On his blog Leoxicon, Leo Selivan wrote a great post about the counter-productiveness of teaching words in semantic groups, a finding that has shown up repeatedly in research but is often ignored.

The results of these studies are usually interpreted in the light of Interference theory which states that similarity between the items learned at the same time hinders learning and retention. In vocabulary teaching it means that when words learned at the same time are closely related or share common characteristics they will interfere with each other.

Ever had to memorise a class of 14 Mandarin or Korean names? If you aren’t familiar with names in those languages, they often look the same, just as a genre of music that you never listen to “all sounds the same”. If you try to remember them all at once, even over the course of a week or more, you struggle.

One of the most common sights I’ve seen in staffrooms is teachers preparing for “a lesson on phrasal verbs”, printing off a list of them from the Internet. The lists usually look like this:

  • look up (check information, usually in a dictionary or on the Internet)
  • look out for (be careful of something)
  • look into (investigate)
  • look up to (respect)
  • look over (skim or glance through)
  • look for (search for)

Could there be any better way to make your learners hate phrasal verbs and ensure that they aren’t learned, all in one go? You are putting your learners through the same frustrating experience of trying to memorize a bunch of things that all look the same.

“I’ve got a good idea — since there are so many phrasal verbs out there, let’s organize them into groups where they’re barely distinguishable from each other and out of context, because… efficiency!”

You may as well compile all the words that start with A, or all the words that end in -tion, and teach those together.

Just because your pattern recognition faculties get excited when you organize things into a neat little group doesn’t mean that’s the best way to teach them — it may even be the worst way.

(That last point accounts for so much bad language teaching, it’s worth quite a few more posts, I think.)

How should you teach phrasal verbs?

Well, a start would be to teach them in context, or at the very least with their co-text. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, but I can share something that’s worked for me in the past.

I would organize a list of phrasal verbs that 1) were useful and common in everyday communication, 2) were unrelated in meaning, and 3) looked different. Every day, we’d have a “phrasal verb of the day”, which I’d introduce in the morning with a picture/situation and often a speaking activity on the topic, and we’d try to use it as much as possible throughout the rest of the week. On Friday, the learners would have nailed five phrasal verbs and could use them naturally. Then we’d review them again next week and in subsequent weeks, accumulating new ones as we went. You have to keep a list with you to keep track of it, but whenever I’ve done it, there was impressive progress and learners were motivated by the constant small wins.

Try it out and see what happens. You might be surprised.