas, e.g write it down and take it in turns?

During my upcoming webinar we will look at ways of organising and contextualizing idioms and phrasal verbs for teaching purposes. We’ll also be looking at material from the Oxford Word Skills series and the Oxford Learner’s Pocket series.


Homophones: Some Sound Advice

Woman's earIan Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at homophones: words that sound the same as other words, but have a different meaning.

Born or borne? Discreet or discrete? Site or sight? Sink or sync? Homophones are one of the bugbears of learning a language, especially a language such as English, which can represent similar sounds in a number of different ways.

A homophone is a word that sounds the same as another word, but has a different meaning. Often two homophones are spelt the same (as in the case of a ring on the telephone and a diamond ring), but homophones can sometimes have different spellings (as in the case of their and there), which makes life even more difficult.

Homophones can create a particular problem when one of the spellings is not very commonly used. For example, the word but is so much more common than its homophone butt that when you hear a word with this sound you are likely to think that you are hearing the conjunction. However, it is worth remembering the less common homophone can crop up from time to time in phrases such as the butt of a joke.

The verbs pour and pore present a similar issue: pour is much more common, but the phrasal verb pore over involves quite a different meaning. When you pore over a piece of writing you don’t cause it to flow but you study it intently.

When the rarer of two homophones is used in an idiom or phrase, such expressions can be impossible to decipher if you are not aware that a homophone is being used. Take the example of the word bated. This is not the past participle of the verb bait. Pretty much the only time you will come across it is in the phrase with bated breath: if you wait for something with bated breath you wait for it eagerly. The phrase has nothing to do with your breath being prepared to catch a fish, but it makes use of an old variation of the verb abate, and so the idiom describes a person who is so excited that they hold their breath until a particular thing happens.

The idiom give somebody a wide berth is another where the less common of two homophones is used. When you hear it for the first time it may be tempting to interpret this as having something to do with birth. However, the term in fact comes (like many English idioms) from seafaring. A berth is the space allowed for a ship to move about when it is tied up or swinging on its anchor, and so when a troublesome person or thing is given a wide berth they are avoided and given plenty of room to go about their business.

My final example is the phrase learn by rote. When you hear this it may sound as though the last word is wrote. But this phrase has nothing to do with writing; it means to learn things by repeating them over and over rather than by understanding their underlying meaning. What makes this harder to know is that you will never come across the word rote in any other context.

So homophones can not only create problems with spelling, but they can also be quite misleading when it comes to grasping the meaning of a phrase. If you find them tricky then you can take some comfort from the fact that native English speakers often get these confused as well!


What do idioms look like?

Man with egg on his faceAhead of his talk at IATEFL 2011 entitled ‘Don’t give up on idioms and phrasal verbs’, Stuart Redman, co-author of Oxford Word Skills, ‘gets to the bottom of‘ idioms in the English language.

What’s the first thing that comes into your mind when you see these expressions?
kick the bucket
be barking up the wrong tree
a storm in a teacup
strike while the iron is hot
have egg on your face

Your answer is probably that they are all idioms: groups of words that not only have a meaning that is different from the individual words, but also a meaning that is often difficult or impossible to guess from the individual words. If someone is barking up the wrong tree, they have the wrong idea about how to get or achieve something; it has nothing to do with – or is unlikely to have anything to do with – dogs or trees. If you have egg on your face, you might need a handkerchief, but it’s more likely that you are embarrassed or feel stupid because something you have tried to do has gone wrong. These expressions are also good examples of the commonly-held view that idioms tend to be very vivid and colourful expressions.

Now, let’s turn to another list of expressions. What do they have in common with the list above?
to some extent
I’ve no idea
from time to time
first of all
in the distance

Less obvious perhaps, but the answer, in fact, is the same: they are all idioms. Is the meaning of these expressions very different from the individual words? Not to any great extent. Is the meaning difficult or impossible to guess? Not particularly. Are they vivid and colourful expressions? Certainly not. So, why are they idioms?

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