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Short Article 01
Phrasal Verbs: For Beginners Only
Nevin Siders
Nevin Siders is a tenured professor of Educational Psychology and English at the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional, Mexico. He is also editor of The ELT Beat, monthly newsletter of the Mexico City chapter of MEXTESOL and director of Studies for Bridges. E-mail: or


In the very first week of classes

What have they learned?

So just what IS a phrasal verb anyway?

What will they be able to do with all this later?

Conclusions and some Genuine Gratitude

I have heard many English teachers here in Mexico express the opinion that phrasal verbs are very complicated and, thus, only for advanced students of the language. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, they are our simplest verb forms — at least from the English-speaker’s point of view! Moreover, children refrain from use single word verbs until their ninth or tenth birthdays.
Phrasal verbs are an intimate, solid foundation of all Germanic languages, but perhaps even more so in English than in the others. The underlying system of English would be difficult to comprehend without them, and much of the rest of the language would be confusing and arbitrary until these items are learned.
We foreign language teachers do a great disservice to any student who we deprive of this knowledge — doubly so because there are easy, excellent ways to present phrasal verbs from the very first week of classes!
In the very first week of classes
After just two or three class hours of class time of naming people and things and are grasping the sense of be accompanied with the question words who and what, the teacher now grasps one of these common objects and asks, “What am I doing?”
(No, the learners will not catch the significance of doing now, but the will in just a moment after you have repeated a million times.)
State the action you are performing: “I am picking up the book.” Repeat this a couple of times, then a couple of times each with other already known objects. You can signal “upwards” with the other hand, moving close by in tandem with the “working” hand.
Invite the students to imitate, while you “narrate the action:” “Elvia is picking up the book.” Demonstratively signal for other students to take turns performing the action while still others narrate.
Asking for confirmation with incorrect questions keeps it lively and creates a humorous game-like challenge: name the wrong student, name the incorrect object.
Insist that the person performing the action move very, very slowly, so the narrators can keep pace, especially when they are purposely asking incorrect questions.
Now introduce the opposite action: put down. Again, start by narrating while you yourself put down the same objects you had picked up. Alternate among picking up and putting down three or four objects. Then while others repeat the actions, and then still others narrate while yet others perform the actions.
Now we move into the imperative. Use a commanding voice and tell a student what to do: “Laura, pick up the pen. Laura, put down the pen.” Have the student repeat the action (signal or whisper to do it very slowly), and ask the rest of the class yes/no questions, usually saying the name of another object or another student so they are paying attention to the meaning.
That first student then turns to tell a second what to pick up and put down, in a Simon Says-type game. “Pick up the pencil. Pick up the book. Pick up the piece of paper. Put down the book. Put down the pencil. Put down the piece of paper.” It is humorous to be juggling several objects, that is part of the task, insofar as it requires paying attention to the meaning.
After the second student gives commands to a third, the third to a fourth while the second to a fifth, and so on, cascading through the class.
The next items are in, on, and under, all in combination with put. Hand signals are a great help. In is signed with the index finger going down into the opposite hand held like an open fist. On is shown with one hand flat open and the index finger of the other gliding down to meet it. Under is signed with the one hand held flat open and the index of the other going down right next to it and then turning ninety degrees to go underneath it.
Keep you eyes open for surprising, uncomfortable places to put things: big books in small purses, erasers in the CD player, chairs in the window, chairs on the table, CD player under the chair, your coin in my wallet...
This easily and naturally moves into naming new items. Encourage the students to ask questions like, “What is Manuela putting under the CD player?”
Another natural step is to ask about what the students are saying. For instance we see Xóchitl put an eraser under the CD player while Miguel narrates, “Xóchitl is putting an eraser under the CD player.” The teacher asks the class, “Is Miguel saying ‘Xóchitl is putting an eraser under the table’?” The whole class answers, “No.” The teacher asks, “Is Miguel saying ‘Xóchitl is putting a table under the CD player’?” The whole class again answers, “No.” Clowning at irritation, the teacher asks loudly, “Is Miguel saying ‘Xóchitl is putting a table under the eraser?” The whole class answers, “No” for a third time. The teacher now asks, “What is Miguel saying?” The answer is: “Miguel is saying ‘Xóchitl is putting an eraser under the CD player.’” Immediately point to Daniela while asking Javier, “What is Daniela saying?” The answer is: “Daniela is saying Miguel is saying ‘Xóchitl is putting an eraser under the CD player.’” Continue the chain with three or four more people!
Remember to use all the question words they have: who, what, and where. “Where is she putting the chair?” “Who is putting what under the window?” “Cristina is putting what in her purse?” “Jonathan is putting who under the desk?”
The next words to introduce are stand up and sit down. The presentation starts with your own pantomime and narration, “I am standing up. I am sitting down.” Give an order, “Martha, stand up.” Signal another to narrate as Martha performs her action. Give the opposite order, “Martha, sit down,” and signal that second to narrate as Martha completes her routine. Martha then gives orders and further students narrate, while you ask incorrect yes/no questions. “Is Angélica sitting down?” “No.” “Who is sitting down?” “Federico.” “What is Angélica doing?” “Angélica is standing up.” “Is Federico saying Angélica is sitting down?”
The next words are come in and go out. Wave and say, “bye-bye” as you demonstratively leave the room. Halfway out the door, you say, “I am going out of the classroom.” Pause a few seconds; you have made your point when you hear someone start to goggle nervously. Then stride back in and stop precisely in the doorframe, “I am coming in the classroom.” Follow the routine for repetitions and commands and questions on the narrations.
Put on and take off are logical next words, put things on other things (stack that stuff up high!) and then take them off, as well as put on and take off coats and clothing. People can go into and come out of places, and then turn around.
Keys to success

