A Different Way around Phrasal Verbs and Idioms

by Agostina Spinella Trapani

You sit down to plan your upcoming English lesson at home – with a nice cup of tea and some biscuits. You open the coursebook you’re using and you spot the topic you’re to teach next: phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions. Ouch! So you choke on the biscuits and immediately give up all hopes of having a pleasant tea time. Deep down, you know that matching exercise won’t pay off. You know you need to find your own way around the teaching of phrasals and idioms – or else your students won’t actually learn them; they’ll be left with no choice other than to memorise them for the test.

Get your tea and biscuits back because I’m about to show you how to teach phrasal verbs and idioms effectively – without resorting to mnemonics!

A different approach – where ‘different’ means ‘not traditionally and massively used’

Let’s be honest: take any coursebook and explore how it deals with phrasals and idioms. Most often, you’ll find matching exercises where column A shows phrasal verbs and column B shows their definitions. The task is a piece of cake: match them! Alternatively, you get isolated sentences with blanks that are to be filled in by students, with a suitable phrasal expression. What seems suitable here is to reflect upon the following: are these tasks doing any teaching at all? Are they actually allowing students to understand phrasal and idiomatic expressions? My own personal answer to these is a definite NO – so as I set out to explore effective alternatives to the teaching of phrasals and idioms, I came across an outstanding teacher who introduced me to an outstanding linguist… and they helped me out!

Fernando Mortoro, EFL teacher, and George Lakoff, Linguist, THE names!

I first understood that it was possible to actually understand how phrasals and idioms work when I was at Teacher’s Training College. My teacher back then – and business partner now – Fernando Mortoro (Instagram: @fmortoro), based his discussion on these items on the linguist George Lakoff (https://blogs.berkeley.edu/author/glakoff/) and his theory of metaphor. Yes, metaphor is the heart of our cognitive system and the key to understanding how phrasals and idioms work (and how language works too!). You may teach expressions such as “my friend is currently unemployed, he was given the push last week” by telling your students that “to give someone the push” is equivalent to saying that “they have been fired from their job,” or you can draw their attention to the fact that your friend’s boss didn’t actually push them – they did so in a metaphorical way. You’re talking about dismissal in terms of the action of pushing (the essence of metaphor, according to Lakoff: talking about one thing in terms of another). If you imagine someone pushing an object, you automatically understand that the object is increasingly getting further away from that person. So, we say that somebody was “given the push” when we want our interlocutor to understand that this person was “separated from” their job, and we want to combine this sense with a certain extra element that the image of somebody being pushed conveys.

Metaphor will also account for the use of expressions such as
‘cheer up!

We’re all very much acquainted with the friendly ‘cheer up!’ but – how can we account for this combination of verb and adverbial particle? Well, it seems that phrases are manifestations of spatial notions. We understand the expression ‘climb up the stairs’ because when we do so, we are literally increasing in height since, when we do so, we stand away from the ground. Via metaphorical extension, we arrive at the expression ‘cheer up,’ as in: I’d like your spirit to increase in joy – just one likely paraphrase.

In teaching these notions, the board is certainly a good ally: teaching spatial notions most probably requires some kind of visual aid. The drawing you can see here, for example, with the glass and the water will prove very effective in illustrating the notion of “increment” for some literal and metaphorical uses of UP.

Experience has shown me that discussing phrasal and idiomatic expressions on the basis of the notion of metaphor will open up a whole new world for students to the effect that they will actually understand how language works, and this will, in turn, allow them to grow into
more language-minded people – and, of course, more effective phrasal users!

Is this all there is to it? NO!

The notion “increment” is only the first step towards the analysis of all the notions related with the particle UP. Now, how about particles such as OFF, DOWN, IN, OUT, AROUND, BY, OVER? Well, probably too many to be addressed in a few lines. For the discussion of all these, there is a mind-blowing course – absolutely free of charge (yes… free of charge!)- on YouTube taught by my former teacher, Fernando Mortoro. It is framed within the notion of metaphor, and it contains drawings, useful explanations and examples! You can watch ts eleven episodes here:

Another interesting tool to use – both for yourself and for your students – is Lakoff’s book on metaphors: “Metaphors We Live By” – you can find all the relevant information about metaphor that will allow you to also teach this notion and unveil the workings of our cognitive system with your students: they usually end up speechless… I promise! The last time I worked on this with my junior-year students at school, our discussion of idioms and metaphors in English led us to idioms in Spanish, and they just couldn’t stop dropping expressions they themselves use on a daily basis. It was like a massive “OMG” moment as they realized that they just couldn’t escape metaphor!

So the next time you have to teach phrasals and idioms, worry not. Use those textbooks only as post-teaching practice, and plan your lesson proper on all the information you’ll get from the course on phrasals and idioms on FM Language’s YouTube site
(https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChStT5yq69RRtlOyIt29-oQ) and on Lakoff’s ideas and examples from “Metaphors We Live By.

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