Rachel and Phrasal Verbs

In Besançon Teri and I were hosted by Rachel, a lively English girl who gives private English lessons and teaches in a business school. She has given her company the very appropriate name of Smile, since it’s difficult to think of Rachel without seeing her radiant smile.

Rachel first heard of TPRS when I presented it at Strasbourg’s Spring Day last June and immediately decided that she wanted to do the workshop in Agen. She likes the results she has been having, but wanted help with planning her lessons. We gave her a few ideas and sat in on several of her lessons. I admired the friendly atmosphere that she has been able to develop in her groups and enjoyed meeting her students, who are also her good friends.

She told us how difficult she finds it to integrate TPRS/Comprehensible Input methods with the requirements at the language school where she works. She is preparing her students there to pass the TOEIC exam where they must attain a minimum score to get their diploma. Her employer has given her a list of grammatical points to cover, not necessarily TPRS friendly. In particular she wanted to know how to approach the long list of phrasal verbs that she was supposed to teach.

If English is your native language but you don’t teach it, you may not know what phrasal verbs are. When I first heard the expression I had been teaching English for many years without knowing what they were. I remember finding a list in an Oxford University Press textbook for English learners, advanced level, and thinking at the time that it was brilliant. It listed all the combinations with “get”. Get up, get on, get out, get over, get across, get through, etc., etc. Phrasal verbs are a nightmare for English learners who look up “get” in the dictionary and find a whole page of possible meanings.

Later, seeing how difficult phrasal verbs were for my students, I realized two things. Firstly, although phrasal verbs are usually treated at the advanced level, they are an essential part of English structures and can’t be avoided even in texts for beginners. Secondly, that the lists of phrasal verbs that one often finds have it all wrong. They are almost all centered on a common verb. The student is asked to memorize all the different meanings of “get + particle” that can be found in the dictionary. Then on another day she’ll be asked to memorize all the different meanings of give up, give in, give out, give over, etc. And another day she’ll have look up, look over, look out, look into, etc. No wonder students turn pale when you mention phrasal verbs.

When I was teaching French to English translation at the university in Agen, I taught my students how to do a criss-cross, or chassé-croisé with phrasal verbs. Bear with me here for just a little technical explanation. With phrasal verbs the “little word” that follows the verb is more important than the English verb. I always said “little word” because many of my students were unsure of exactly what a preposition was and had no idea of the difference between preposition and particle. To walk across becomes traverser in French. To run across, to get across, to fly across, to skip across, etc. can all be translated as traverser, with a qualifier such as en courant if wanted.

So I began explaining to students that any verb followed by “in” probably meant entrer. That any verb followed by “down” would convey the idea of descendre. That “out” always implied sortir and “up” could often be explained with monter. And I gave these explanations to beginners as well as advanced students. Instead of memorizing pages of lists, they only had to retain the core meanings of in, out, up, down, etc. Once I began using TPRS I did this in pop-ups every time we encountered a phrasal verb, which is often in any English text.

The lists Rachel had to teach to her students were daunting because, intended for advanced students, they concentrated on abstract meanings related to business rather than the more concrete action verbs. But I was able to show her that by grouping the expressions by their particle instead of the verb she could make similar meanings more apparent. Instead of working with all the expressions with “look”, we chose all those that used “through”. And found look through, go through, get through, run through, sit through, etc.

In class Rachel began with some PQA, using look through, get through and sit through. Then she created a story about a girl named Alice who had to sit through boring Sunday dinners with her relatives and wanted to get through her studies so she could move away. Later Alice had a good job but had to go through endless e-mails every day and sit through boring meetings, etc. The students enjoyed the story and came up with some interesting ideas. Alice ended up selling shark burgers on the beach in Hawaii. Rachel ended her lesson with a big smile.

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