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Demystifying the ‘horrible phrasals’: a closer look
at learner problems and the ways of approaching
teaching multi-word verbs
by Małgorzata Bryndal
- 3

Using MWVs appropriately can cause problems as well. In my teaching experience, the learners either avoid using MWVs and substitute them with single word equivalents (e.g.: the receptionist connected me to the manager’s office), or are more adventurous and try to use them regardless of register and connotation constraints (this is sometimes called ‘style deficiency’ (De Cock, 2005), e.g.: in a formal letter of complaint: …I was extremely cheesed off by your rude staff…) or collocational restraints ( i.e., lack of collocational awareness, e.g.: *the lesson was called off). The use of MWVs can also be affected by semantic confusion (wrongly assumed meaning of the verb), especially with idiomatic MWVs (cf. De Cock, 2005).

4. Approaches to teaching MWV

Bearing in mind the difficulties learners can have with MWVs discussed earlier, it makes sense to teach MWVs as lexical chunks, together with their syntactic, contextual and collocational features rather than in isolation. This is best achieved in a contextualised approach, in which MWVs are linked thematically, presented through semi-authentic texts such as narratives or dialogues(12). In authentic texts, the relationship between the verbs is often looser than in typical lexical sets, thereby reducing the chances of confusion for students (cf. Thornbury 2002, Steele 2005). In my teaching and learning experience, grouping vocabulary by topic makes the lexis easier to remember, plus lexical sets can be expanded as the learners’ vocabulary develops.

Inductive in its principles, this approach allows the students to use context to infer meaning and learn to notice that many verbs in English are composed of a verb+particle(s) instead of the single verb item. They also learn to notice other syntagmatic and paradigmatic sense relations(13)that exists among words, which helps them develop their collocational awareness and draws their attention to the frequency and usefulness of MWVs. If learners perceive the use of MWVs in natural stretches of discourse they will have models of natural language use to follow.

4.1 Practice activities(14)

To help learners feel comfortable using MWVs after the meaning and form have been presented(15), teachers need to create opportunities for learners to practise and ensure multiple exposures to target vocabulary. As Summers (1988) notices it is only by repeatedexposuresthat a word can enter a person’s active vocabulary, whether in first or subsequent language acquisition. This is where regular recycling and revision of vocabulary through emotionally and cognitively engaging tasks(16)comes into play. In case of MWVs it is very tempting to give students tasks involving a lot of matching (particles to verbs, meanings/definitions to MWV), categorising (transitive, intransitive), sorting (separable, inseparable), grouping (into lexical sets). While there is nothing wrong with challenging our learners, we have to be cautious not to make tasks too complex, as this might actually have an adverse effect, discourage our students and even instil negative attitude towards MWVs (if they don’t have it already). Instead, it is more reasonable to focus on one or two properties of MWVs at a time, giving our students tasks that will not only involve them cognitively but will also help them organise their mental lexicon by building networks of semantic associations (e.g.: topical cross-words with MWVs).

It is also important to help our learners keep a record of MWVs (or vocabulary in general). We need to cater for different learning styles and strategies, giving our learners a choice of recording formats, e.g.: category sheets, index cards, field diagrams, grids, pictures to label, labelling things at home etc. Some learners may not be prepared to organise lexical items in different ways, so the most helpful guidance teachers can give is to show learners how to be systematic in whatever system they adopt.

Students also need encouragement to take responsibility for their own vocabulary development. This not only entails active involvement with new vocabulary in class, but also building strategies for acquiring vocabulary independently out of class (e.g.: context guessing, using a dictionary, memorising techniques such as ‘key word’ or mnemonics etc.(17)). Encouraging learner autonomy could be the most effective way of helping our learners with the task of vocabulary learning.

12. Other approaches to teaching MWVs include grouping by the root verb, grouping by the particle, and grouping by the type. They have been discredited in the literature on the subject matter – see Appendix B.
13. Hedge (2000) defines syntagmatic relations as those between items in a sentence (collocations, fixed and semi fixed expressions) and paradigmatic relations as those between items in the whole lexical system (e.g. synonyms, antonyms etc.).
14. Examples of activities, resources and materials in Appendix D
15. Examples of presentation techniques in Appendix C
16. The more decisions learners need to make about words, the greater cognitive depth of the task, and the better chances of these words to be remembered (Nattinger 1988).
17. More examples of learner strategies for learning vocabulary in Appendix E.

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