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

Lesson plan

Preliminary information

Level: Intermediate

Main aims:    

  • To introduce the SS to 6 MWVs related to the theme of work (stage 2).
  • To sensitise the SS to the form, syntactic behaviour, meaning and use of MWVs (stages 3 & 4).
  • To provide the SS with controlled written practice and freer speaking practice to activate personal engagement with the targeted MWVs (stage 4).

Sub aims:

  • To provide comprehensible input (stage 2).
  • To raise SS’ awareness of possible collocates of the presented MWVs (stage 4).
  • To introduce SS’ to one possible way of storing new vocabulary (stage 4)
  • To foster learner autonomy and encourage the SS to use a monolingual dictionary (stage 4 especially, but peer teaching and correcting encouraged throughout the whole lesson).

Class profile

There are 5 female students in the group: S, M, J, MN and N. Their ages range from early to mid 20s. They all have arrived in the UK only recently and are still trying to settle in the local community. Their first language is Urdu; some of the learners also speak Punjabi and Arabic. It is the first ESOL course they embarked on since they moved to the UK. They have been studying together since April and show a lot of enthusiasm, commitment and motivation. They arrive on time, are eager to learn and leave the class reluctantly. We meet twice a week on Tuesdays (9.30 – 12.00) and Thursdays (13.00- 15.00). The course has been planned in response to the learners’ requirements stated in the needs analysis carried out during the first session, and will be supported with a variety of materials. It has been scheduled to run for 10 weeks, but will most likely restart after summer holidays.

The students are all housewives at the moment but are actively looking for employment. They want to improve their English skills to have better job prospects, communicate with family and people in the community and to get a qualification in English (ESOL Entry 3). They have a very positive attitude towards the English language, and although they consider it to be a rather difficult language they all stated they liked it, and using English gives them a lot of satisfaction.

The learners have been educated in Pakistan, however to a different level: S, M and N completed Master’s degrees, whereas J and MN graduated high school. Except for this English class, M and N are attending an IT course, and other ladies are thinking of enrolling on a few vocational courses to pursue their different hobbies.

There is some diversity in their English language abilities. J, is the weakest student in the group and needs to put a lot of work in to bring her English competence (which is now at higher-elementary level across all the skills), to the level of the other students in the group. She does however put a lot of effort to keep up with other learners, who in turn are very encouraging and supportive of her. S comes across as a shy learner, who is, nevertheless, quite able, understands a lot and can express her opinions on any subject when prompted by the teacher. N, M and MN are quite confident and fluent though lack accuracy and range of lexis and grammar. If allowed, M, as the most able student in the class, tends to dominate the group. All the students express the need to focus their learning on speaking, with particular emphasis on pronunciation, vocabulary development and grammar accuracy.

In terms of their reading and writing skills, J needs the most help; other learners can cope with different text types with medium teacher support. They are keen to work with authentic materials and are not deterred by unknown lexis. We have started working on developing their autonomy and introduced monolingual dictionary into the repertoire of their learning aids.

They are a very lively group, with a good sense of humour and inner dynamics. Using Nunan’s terminology (Nunan 1995), they could be described as ‘communicative’, i.e. they like to learn by listening to native speakers, talking to friends in English and watching TV in English, using English out of class, learning words by hearing them and learning by conversation. The learning style questionnaire I carried out at the beginning of the course revealed that they are fairly balanced in their visual and auditory learning preferences, and none of them is particularly fond of kinaesthetic type activities. They enjoy learning in small groups and appreciate homework.

Timetable fit

In the previous lessons the students were discussing advantages and disadvantages of different types of jobs and different ways of looking for employment. In the observed lesson the students will be introduced to a set of MWVs also related to the topic of employment. This lesson will be followed by a session focused on developing speaking skills through role play activities in the context of work interview, which will give the SS an opportunity to recycle the MWVs introduced in the observed lesson.


