Can you repeat that? Anyone for a smoke…

What’s your favourite phrasal verb?

For English teachers phrasal verbs, and their students’ inability to learn and use them, often prove to be one of the more frustrating parts of the job.

We use phrasal verbs every day. When we wake up, put on our clothes, or even bring something up at work. The same goes when you drive down home for the weekend, and those occasional moments when you top up your phone.

You might still be wondering what a phrasal verb is. A phrasal verb is formed by taking a verb and pairing it with either an adverb or a preposition. There are thousands of phrasal verbs in the English language, but we commonly use around 200 of these without even realising.

Said phrases are fed to our students little by little, yet many will roll their eyes when you announce just how many phrasal verbs could be made with one particular verb. I’ve often asked my students the question above, with some answers a little more enthusiastic than others.

Alex was one of those students. Every day he walked into class with a smile on his face, ready to learn. It is worth pointing out that here in Spain the English academy serves as a grind school – a place where students can get a helping hand in a subject they want to improve. Ask yourself, were you ever happy to go to extra classes in your youth?

For Alex, English classes may as well have been football in the park for him. I met his parents twice last year, each time I gushed that he had muchas ganas de aprender inglés (desire to learn English). They were delighted to hear, adding that he was generally enthusiastic towards anything.

If there was a hand up in the class, it would be Alex’s. If there were mini whiteboards to be given out, Alex would volunteer to do so. It would often come to a point when you hoped others would put their hand up, just to hear someone else give the answer!

In Alex’s class, they were introduced to phrasal verbs with the verbs take and give. Most weeks we revised them through games and pictures. By June it would be up to the students to choose the correct phrasal verb in their exam, so I wasn’t going to let them forget that easily!

But if there was one preposition to catch them out between the two, it was up. Take up and Give up proved to catch the students out more so than the others. Take out the rubbish came part in parcel with housework, while give out became associated with the mini whiteboards, pens and rubbers.

One day, I pulled up the class to address the confusion. ‘What can we give up? What can we take up?’ I asked.

Cue silence.

A few seconds later, a hand gingerly lifted. It had to be Alex’s. Once he answered, one or two would usually follow.

‘SMOKING’, he shouted. A few in the class giggled. I still have no idea why.

He was halfway there. ‘Good Alex!’ I said. ‘Do you give up smoking or take up…’

TAKE UP’, he said before I could finish.

‘Are you sure?’ I quizzed. I went on to ask the class. They all agreed with Alex. It took a few more lessons until this was banished from their minds.

June arrived a few months later. It was then up to them. As they did the exam, I skimmed through the paper, and located the question that included both take up and give up as a choose from the box-type gap fill. I hoped and prayed they would choose the correct one.

Out of a class of 13, one got it correct. Maybe it was exam nerves; maybe they had neglected their vocabulary in the days building up to the exam. Something in their brain switched off on that day. Give up exercise and take up smoking were the most popular answers. Some even opted for take up fast food and give up reading. I buried my head in my hands. It was frustrating, but I managed to see the funny side.

One student got it correct. One student managed to successfully pair smoking with give up and exercise with take up.

It wasn’t Alex.

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