Notice that two points are critical to the success of this class. First, the words are action words, ones that can be executed instantly. Yet they are controllable, they can be pantomimed in slow motion, or even frozen, when tongues get tied. Second, they are presented in opposite pairs (except for turn around) so the actions can be done and undone innumerable times.

Now let us turn back to the beginning and analyze what they have learned.
What have they learned?
In a couple of very amusing lessons totaling less than ten class hours, the students have learned and practiced quite a few words a couple of grammatical structures.
Lexically, they have named possibly dozens of objects, a half-dozen actions, and a handful of those critical prepositions.
Concerning verb tenses, they have practiced the present progressive with two different meanings: the declarative action-in-progress and reported speech. They have also used the imperative, and so have had the opportunity to notice that -ing is an affix.
They have heard at least three questions words and two question forms.
They have learned how to request the names of new objects. (Don’t let them turn you into the famous “walking dictionary” ... but that’s an issue for another article.)
If you chose to say, “my pocket,” “my purse,” “my desk,” “her book,” and “his bookbag,” then they have heard several possessive pronouns.
Several opposites are acted out, and so the learners can appreciate the principle of reversibility.
Addressing both affect and learning styles, the physical/kinesthetic aspect is employed extensively.
The lesson is memorable because it is humorous. Although not all learning can be fun, this one leads to one of my favorite children’s books, The Cat in the Hat. (See my workshop on Dr. Seuss.)
One trick to keep the banter flowing is to ask two or three different incorrect yes/no questions, then follow up with one with a question word. Look again carefully at the example with Xóchitl and Miguel. The two or three yes/no questions concern truth value, each one about the same aspect of the reality being played out. Finally, the last question that searches for the missing information uses a wh-question word, “What is Miguel saying?”
Thus, this brief series of tasks is quite different from the language found in commercial textbooks. Most textbooks spend many chapters only naming things and themselves with the verb be. Regardless of how important that verb-of-existence may be, learners learn when they do things, perform actions, and it is a discourtesy, if not a waste, to oblige them to wait chapters and chapters until they encounter their first action verbs: do something.
So just what IS a phrasal verb anyway?
There are many types of two-word and three-word verbs, and even a couple of four-word verbs. Only some of them are phrasal verbs, in the strict sense of the term. Linguists will tell us that phrasal verbs have three distinguishing features.

  • the spoken intonation falls on the “preposition,” (properly termed the particle).

