Teaching phrasal verbs

phrasal verbs look up and look down

The other day a colleague asked me about teaching phrasal verbs to her small class of 12-year-old students. I would like to share the following lesson plan with you. First though, if you are wondering why the post picture has men hiking in the mountains, you’ll find out later on!


It’s personal, but I’m not eager to get deeply into grammar rules at the outset because very quickly, one finds oneself bogged down in a quagmire of exceptions. Typically, the average student will glaze over at this point and already be thinking about their boyfriend or upcoming football match, or whatever!

That said, a quick introduction can be helpful, so explain that a phrasal verb is a verb with one or more additional words. These extra words usually further define or change the meaning of the verb. The same phrasal verb might have more than one meaning, and some can be separated while others can’t. This link to Grammarly has a convenient, short explanation with examples for separable and inseparable phrasal verbs.

Since I never read the instructions until I have attempted to figure something out on my own, only to discover that the last piece should have gone in first, my phrasal verbs grammar explanation would end there. In other words, I prefer to use language than to talk about using it! Therefore, I would dive right into phrasal verbs exercises and return to the grammar in a future lesson.

Introducing phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs can be taught in the same manner as any other type of verb. First, students learn the vocabulary. Start, for example, with these common phrasal verbs: come in, come back, wake up, get up, look for, look up, look at, put on, ask for, switch off, turn on, sit down, and stand up. To introduce the new verbs, you might use games like Hand Sign Stories and Word Order. (Both are in my games book for teens and adults and ESL online games book.) Once students are familiar with the new verbs, put them into sentences with an easy speaking drill, like Relay Race. Next, the lesson could continue with more activities around phrasal verbs, as outlined below.

On the other hand, it can be beneficial to leave the phrasal verbs aside and switch to a revision topic for the rest of the lesson. You do not want lower-level students to be overwhelmed. Therefore, it is helpful to learn the meanings in one session and integrate the language in a separate class.

Fun phrasal verbs activity


Call My Bluff Definitions is an excellent game for teaching phrasal verbs. This game is in both of my books: ESL Classroom Activities and ESL Online Games. To prepare, give each child one or two phrasal verbs to look up in the dictionary and copy the meaning in their notebook. Next, the student makes up two false definitions. Or, to make this task easier for your students, have them write two definitions, one true and one false. So as not to waste valuable class time, it is a good idea to make this a homework assignment.


In the next session, each student reads out their phrasal verb followed by the three definitions. Have the student read all the definitions again to give everyone a chance to take them in. If this is too advanced, have the student write their definitions on the board so that the others may read them at leisure.

There are various ways to proceed from here. For example:

  • Working individually, students note the definition they believe to be correct.
  • Students work in pairs or small teams and discuss which definition is correct. The group must decide on one and note it down. Create teams according to your class size to encourage maximum participation. For example, if you have sixteen students, make four teams of four. If you only have eight students, make four pairs.
  • To add some movement to class, students stand up and listen to all three definitions once. During the second reading, they sit down when they think the meaning is false and remain standing when they believe it is true.

To illustrate, let say the first definition is false, and half the class sits. The students sitting are correct and are still in the game. Those standing are wrong and now sit down. They are out until the next round of definitions. Those still in stand up again or remain standing, and the student reads out the second definition. Those who have it wrong sit down and are out. Those that are in continue for the 3rd and final definition to be read. Let the children left standing award themselves a point. Now everyone stands up again and is ready for the following phrasal verb. Obviously, if the first definition is the correct one, then the round is over. There is no point in reading the other definitions since everyone knows they are false.


When playing with children, you might have them put their hands on their head when they are out. That mechanism is to prevent cheating because kids can be notorious cheaters, not that it matters much, since the aim is teaching phrasal verbs, not winning a classroom game!

Advanced phrasal verbs activity

Give students the challenge to find as many phrasal verbs as possible by looking at a picture. This activity is more fun in pairs or small teams, and you might allow dictionaries. Set a time limit. With advanced students, give each group a different picture. Listening to the ideas will be more interesting than hearing look up, look down, and look at many times. However, beginners may use the same or a limited number of pictures, so students benefit from repetition.


Continue with listening, speaking, and writing activities, as you would any grammatical structure. For ideas, you can sign up for the free games, if you have not already, or get my highly-praised book of activities for teens and adults in instant PDF download or paperback. Alternatively, for virtual lessons with groups and individuals, choose the book ESL Online Games.

Please feel free to go ahead and leave your comment on this game and give your own ideas for teaching phrasal verbs.

Happy teaching,
Shelley Ann Vernon

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