  • The students will be interested in the topic of work as it is relevant to their current personal situations and they will be able to relate to it.
  • They should be familiar with s ome basic vocabulary related to the lexical field of work and this should help them with deducing meaning of new lexical items they encounter in the lesson.
  • They should be able to recognise the sound of northern English accents, as they all live in Lancashire, and so the recordings used in the lesson will feel ‘familiar’ to them.

Anticipated problems and solutions

Problem: The SS might find the listening too difficult.
Solution:  I will play the audio more times if necessary so as to make sure that the SS have a good comprehension of the recording. Also, ex. 2 on handouts, with fragments of listening script crucial for the comprehension and targeted MWVs, is partly designed to facilitate understanding and support weaker SS in their listening.

Problem: The SS may encounter other unknown vocabulary.
Solution: I will ask the other students to help their peers, failing that I will provide a quick contextualised definition or a synonym to lead the SS to the meaning.

Problem: Timing: the lesson is student-centred and during the hypothesising stage the activities may take longer than anticipated leaving too little time for the experimenting stage, especially tasks 6 and 7.
Solution: Focus on tasks 4 and 5 in the experimenting stage (controlled practice and freer speaking practice of MWVs), leaving tasks 6 and 7 (collocations) as part of SS’ homework.

Problem: There is an odd number of students and setting pair activities leaves one student out.
Solution: Teacher creates a group of 3 students who work through task 5 in a circular manner: Student A interviews/gathers information about Student B who interviews Student C, who in turn interviews Student A and closes the communication circle.

Materials and teaching aids:
- CD with the listening - transcripts in the materials
- CD player
- board, coloured pens
- handouts (copies below 9B)
- monolingual dictionaries

Lesson rationale

The reason for focusing on MWVs with this particular class is threefold:

  1. at intermediate level these students have reached a plateau in their language study and can become discouraged and lose interest, therefore they need language input that is not only useful and practical to them but also challenging and giving them a real sense of progress; MWVs fit these criteria;
  2. SS have some awareness of MWVs and I would like to build on that and expand this area of lexis with them, especially when SS’ productive knowledge of these items still needs improving, as does their skill of noticing MWVs in spoken and written texts;
  3. SS are currently preparing for the ESOL qualification in speaking and listening and will be assessed on their lexical range. The lesson on MWVs (and subsequent systematic work) will support their speaking and listening skills; good productive and receptive knowledge of MWVs is the distinguishing feature of a good command of English and will make the SS sound more authentic and natural.

The choice of the six phrasal verbs presented and practised in the lesson was primarily dictated by the SS’ learning needs and learning environment. Most of my learners are immigrants who need the sort of vocabulary that helps them with their search for employment and in everyday life. Therefore, the chosen MWVs are linked by the theme of work which they will hopefully find engaging and relevant, therefore easier to learn.

The procedure I intend to follow in the lesson is Lewis’s OHE - Observe-Hypothesise – Experiment (Lewis 1993). Unlike the teacher-centred and over-elaborate PPP - Present – Practice - Produce procedure, OHE allows my students to better exploit their learning strategies and preferences, and also leaves room for the teacher to employ well-proven vocabulary teaching techniques such as: lexical drills, and/or to help the students organise newly acquired lexis.

In the observation stage of the lesson, the MWVs will first be presented in 6 short listening texts. The listening input is then reinforced with written input. This is to support learners who might have problems with the listening material, and also to help SS notice the targeted MWVs. Having two kinds of input is also motivated by the SS’ learning styles and preferences.

In the hypothesising stage SS’ attention is refocused on the form, meaning and use of the MWVs. The learners are encouraged to notice the form and the syntactic behaviour of MWVs, and to work out the meaning of MWVs for themselves through guided discovery-type tasks and with the support of concept questions asked by the teacher. Such approach gives me a chance to find out what learners already know or partially know. It is also cognitively engaging, which, as mentioned in part I, facilitates successful learning and retention.

