Exploiting self-study phrasal verb exercises in the classroom

I’m very pleased today to be able to respond to the first request we’ve had in from a visitor. Patrick Gallagher has written to ask for ideas on how to tackle what’s essentially self-study material that students would probably do for homework – namely, the excellent English Phrasal Verbs In Use Advanced by Michael McCarthy and Felicity O’Dell. The book is explicitly marketed as a ‘reference and practice’ book, rather than a classroom book, and basically follows the template laid down by Murphy’s English Grammar In Use, with the left-hand page of each double-page spread being a presentation of sorts and the right-hand page being practice exercises that test how much readers have grasped. The book also comes with an answer key so students can check answers (hopefully!) after doing exercises. Below is a completed exercise from Unit 51 – News – with answers added in italics.

An experienced journalist is talking to a new young reporter. Complete his advice below using phrasal verbs from A. You are given the first letter of each phrasal verb.

A lot of your time will be spent trying to root out information, and that can be boring – going to libraries, surfing the Internet, reading press releases put out by government departments, that sort of thing. It’s also important to hang out with other journalists and see what you can pick up from them. You might discover a story that has leaked out. The secret with celebrities is to get them to confide in you. If they think you’re trying to worm private information out of them just to create a scandal, they won’t give you anything. And they hate it when journalists stake out their homes. With politicians, it’s best to sound them out about various topics to find out what they want to talk about; don’t be aggressive, that won’t get you anywhere. Just like the celebrities, if they think you’re trying to ferret out a story that’s going to get out and cause them embarrassment, they’ll keep quiet and you’ll get nothing. And take your time writing your stories up. Don’t rush it.

The first thing to say here is that we personally feel these kinds of exercises should very much be kept as homework, rather than done in class time. English Phrasal Verbs In Use is a perfectly sensible self-study book for students at higher levels and offers plenty of support for students working on their own. Where exploitation CAN occur is when the teachers is running through answers at the start of the following lesson. Exploitation can work in three main ways: encouraging noticing, using students to explore collocational and co-textual possibilities – and personalisation.

Before checking answers, you could get students to check in pairs (which also allows time for those students who didn’t do the homework to copy from friends!) and to underline the nouns that each phrasal verb goes with. Then when checking, you could ask questions such as:

OK. Number 1? That’s right. Root out. So who roots out what here? OK, yes. Journalists root out information. So if you root information out, you uncover it or find the source of it. Governments often promise, for example, to root out corruption. What else might they promise to try and root out?

Number 2? Put out, right. And what puts out what here? Yeah, government department put out press releases. They produce them, for people to read or listen to. In the same way, celebrities sometimes put out statements denying certain rumours or confirming divorces and so on. Who else might put out warnings or statements – and why?

Number 3? Pick up, yes. If you pick things up from people, you learn them even though you didn’t set out to. It wasn’t your intention to. In the same way, you can pick up a few words of a foreign language when you’re on holiday, just because you hear them used a lot. How might you pick things up from other journalists? Yeah, right. By making small talk, chatting in bars and after-hours, comparing what you’ve heard with what they’ve heard, and so on.

Number 4? Leaked out, yes. So if stories or news leaks out, it becomes known to the public, even though officially it’s supposed to be secret. I guess it comes from the idea of water or gas leaking from pipes. Usually, though, there’s someone inside a company or government department who decides to secretly leak information to the press. The big bosses then try to find the leak and stop the leak. Why do you think people might decide to leak information? Think of things like Wiki-leaks, if you know about that.

OK, and 5? Right. Confide in. Who confides in who here? Right. Journalists try to get people to confide in them – they try to make them comfortable enough to reveal their secrets or share private thoughts and opinions with them. Who do most people usually confide in? Why might you need someone to confide in?

Obviously, you might not want to go into quite as much depth as this with each and every answer, and some items are more easily exploitable than others; the contexts in which they’d be used and the language that might be used with them is more immediately obvious. For instance, ferret out strikes me as a particularly rare and unusual item, and basically means the same as worm out anyway! Both items even have the idea of going into a hole to extract something. Sounding people out – talking to them in order to try and discover their opinions and feelings – instantly feels more useful and worth exploring. You can sound people out about a job, you can sound out which way people are going to vote, you can sound out support for a proposal, and so on.

Once you’ve done this kind of thorough checking of the answers and exploration of the context and co-texts in which the language is used, the next way to exploit this language in class could be to give students personal questions based on the new language to discuss. For instance, students could be asked to discuss the following:

  • Who do you usually confide in when you have problems?
  • Have you ever picked up bits of a foreign language? What? When? How?
  • Can you think of any stories which have been leaked recently?
  • How do you feel about things like Wiki-Leaks? Why?

Again, it’ll usually be the case that only certain items lend themselves to this kind of personalisation – and others, such as ferret out / root out – are really hard to ask such questions about.

Hope this has given some ideas on how self-study material could be briefly explored and exploited in class.

And if you have an exercise you’ve been struggling with, or want some different thoughts on, please send it along to us.

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