Saturday, October 18, 2014

Turn phrasal verbs into an interesting lesson

Phrasal verbs are an essential part of everyday speech, as they are much more common than the Latinate verbs with equivalent meanings – it’s much more usual to say “turn into” rather than “transform”. As phrasal verbs are notoriously difficult for students to learn, we need to find ways to teach them more effectively.

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the verb + particle combination often has a meaning quite different from the sum of its parts. But there are also lots of cases where the meanings are quite predicable, even if they're not immediately obvious. For example, phrasal verbs with up often have the meaning of coming together, as in meet up, team up, gang up, etc. Getting students to notice systematic patterns like this will enable them to learn more easily and also increase their motivation by removing the frustration of trying to memorise what sometimes seem to be random combinations.

Another part of the problem is that students are often required to memorise long lists of phrasal verbs out of context. As a result, they're likely to confuse the meanings of the phrasal verbs, and in any case this rote learning doesn't enable students to use the phrasal verbs naturally. This treatment has the same effect as the "Words often Confused" sections that feature in so many coursebooks, a feature that is itself the cause of the confusion.

As with all areas of vocabulary, the key to successful teaching is to create memorable lessons, with clear and accurate definitions and examples that are also interesting and authentic. We should also consider the amount of vocabulary that students can learn in a single lesson. If they learn about a dozen words in each lesson, that's well over a thousand words a year for learners who have three lessons a week. As long as we continue to recycle the vocabulary to aid retention, this number is more than enough - a vocabulary of 3500 words is considered sufficient to pass the Cambridge FCE.

So instead of trying to teach all the phrasal verbs with turn in a single lesson, teach just one, but teach it thoroughly in the context of interesting activities that also develop other skills. Songs are always a great way to introduce language. There are many well-known songs that contain turn into in the lyrics or even the title. Choose one of these as a lead-in to the lesson.

You think it's funny
Turning rebellion into money

Focus on the use of turn into in the song lyrics and ask students what they think it means. This inductive approach to introducing the meaning is far more memorable than simply telling the students what it means.You might also ask students if they can think of any other songs with turn into in the lyrics.
Ask students for their interpretation of what turning rebellion into money means, then get them to think also what other things can be turned into money, or what other things rebellion can be turned into.

This could be a good opportunity for a quick and painless introduction to a corpus like the British National Corpus or, for a simpler interface and broader range of styles, one of the Leeds corpora. This allows you to select from a variety of sources, in this case a random selection of internet sites.

This query, using the wildcard .* returns examples of all forms of TURN (turn, turns, turning, turned) followed immediately by into, with results looking like this:

The query can be amended by adding two dots between the two search terms:

This will return results including examples where there is an object between turn and into:

These searches only take a moment to perform, and getting students to look at the results, either printed out or online will enable them to notice the kind of words that typically collocate with turn into, and the difference between the transitive and intransitive use:

Transitive: He's really turned his campaign into a weapon of mass deception.
Intransitive: Wembley has turned into a financial disaster.

The same technique could also be used to highlight differences in the meaning between separable and inseparable uses of a phrasal verb (She turned him on / She turned on him), sensitising our learners to the ways in which meaning and grammar inter-relate.

Analysis of authentic examples is the most immediate way to determine how frequently a structure occurs, which can help our students to speak and write more naturally. So here's a quiz question to finish with - which one of the four structures below is far less frequent than the other three?

 "Subject + [turn] water into wine"
 "water + [turn] into wine" 

 "Subject + [turn] water to wine"
 "water + [turn] to wine"

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