In the next, experimenting stage, ex. 5 is designed to provide two ways of putting the new words to use, first in the reformulation of the original questionnaire from ex. 1, and in the follow up speaking activity by interviewing each other. Task 4 focuses on meaningful chunking and reinforcing the SS’ awareness of the fact that certain MWVs can be separable. Task 6 provides the SS with a neat record of all the MWVs presented in the lesson and encourages them to find collocations for each of the verbs. Task 7 is an extension of task 6 and offers the SS a chance to personalize the new lexis in their own sentences.

Throughout the lesson the SS are given multiple exposures to the targeted MWVs (both in isolation and contextualised in sentences and short texts), which as I argued in part I is essential for better retention. The SS will be closely monitored at all stages of the lesson, and I will make note of any persistent errors or problems to deal with through feedback or in the future remedial and revision work.

The 6 exponentsI have chosen for the lesson are:

It is impossible to be dogmatic about the number of new lexical items that should be optimally introduced in, say, a 60-minute lesson. Gairns & Redman (1986) suggest an average input of 8 – 12 productive items (the lower figure more suitable for elementary levels, the upper figure for more advanced students). I have decided to present 6 MWV as I did not want to overload the SS, also it would be hard to find more MWV related to the topic of work that are reasonably frequent and useful.

Written form: fill in
Syntactic behaviour : transitive, separable, phrasal verb: fill in sth or fill sth in
past forms: regular;
Meaning presented in the lesson: to write the necessary information on an official document, e.g. form, questionnaire (neutral).
Possible collocations: fill in a form, fill in a questionnaire, fill in a coupon

take on
transitive, separable phrasal verb
a. take sb on or
b. take on sb (in this pattern the object cannot be a pronoun)
past forms: took, taken
to begin to employ someone  (neutral)
take on new employees ; take on workers; take on staff

get on with (get on well with)
transitive, inseparable phrasal-prepositional verb: get on well with sb past forms: got, got (gotten)
to have a good relationship with someone (neutral)
get on well with my boss/ neighbours / siblings / parents, etc.

dress up
intransitive, inseparable, phrasal verb, past forms: regular
to put on formal clothes for a special occasion (neutral)
dress up for a party/dinner/an interview

look for
transitive, inseparable prepositional verb look for sth/sb, past forms: regular
to try to find something or someone (neutral)
look for a job/ work/ solution / a place to work/ ideas

slack off
intransitive, inseparable phrasal verb, past forms: regular
to work slower and with less effort than usual (informal)
slack off at the end of the day
slack off can also function as a transitive verb following the pattern slack off sth, in which case the object cannot be a personal pronoun. In the lesson only the intransitive pattern will be dealt with.

Lesson procedure

1. Warmer:

    • to get SS ready for the lesson,
    • to introduce the theme of work.

Timing: 3 mins

Procedure: T welcomes everybody. T writes a gapped sentence on the board:

The best job in the world is…because…

and elicits some ideas from SS . T asks if SS can guess what the topic of the lesson will be and tries to elicit work from SS.

Stage and aims:

2. Observation phase:

    • to give SS multiple exposures to new lexis through contextualised spoken and written input
    • to get SS to focus on understanding the input
    • to get SS to notice the targeted MWVs

Timing: 15 mins

Procedure: T introduces the task by explaining to the SS that she carried out a mini survey about work-related matters amongst her friends. T shows SS the questions she asked and explains SS will listen to the recorded answers and have to match them with the questions. T sets the task:

  1. SS are put into pairs.
  2. Each SS is given a worksheet with questions.
  3. T plays the CD.
  4. SS listen and match the questions with the speakers.
  5. Peer check.
  6. Second listening (if necessary).
  7. Peer check and teacher check. Short feedback.

T tells the SS to look at the sentences in task 2 on the worksheets and asks them to read the sentences and decide which speaker used them in their answers.

SS do the tasks in pairs. SS listen to check their answers, then feedback through teacher.

3. Hypothesising phase:

    • to refocus SS attention on the targeted MWVs;
    • to highlight form, meaning and use of the targeted MWVs;
    • to highlight the syntactic properties of MWVs (separability).

