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

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As teachers we can develop inference skills through activities in the classroom which practise these skills: looking at the items in context, looking at morphological clues, position of the object in the sentence, considering elements of pronunciation. The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (1999:990) states 'producing natural, idiomatic English is not just a matter of constructing well-formed sentences, but of using well-tried lexical expressions in appropriate places'. For this to occur we should encourage learners to observe the features in natural contexts and engage them actively in looking for patterns and working out the meanings. By encouraging students to invest more emotional and intellectual effort in the working out of meaning, we achieve as Stevick (Nunan 1991:134) mentions a deeper 'level of processing' which can aid memory and recall. Scott Thornbury (2002:110) backs this idea up 'the more decisions the learner makes about a word, the greater the depth of processing'

For learners to feel comfortable using language they need an opportunity to practise it. From my experience repetition increases the likelihood of retention in memory. Initially this may mean drilling items intensively to help learners articulate the item but it is equally important to set up activities where the language can be drilled naturally in controlled situations. Lewis (1993:127) argues in favour of the 'lexical phrase drill' as an aid to acquisition. Multiword verbs should be drilled in a natural context 'chunk'. It is more effective to drill 'why don't you phone her up?' with the stress on why phone up and the linking of phone her up than to drill phone up alone. We have a wide range of games and activities at hand to recycle lexical items and practise them in a controlled way: dialogues, pictionary, blockbusters, noughts and crosses, board games. A low-anxiety fun environment facilitates production, increases confidence and aids memory. It also encourages learners to use procedural vocabulary and language of paraphrase to carry out the activities.

Another way in which we can help learners is by helping students organise vocabulary. We need to cater for different learner types and the complex processes involved in memory: grids, word roses, semantic maps to reflect word association, topic. Lewis (1993:123) stresses the 'powerful role recording formats play as a language learning technique.' I would insist that it is not only important to record items in a natural context, but also to highlight key features of pronunciation: prominence, linking, silent letters. These can help learners retain the sound of the chunk and encourage more natural production.

As vocabulary learning is such a vast area, encouraging learner autonomy is the most effective way of helping learners. They ultimately are the ones who decide what they need, what is useful, what to concentrate on. Teacher encouragement is essential: encouragement to reflect on and try out a variety of strategies and techniques for improving inferring skills (context, visuals, linguistic features) and memory (personalisation, vocabulary records, learner diaries); encouragement to actively use the expressions in oral activities in class or in homework assignments by using checklists, cue cards; encouragement to maximise resources outside class - videos, computers, radio, songs, newspapers, magazines, novels. Students should be aware that frequent exposure to items will aid memorisation, increase confidence and facilitate future use.

Gairns and Redman (1986:57) suggest allowing students to choose any vocabulary they like from a text and, within a time limit, to work on them using a dictionary. This encourages students to take a personal interest in items and helps them develop their needs in an organised way. Additionally it provides students with a very valuable tool for self study and learner autonomy. Certainly modern dictionaries provide detailed information about meanings, style, the syntactic features of multiword verbs and also about typical collocations and uses.


Most learners feel uncomfortable using multiword verbs yet it is their access to natural language. The focus on this language item should begin much earlier in the learning process. Learners should be encouraged to 'notice' that many verbs in spoken English are composed of a verb + particle(s) instead of the single verb item and they should be learnt as lexical items. If we can help learners perceive their use in natural stretches of discourse often enough, familiarity may lead to confidence and an attempt to experiment with them actively. It is not a question of using multiword verbs for the sake of it but trying to follow models of natural language use which highlight their frequency and usefulness.
Certainly those students who manage to incorporate these items into their linguistic repertoire sound more natural and become proficient speakers of English. If a period of time abroad can help learners, surely emphasis on them in the classroom can have the same effect.


Allen, V. 1983 Techniques in Teaching Vocabulary. Oxford University Press
Lewis, M. 1993 The Lexical Approach. Language Teaching Publications
McCarthy, M. 1990 Vocabulary. Oxford University Press
McCarthy, M. 1991 Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. Cambridge University Press
Nunan, D. 1991 Language Teaching Methodology. Longman
Richards, J. 1990 The Language Teaching Matrix. Cambridge University Press
Schmitt, N. 2000 Vocabulary in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press
Schmitt, N., McCarthy,M. 1997 Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge University Press
Taylor, L. 1990 Teaching and Learning Vocabulary Prentice Hall International
Thornbury, S. 1997 About Language. Cambridge University Press
Thornbury, S. 2002 how to Teach Vocabulary. Longman
Skehan, P., Bygate, M., Foster, P. in Willis, J. and Willis, D. 1996 Challenge and Change in Language Teaching. Macmillan Heinemann
Wilkins, D. 1972 Linguistics in Language Teaching. Edward Arnold

Side, R. 1990 Phrasal Verbs: sorting them out ELT Journal April 1990 Oxford University Press

Course materials
Bolitho, R., Tomlinson, B. 1995 Discover English. Heinemann

Reference Books
Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., Finegan, E. 1999 Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Longman
Parrott, M. 2000 Grammar for English Language Teachers. Cambridge University Press


Sandra Bradwell works in Madrid, running the Chester School of English.

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