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Problems & Solutions - Lexis at
Pre-Intermediate Level
by Emma Worrall
- 3

Some Problems:

Course books often present multi-word verbs in lists with the same verb e.g. 'put' with various particles (put off, put up) or the same particle(s) with different verbs (break out, take out). Students are usually given a definition sentence and then expected to learn them by heart. It is widely known that students (and even teachers) do not like multi-word verbs. Students are often introduced to them from intermediate levels and up. Course books avoid them until this level and then suddenly students are exposed to massive amounts of them and expected to learn them (I refer to my experience of teaching First Certificate).

So why do students and teachers, alike, fear multi-word verbs? Side (1990) summarises the reasons as follows:

(I am using the term multi-word verb here to define phrasal verbs- with idiomatic meaning)

1) The combinations of verbs and particles is confusing
2) They often have more than one meaning
3) The meaning of the parts of multi-word verbs does not appear to have any relation to the idiomatic meaning (compare phrasal verbs such as 'run over the cat' and verbs with a prepositional phrase: 'run over the bridge')
4) Students will often use the latinate definitions rather than the multi-word verb
5) The particle is 'random' with no logic
6) The confusion of whether a verb is transitive or intransitive , and if the verb is transitive students need to know if the particle can be separated from the verb ('call it off')
7) Students need to be sensitive to the appropriacy of using multi-word verbs in certain contexts, for example, not using "I'm done in" (meaning tired) at a business meeting.
8) Students' ability to understand multi-word verbs is influenced by their knowledge of their own language. From my experience, the common use and confusion of 'en' in Spanish which can mean in/on/at.

(See appendix 2 for the types of phrasal/multi-word verbs)`

How Can We Teach Multi-Word Verbs?

Side suggests that teaching them in isolation should be avoided. Teachers should make connections to show a their context within the language "to show they are meaningfully idiomatic rather than meaninglessly random" (Side 2002: 150-1). He suggests grouping multi-word verbs lexically, for example, fill out, pad out, flesh out. Vocabulary, he says, is far more easily learned when it is understood in context. He cites Ttofi (1983) who says that we should look at multi-word verbs as they arise naturally in a text. Side also points out that, generally, the particle is an integral part of the meaning and that it is more useful to concentrate on grouping multi-word verbs by their particle rather than the verb which precedes it. The particle carries some, if not all, of the meaning. In most cases he says we can follow this rule and the exceptions are few and far between.

Thornbury (2002) says that students probably do not learn phrasal (or multi-word) verbs by learning the rules. He takes a lexical approach, which is based on the belief that lexical competence comes from frequent exposure, consciousness-raising and possibly memorising. He believes that the classroom provides lots of exposure to 'lexical chunks' , for example, classroom expressions (" I don't understand", "Can you repeat that, please"), and that students will often learn chunks of language long before we present the 'grammar' of the language. He also says that techniques for teaching multi-word verbs often rely on a great deal of motivation from the learner to read outside of class and look for, identify, and record new multi-word verbs. Thornbury believes that teachers have a responsibility to try and include as many multi-word verbs in their classroom language as possible. He suggests we include common expressions such as put your hand up, look it up, turn your papers over, etc to enable our students to have "exposure to a rich diet of phrasal verbs" which can begin on Day 1 of the teaching course (Thornbury 2002: 127).

This brings me on to student participation in the learning of vocabulary through organising notebooks and learner autonomy (which I will briefly look at later). Side suggests multi-word verb pages in students' notebooks with a page for each particle. As new words come up in class students can discuss which category they think the word should go in. As long as the student does not distort the meaning when personalising recorded sentences, meaningful phrases are a good aides-memoires . I have been encouraging my exam classes to do this as preparation for their exams in June. Many have commented that they have found it useful.

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