Timing: 20 mins


1. T refocuses SS’s attention on the phrasal verbs in the answers. SS list the verbs on their handouts and T puts them on the board

fill in
take on
dress up
slack off
look for
get on well with

2. T drills pronunciation (in lexical phrases) and marks the stress for each phrasal verb. Choral and individual drills.

Fill in this form please.

He dressed up for the party.

She has to look for a job.

I can’t slack off at work.

They want to take me on.

I get on well with my boss.

  • T asks SS if they notice anything special about the verbs, elicits that they are made of more than one word, i.e. verb+particle(s) and elicits that they are called phrasal verbs. T asks if the verb and the particle are always close together in the sentence. SS look at ex 2 again and discuss if the parts can be separated. Feedback – SS directed to the explanation box on page 2 of the handout.

4. T focuses SS’s attention on the meaning of the phrasal verbs. SS work in pairs. SS look at the answers in ex. 2 and try to guess the meaning of each phrasal verb. Then match each phrasal verb to the definition given ex. 3. Feedback – comparing with other SS, then check with T.

4. Experimenting phase:

    • to practise noticing MWVs in sentences (meaningful chunking);
    • to provide controlled and freer practice to use MWVs in writing and speaking;
    • to raise SS awareness of possible collocations with the targeted MWVs;
    • to give SS a chance to use MWVs in a more personal context.

Timing: 20 mins


  • SS continue to work in pairs. T asks them to look at the sentences in ex. 4 and try to spot any phrasal verbs in them. Task set as a timed activity. Feedback
  • SS work individually. T asks SS to rewrite the questions in ex.1 using the introduced phrasal verbs. T monitors for mistakes. When SS are ready T puts them in pairs (different partners this time) and asks them to interview the partner with the questions.

SS proceed with the task.

Short feedback.

  • T puts SS in groups and asks them to look at the sentences in ex. 2 to find what phrases/words can be combined with phrasal verbs. Elicits answers. Then directs SS to ex. 6 to note down the collocations and add their own ideas; T elicits some examples first, then leaves the SS to carry on with the task. Monitors for any mistakes. Quick feedback.

4. SS work individually. T asks them to write 3 sentences about themselves using the phrasal verbs and their collocations in them. T monitors for mistakes, makes a note of any persisting errors to deal with in the next class. Quick feedback.

5. Cooler:

    • to finish off the lesson
    • to set homework

Timing: 2 mins

Procedure: T recapitulates the lesson, a few quick drills with picture prompts. Then sets homework.


Lesson plan materials

Listening scripts

1. fill in

Filling in forms is really hard.  I hate all the questions they ask.  But you've got to fill them in to get the job.  It's hard work though.  I look at my CV and copy things from there.

2.  dress up

Well, I suppose it does depend on the job itself.  You need to wear clothes that will fit the job really.  But I think it's important to give good impression and to dress up at times and look the part really for the job; and that gives a professional image.

3. slack off

 If you don't work as hard as you should, then it does mean that you could get into trouble because people think that you're slacking off and not doing the work that you're supposed to do; so it means they have to do other work because you're slacking off all the time.

4.  look for

When I decide to look for a job, the first place I tend to look is the local newspaper.  Usually on a Thursday evening, because that's when the education jobs and the majority of jobs are in the paper.  Sometimes I'll use the Internet, or my previous job I actually took students to the job centre and whilst there I looked for jobs myself.

5.  take on

I was really pleased and very surprised when the boss rang me to tell me they wanted to take me on.  It was 10 o'clock of an evening and I didn't expect to hear until the following day.  I just finished up teaching the class which finished at 9 o'clock and so just after  I got home I got the phone call.

6. get on with

do think it's very important to get on well with your boss, because they are the person that's going to help you with your problems and if you need advice about something; so you really must work hard at the relationship to start with and then that way if you do have any problems or want a promotion or a pay rise then you won't have any problems.

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