Multi-word verbs: Methods and approaches

In the first of these two articles, Multi-word verbs: Learner problems, I looked at some of the problems that multi-word verbs cause students.

In this second article I'll look at a range of approaches and methods that I have used to try to help my students with them.

  • Categorising
  • Focus on lexical verb
  • Lexical sets
  • Teaching through texts
  • One way of using texts in the classroom
  • Conclusion


Traditional approaches to the teaching of multi-word verbs focus on the explicit study of the item. Many ELT coursebooks and grammars classify them into four distinct types, depending on whether they are intransitive or transitive, i.e. verbs that don't take an object and verbs that do, or if the verb and particle can be separated or not. Students study the rules, and then attempt to match a number of phrasal verbs (generally not linked thematically) to their appropriate type.

  • I have used this method in the past, and have occasionally found students, usually analytical learners, who have benefited from such an approach. The terminology can also aid students resourceful enough to study in their own time, through the use of grammars and dictionaries.
  • Generally however, I find such an approach cumbersome. The learner is often overburdened with terminology, and the sheer wealth and complexity of the rules can put the students off using them.
  • Too much classroom time becomes taken up with grammar terminology, with little left to engage in real language use, such as reading and speaking. The students spend time "learning to use English", rather than "using English to learn it." (Howatt)


Focus on lexical verb
Another approach is to group them according to the lexical verb;

  • run into
  • run over
  • run off
  • run away
  • run through


Exercises such as these are usually designed to test knowledge of the difference in meaning between verbs in a group, through gap fill.

  • Example: "I ________ Simon in the cinema last night." (ran into)


These exercises are a test of meaning rather than form, but there is usually no situational coherence. I have found that the lack of co-text in exercises such as these makes it difficult for students to remember the phrasal verbs. They lack communicative purpose, and the students have no hooks with which to connect the meaning to their own life.

  • One way of making exercises such as these a little more communicative is to set students the task of constructing sentences about themselves, using these verbs, in an attempt to make the meaning real for them.
  • A further point regarding this type of grouping is that it can be very confusing for students. It is only the particle which changes the meaning, but being confronted with so many different particles, students easily confuse them, producing sentences such as, "I need to run into my speech tonight", for 'run through', and "I ran over Carmen in the supermarket yesterday."


Lexical sets
More recently, approaches have tended to group phrasal verbs into lexical sets. Thus, a text about plane travel may include;

  • take off
  • do up
  • speed up
  • touch down etc.


Certain phrasal verb books group the verbs in this way and have a number of advantages. The verbs are presented through text, which makes their meanings clearer, and students can also use the co-text to work out the meanings. Such cognitive engagement may also make the exercise more memorable.

  • Learners generally move sensibly from recognition to production and there is usually a final exercise in which students get to personalise the verbs, by asking each other questions.
  • However, again, the potential for confusion is high, when the lexical set contains words of very similar meaning. For instance, students of mine had problems with a text about relationships, which contained the verbs; go out with, get on with, fall out, split up. I found that words of similar meaning interfered with each other, especially those which had a similar form, here, go out with and get on with.


Teaching through texts
A more natural approach perhaps, is to teach phrasal verbs as they occur in a text. Language is used in context and is usually better learnt in context.

  • In authentic texts the relationship between the verbs is often looser, thereby reducing the chances of confusion.
  • Furthermore, texts are not weighed down by complex explanation or categorisation, and thus more classroom time is devoted to authentic language use.


One way of using texts in the classroom
A possible approach is to underline in a text all the phrasal verbs which you wish students to notice. Then, in groups, ask them to try to divine their meanings. The students will thus be able to use the co-text to help them.

  • Guessing a new word's meaning from context is a key vocabulary learning skill and Nation (1990) identifies it as one of the three principal strategies for handling unknown vocabulary. Inferring from context is a difficult task, yet, "The deeper the decisions a task forces upon a learner, the superior the retention and recall." (Nattinger).
  • The next step is to move from recognition to production. I often do this by setting up a situation, and then asking students to make the phrasal verbs their own by producing a text along similar lines to the original. Thus, if the original text they read was an advertisement for a gym for example, then I ask them to write another advertisement for a gym, but this time aimed especially at their colleagues, or their classmates.
  • Carter and McCarthy emphasise the importance of learners finding meaningfulness for themselves in words and in relationships between words they encounter in texts. This personalisation task will thus be more conducive to successful vocabulary learning.


There are therefore various ways in which multi-word verbs can be approached in the classroom. An approach which combines frequent and contextualised exposure with work on awareness raising may work best. Ultimately though, words are learned by the individual, but through memorable presentation, personalisation tasks, and importantly, recycling, we can work to create in learners a "sense of need for a word" (Allen), which thus may lead to vocabulary acquisition.

Further reading
Vocabulary by Michael McCarthy
How to teach Vocabulary by Scott Thornbury
Vocabulary in Language Teaching by Norbert Schmitt
Techniques in Teaching Vocabulary by French Allen
The study of lexis in interlanguage by A. Davies, C. Criper, and A. R. P. Howatt.
Lexical phrases and language teaching by J Nattinger and J Decarrico
Words, words, words by Janet Allen

Vanessa Steele, British Council, Barcelona

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