The first feature is clear when we listen to ourselves say them out loud. This means it was quite alright to stress the particle in our introductory exercises. (Only a linguist is concerned with distinguishing particle from preposition: the former only exists here in phrasal verbs, the latter is a special class of adverb that indicates mode and has a direct object noun.)

  • almost all of them have a single-word synonym.

We teachers occasionally hear that English has a “double vocabulary,” a formal word and a casual one. This is an important instance of where the everyday Germanic foundation doubles with Latin- and French-origin words: pick up versus lift, put down versus place, come in versus enter, go out versus exit.

  • the parts are “separable.”

Here is one part that many, many exercise books and even textbooks are mistaken. When the stress is on the particle, as in rule 1, then pronouns and direct objects fit nicely between the two parts: “pick the book up” and “pick up the book.”

  • the particle is often derived from the preposition’s literal meaning.

Another noticeable feature, beyond the three strictly linguistic ones, has to do with significance. There is little metaphorical stretching of the meaning from the original preposition. All of our beginner’s examples cited above, up, down, and through, describe the literal movement through three dimensional space. The senses of authority and completion in look up and clean up, for example, clearly demonstrate some sense of altitude.

  • a hyphen can transform it into a noun.

Curiously, most phrasal verbs convert easily into nouns, which is shown in writing by adding a hyphen. Examples are, “What a let-down,” “What a show-off,” “What a put-down.”
Keep in mind that this is the linguist’s territory; don’t try to ask a native speaker of English what a phrasal verb is, at least those who I can speak for from the United States. They are unlikely to have ever even heard the term.
Not the same as idioms

Sometimes in the course of defining a thing it becomes necessary to explain what it is not. Phrasal verbs are quite different from idioms. I include this warning because so many exercise books that have “phrasal verbs” in the title in fact muddle these two things together.

An idiom is a group of words with a single, unique meaning, one that has little to do with the meanings of the individual words. The meaning of the whole is not equal to the sum of the parts; in fact the parts have little to do with the whole. For instance, kick the bucket and hang up your spurs are idioms for dying, and have no literal derivation from, kicking, hanging, buckets, nor spurs. These two are from Hollywood and cowboys, respectively. They demonstrate how an idiom is created at some point in the development of a culture, reflecting its unique view of the world, and are often humorous or novel in their viewpoint.
An idiom is a set, immutable phrase, and in a sentence acts rather like a single-word noun. Although a verb within it can be conjugated into the past and present tenses, the idiom as a whole cannot be broken, modified, or conjugated and preserve its meaning.
A true phrasal verb, on the other hand, can have numerous meanings, but all of them will have to do with the literal meaning of its constituents.
Being a verb, a phrasal verb can mutate into any and all of the grammatical functions appropriate to verbs. They can be conjugated into all tenses and modes and take on both passive and active voices. As noted above, they also easily transform themselves into nouns.
What will they be able to do with all this later?
Students who have enjoyed a lesson like this will be well armed for when they encounter prepositions in the intermediate and advanced levels. Prepositions are quite difficult! Reflect for a moment. How many are there? Only a couple of dozen, (including the more exotic ones like insofar (as) and heretofore). There are so few, yet they are ubiquitous.
Now, naturally, an exposition like the one found in this article would sound like esoteric linguistics to the ears of any normal mortal. The way to breach the topic with our intermediate and advanced students is from another angle. A seeming innocent question like, “How many words do you know with down?” can lead to a very rewarding conversation.
An awareness task for these students opens quite simply. Take advantage of the situation when a learner’s question arises to ask the whole class, “How many words do we know with down?”, writing it in the middle of the board. Once they get warmed up and you have started noting their contributions on the board, narrow it down to verbs-with-up, and accept the answers like pull down, sit down, and draw down. When the board is full, they have built a mental or semantic map of the lexical item. The follow up question is, “What does down mean?”
Please note that this exercise is quite different from — even the opposite of — the order in most textbooks and almost all exercise books. Until recent years, multi-word verbs were listed alphabetically according to the verb. There is little, if any, relation among the consecutive items drive through, drive up, and drive up to, (force, insanity, and come alongside, respectively) insofar as they employ three different meanings of drive.
As the principals of the Lexical Approach have caught on, recent publications invert this order of presentation, using the particle as the center of focus. There is greater cohesion of meaning among the items in a list organized around up: come up, drive up, get up, go up, follow up, push up, such as in the activity proposed above.
Having appreciated the above presentations when they were beginners, our intermediate and advanced students will now possess a very solid basis upon which to judge for themselves the meanings of several prepositions, and even the logic of the prepositional system of English (and other the Germanic ones).
Going back to the comparison-and-contrast technique for presenting opposites to beginners effectively demonstrates how the meaning of English prepositions have to do with location and motion: consider in / into, versus on / onto. Consider how unlike this is to neo-Romance languages that focus more on origin and means, as in Spanish’s por / para, de / por.
Contrasts with their mother tongue are inevitable and fruitful. For one thing, the Mexican Spanish my students speak also has a double and triple vocabulary that similarly reflects register of formality and word origin, such as morral, mochila, and bolsa, derived from Nahuatl, Arabic, and Latin, respectively. For another, contrary to popular belief, Spanish does have a handful of phrasal verbs.
Another fun task is to invent new words. It is important for students to appreciate that coining new words happens all the time, and as they join the community of speakers of this new language, they too have the right to utilize all of its power. In fact, in English one of the most common ways to coin new words is to attach a preposition to a verb. My personal favorite example of how natural invention is the song Crazy on You by the group Heart (1976).
Drawing attention to the role of synonyms and borrowings in their mother tongue, learners can better appreciate how English has its “double vocabulary.” Words of Germanic origin are for common, everyday chatty talk, while the single-word synonyms of Latinate origin (from French or Latin itself) constitute more sophisticated speech and technical terminology.

