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Helping Upper Intermediate learners come to grips with multi-word verbs
by Sandra Bradwell

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Particular syntactic features of multiword verbs cause further problems: some verbs are intransitive and others transitive; the transitive verbs are separable when followed by an adverb yet inseparable when followed by a preposition; the replacement of the object by 'it' can cause problems of positioning, for example I'm going to give it up (smoking) give up it is not acceptable yet I have to see to it (the garden) is acceptable yet see it to is not; the adverb receives full prominence in pronunciation, whereas the preposition does not, it is the verb or object which is prominent.

Furthermore, the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English mentions that multiword verbs make up 2% of conversation and 1% of academic prose and that the most common multiword verbs in conversation are formed from a limited range of verbs: take, get, put, come, go, set, turn, bring, look, work, know, hear, use, a limited number of adverbs, denoting location or direction up, out, on, in, off, down and prepositions, to, with, for, in, on, into, about, of, at, as . This fact should facilitate the teaching and learning of multiword verbs yet it does not.

Finally, although multiword verbs are common in informal spoken and written discourse, stylistically they differ, some being quite neutral phone up as ring, others very informal or jargonistic chuck away.

They are complex. Learners avoid using them because there is a lot of information for them to process.

What can we do to help learners?

Lewis (1993:17) has a very valid point when he says 'effective classrooms will involve working with natural language from the external 'real world', and using classroom procedures which will be as useful outside the classroom as in it.' This has implications for the way we select items, present them, raise learners awareness to features, practise and consolidate them, help learners with the recording of items and finally develop strategies to encourage learner autonomy.

Let us consider the selection of materials and the presentation stage. It is important to consider the relevance of topics for learners and even when using a course book, to adapt materials if necessary to suit the learners' needs. McCarthy (1990:87/89) 'Predicting what learners will need in the way of vocabulary is important in selecting what to teach.' We should consciously use varied resources to input language: video, songs, different texts, visuals, to cater for the variety of learner 'types' in class (see Appendix 3). As far as possible, it is important to present language in a natural, authentic context which reveals the 'real' use of the language in question, for example the multiword verbs in spoken conversation, fiction, songs or in popular news items. Nowadays, with the reference books and vast corpora available it is possible to check language use. This is especially important if Xiaolong's (1988) research, which concludes that there is a link between recalling words and the contexts in which they were learnt, is valid. Moreover, it is vitally important to arouse interest and personally involve learners in the topic or materials being used. As McCarthy (1990: 109) states 'new knowledge is most efficiently absorbed when it is assimilated to the already known and when the appropriate conceptual frameworks or schemata are activated in the mind of the learner.' This additionally (1990:110) 'can evoke in the learner the vital feeling of 'need' for a word to fit a meaning that has been activated in the mind.' By creating or filling a need, the possibilities of engaging with the materials and language are greater and more likely to be remembered. Topic-based materials rarely present only words which are topic-specific. Looking at the conversation I am using to introduce the multiword verbs, learners are exposed to a telephone conversation with many culturally specific features (in Spain "Tell me, I am …." is a typical response) as well as many useful set telephone expressions, in a reasonably natural conversation with discourse features of natural spoken language such as hesitation devices, fillers. It is recommendable to integrate and expose learners to these features.

Baker and McCarthy (1988:32) comment 'The more naturally MWUs (multiword units) are integrated into the syllabus, the less 'problematic' they are.' My course book does integrate a lot of multiword verbs into interesting texts, listening tasks and 'real life' sections as well as in wordspot sections (see Appendix 4). Students have no problems understanding them but are reticent about using them and I find I have to design rather controlled tasks, such as the activity in appendix 4 or board games to focus their attention specifically on these lexical items. Exposure is not enough.

Scott Thornbury (2002:125) argues against the traditional ways of presenting multiword verbs such as focusing on type, verb or topic grouping, stating that these ways can lead to confusion. However, I believe that a lexical set and clear context can aid memory and personal association. Being able to use the telephone is a very useful skill for most adult students of English, especially as English has such a central role in international business. Knowing typical multiword verbs associated with this context increases the chance of learners understanding and performing well. Moreover I have found some explanation of syntactic features can be beneficial to the analytical learners to help them notice items more easily. Since Easter, I have drawn learners' attention to the frequency of mulitword verbs in spoken English, to the fact that they can help them sound more natural and that in some contexts they are more appropriate than the more formal Latin-based items. We also looked at the syntactic features of the verbs to prepare learners for preparing the First Certificate exam next year. In pairs learners had a selection of verbs in context and after highlighting the verbs they looked for similarities and differences and decided on four types (Appendix 5). Since analysing the verb type, some learners have asked about multiword verbs occurring in texts or transcripts. In the near future we have a lot of work to do, especially in encouraging further awareness-raising activities and finding appropriate contexts for practice to build up confidence.

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