EFL teachers and students are at once confounded and delighted by phrasal verbs. Students' and teachers' interest in using phrasal verbs inspired me to prepare "Phun with phrasal verbs," a workshop I've presented a number of times to highly interactive and grateful audiences in Russia.

When working with students, begin with schema, the knowledge in the room. What do participants know about phrasal verbs? The answers will vary.

For early English language learners, they may have no idea what a phrasal verb is, even though they likely use them, so I suggest beginning with samples of phrasal verbs and asking what students notice about them. As a group, construct a definition.

For example, what do you notice about these word combinations?

  • Think back
  • Go over
  • Take off
  • Stick to
  • Break up
  • Drop out
  • Fall down
  • Warm up

Have students watch and interact with the video above by former English teacher, Jason R. Levine, now known as Fluency MC (by the way, he has a wealth of additional innovative and uplifting language videos).

Create a group definition of phrasal verbs. Note that they are idiomatic, can be a verb plus adverb (break down, break up), a verb plus preposition (see to) or a verb plus adverb plus preposition (look down on, look down upon).

Instead of having students memorize long lists of phrasal verbs, many of which have multiple meanings or overlapping meanings (fill out, fill in), I like to have students work with themes.

For example, I ask participants to write sentences or stories using phrasal verbs that use "out," and I offer the following: go out, eat out, figure out, find out, try out and fill out. In a recent workshop, one group of teachers wrote this, "I wanted to find out how to eat out but I couldn't figure out how difficult it would be to try out a new place for going out."

Once participants have written the first paragraph, groups exchange their work, and I change the theme.

Participants continue the story using phrasal verbs only with "in." I offer break in, check in, cut in, fill in, let in, hang in, but I make sure everyone knows they can choose their own "in" phrasal verbs. We continue the exercise for several rounds of exchange and themes until there is a full story.

I've used phrasal verb themes based in travel/movement ("go" phrasal verbs), antonyms (eat in/eat out) and "something" (put on something, take off something, pick up something). Participants present their work; in a recent workshop, everyone was eager to learn what was going to happen to the characters in the stories being developed as they moved from group to group.

For additional activities, have students scour the American (or English-speaking) television shows, music and films they watch for examples of phrasal verbs. Have them pay attention to conversations they have and note the phrasal verbs they and others use. Have students use phrasal verbs to create crosswords and word search puzzles, to play charades, to create raps and poems, to create stories using the most phrasal verbs, and to create dialogues and skits.

Particularly motivating is to have students in groups create their own mystery theme and have other students discern what it is. Because I look for every opportunity to incorporate multiple intelligences in the educational activities I develop, I like to have participants illustrate the phrasal verbs they've used. Here are some artifacts from a recent teacher training.

A few days after a recent training, I received an email from, Diana Zolotukhina, a teacher who had participated. The email subject line was "Crime gone phrasal," and I was, of course, intrigued.

"I have finally had the chance to play with phrasal verbs with my group yesterday. [...] They are B2 students, and they LOVE challenges, so I modified the task you taught us at the workshop. Our topic this week is 'Crime and Punishment,' so their theme was 'What phrasal verbs are you likely to see in a crime novel?' They worked together and wrote a short scene (and even acted it out), and it was utterly amazing, so I thought you might like it, too:

Chief: Good morning, Tommy! What have we got?

Tommy: Good morning, Chief. Someone broke into Ed's Shop last night. Held up Old Ed at gunpoint and made off with all his cash!

Chief: The bastard! What can we do?

Tommy: Well, we cordoned off the scene for now. And we're looking for clues.

Chief: Good. We'll need to look into the shop workers' alibis as well. We can't rule them out.

Another officer: Sir! There’s been a witness! He tipped us off. He says it was Big Buck Bill!

Chief: Big Buck Bill? Impossible! He's behind bars!

Officer: Not anymore! He broke out of prison two days ago. He's on the loose!

Chief: Track him down! We can't let him get away!

Tommy and other officer: Yes, sir!"

Utterly amazing ... and phun indeed!

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