As an aside, this last point is the reason why we should not waste student’s time with phrasal verbs in TOEFL preparation courses. A course that specifically prepares students for this university entrance exam have much to gain in studying everything except phrasal verbs — regardless of the advice they will receive elsewhere. Precisely because its sole purpose is to test academic vocabulary, the TOEFL focuses on the sophisticated, technical genres encountered in college classrooms and textbooks. (For more advice on this and generally getting over the TOEFL, see The Awful TOEFL, Siders 2004)

Conclusions and some Genuine Gratitude
While the greater of the ideas presented here, especially the logic in putting the linguistic parts together and the lesson ideas, are my own conclusions eclectically drawn from formal college training, orientation courses in language institutes, and MEXTESOL workshops, in combination with many years of classroom experience. Yet to sign off properly, it is proper to give credit to those who I taught me most of the raw data presented here.
In first place, the MEXTESOL workshop by John Shea (1993) on phrasal verbs drew my attention back to this matter, especially the critical issues of intonation and comparative linguistics.
The form of presentation in the model lesson that makes extensive use of intentionally incorrect factual questions is a cornerstone of the Behaviorist Direct and Audio-lingual methods, with which Berlitz has great commercial success. Yes, you read me right, Direct and Audio-lingual! Too many people want to throw out the good with the bad, and set aside the reality that listen-and-repeat is the only logical and appropriate strategy for absolute beginners.
Thanks to the MEXTESOL Journal for publication of a previous version of this article (1995 — how time flies!), and to the local chapters of Coatzacoalcos, Mazatlán, Mexico City, and Pachuca, who hosted the workshops based upon it.
Berlitz de México. (1990) Orientation class. Mexico City: Berlitz.
Heart. (1976) Crazy on You. Canada: Mushroom Records / Capitol Records.
Shea, John. (1993) Some Practical Ideas on the Teaching of Phrasal Verbs. Workshop at Mexico City Regional Convention. Mexico City: MEXTESOL.
Siders, Nevin. (2004) The Awful TOEFL: A Multiple Choice Exam. Mexico City:
----------------. (1997, 1995) Phrasal Verbs: For Beginners Only. Workshop at Coatzacoalcos, Mazatlán, Pachuca, and Mexico City Regional Conventions.
----------------. (1995) Phrasal Verbs: For Beginners Only. MEXTESOL Journal, volume 19, number 2. (Reprinted and revised at: www.

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