How to teach phrasal verbs (so that your ESL students remember)

December 17th, 2018 / Teaching

how to teach phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs are a verb + preposition, adverb or particle. Teaching phrasal verbs is notoriously difficult because the verb often bears no relation to the meaning.

And yet, phrasal verbs are everywhere in English.

And so, on some deeper level phrasal verbs must make sense. We may not be able to explain adequately how we know what they mean but we do know what they mean. For example, as children we didn’t struggling to remember the difference between ‘to take up’ and ‘to take on.’ We understood it intuitively.

Likewise, when we come across a new phrasal verb like ‘lawyer up’ or, ‘wind down’, we instantly understand the meaning, even though no one has told us its denotation.

What an amazing power we native speakers have. The TEFL teacher who helps their students crack the code of phrasal verbs would be the best teacher an ESL student has ever meet in their lives.

Well, there is a way to share your deeper knowledge of phrasal verbs to your students. That is, teaching the phrasal verb by the preposition and not the verb.

How to teach phrasal verbs by preposition

This is a revolutionary idea, when you think about it. For decades ESL teachers have been asking students to memorise lists of phrasal verbs without investigating the deeper meaning which is found in the preposition, and not the verb.

Take the verb: ‘To take on.’ It means to assume responsibility, work, clients or staff.

‘Take’ in this case, doesn’t make any sense but ‘on’ really does.

Phrasal verbs with ‘on’ have two meanings (see below for more details). One of the meanings is ‘to attach.’ For example:

‘To put on’ = to attach clothing to yourself.‘

‘To try on’ = to attach clothing to yourself, but only for trying.

If you focus on ‘on’ for ‘to attach,’ ‘to take on’ makes perfect sense. An individual or company is ‘taking work, responsibility, clients or staff’ and then, ‘attaching those responsibilities to themselves.’

‘Steve takes on a project’ = Steve takes that project and attaches it to himself until he completes it.

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ESL how to teach phrasal verbs


How to use this phrasal verb list

Below you will find phrasal verbs divided by the prepositions ‘on’, ‘off’, ‘up’ and down.’ For the complete list phrasal verbs divided by preposition, check out our new book The Ultimate ESL Vocabulary Manual.

How to teach phrasal verbs, using this list

1# This list is too long to teach in one go. Therefore, only teach one preposition per session.

2# Illustrate each preposition with lots of examples until your students are completely confident of the meanings

3# Practice with conversation questions or a role play.

4# Next session, study the opposite preposition. For example, if you start with, ‘on’, next you should teach, ‘off.’ If you start with, ‘up’ next you should teach, ‘down.’

Phrasal verbs with ‘on’

Meaning 1#: To attach
phrasal verbs with on

To put on = to attach clothes to your body.

‘She puts on a pair of socks in the morning.’

To try on = to attach clothes to your body to try them.

‘Excuse me shop assistant, where can I try on this jacket?’

To take on = to attach a new employee to a company, or, to attach more work or responsibility to an individual.

‘He is taking on more clients at the moment.’

‘I can’t take on any more work. I have too much already.’

To get on with someone = to attach yourself to a person for friendship (to like someone as friends).

‘I get on well with my neighbour.’

To get on + bus, plane, boat = to attach yourself to a vehicle.

‘He got on the plane at 9am and it took off at 9.30am.’

To turn on/ to switch on = to attach device to power/electricity.

‘How do I switch the computer on?


To catch on = a new idea or fashion attaches itself to a society.

‘The idea of legalising gay marriage is catching on around the western world.’

Meaning 2#: To continue

To go on = to continue speaking or continue moving.

‘Please go on and finish what you were saying.’

‘Go on until the church and then turn left.’

To carry on = to continue an activity.

‘She carried on working until she was 70.’

‘Keep calm and carry on.’ (British phrase to mean ‘continue with your life as normal until the difficult time passes’).

To keep on = to continue with an action.

‘They kept on swimming until they reached land.’

To move on – to continue to another topic or another phase in one’s life.

‘OK, we’ve finished with the accounts, let’s move on to talk about the marketing budget.’

To soldier on to continue with your daily activities despite feeling unwell or unhappy about something.

‘My husband has a terrible cold, but he’s soldiering on.’

Phrasal verbs with ‘off’

Meaning 1#: To detach
phrasal verbs with off teach phrasal verbs

To take off = to detach clothes.

‘Take off your shoes when you enter the house, please.’

To take off = when a plane detaches itself from the ground.

‘The pilot took off into the blue sky.’

To call off = to cancel a meeting or event (detach yourself from the meeting or event by calling people about it).

‘They called off the wedding at the last moment.’

To put off = to detach yourself from something you previously loved.

‘I used to love football, but an injury put me off it.’

To put off = to postpone (temporarily detach yourself from a responsibility you have to do.)

‘I have put off taking that exam until next year.’

To go off = food goes bad. Food detaches itself from being edible.

‘This milk has gone off!’

To turn off / to switch off = to detach device from electricity.

‘Turn off the computer when you are finished.’

To get off + bus, plane, boat = to detach yourself from a vehicle.

‘It is difficult to get off a boat when there are lots of waves.’


To drop off = take someone somewhere by car and leave them there (to detach them from your car).

‘Can you drop me off at the station?’

To go off = to explode. The trigger in a bomb detaches itself and the bomb explodes.

‘The bomb went off in the town square. It was a terrible tragedy.’

Meaning 2#: To leave

To be off = to tell someone you’re leaving or to comment that someone else is leaving.

‘Are you off already? The party has only just started.’

To drive off = to leave by driving.

‘The truck drove off into the night.’

To walk off = to leave by walking or to abandon.

‘The man walked off and left his kids in the park.’

To run off = to leave by running.

‘Don’t run off and leave me here with all these bags.’


To head off = to leave, going towards a new place.

‘Where is John?’ ‘I saw him earlier, heading off into town.’

To set off = to start a journey (to leave your place of origin to begin a journey).

‘They set off for the mountain early.’

Phrasal verbs with ‘up’

Meaning 1#: To provide emphasis to the verb.

If you say ‘eat up your food!’ what you’re really saying is ‘eat all of your food’ or ‘eat and eat your food until it is finished.’

phrasal verbs with up

To clean up = to clean when something is very messy.

‘Clean up this mess!’

To clear up/ to tidy up – to put a place in order.

‘I have to tidy up my room because it is a mess!’

To eat up – to eat everything on your plate.

‘Eat up children, don’t waste food.’

To save up for = to save money for something in particular.

‘He’s saving up for a new bike.’

To beat up = to physically beat someone (punching).

‘The man got beaten up outside a pub.’

To listen up = to listen with attention.

‘Listen up people; we need to rebuild the library.’

To read up on = to do a lot of reading about a subject.

‘We visited Egypt and so I did a lot of reading up on the ancient Egyptians before we left.’

To use up = to use completely.

‘We have to use up all the milk in the fridge before it goes off.’

To free up = to liberate time or space.

‘Computers free up a lot of time.’

To fix up – to fix something to a high standard.

‘She fixed up her bike and now it looks like new.’

To mix up – to mix and mix or to get confused.

‘Mix up the mixture and put it in a baking tray.’


To cut up = to completely destroy something through cutting.

‘He cut up his t-shirt.’

To buy up = to buy everything in a shop.

‘There was an offer for toilet paper and so Dad bought up all the toilet paper in the shop.’

To cheer up = to animate someone.

‘We are taking him out to cheer him up after he didn’t get the job.’

Meaning 2#: To increase

To turn up = to increase the volume of a speaker.

‘They turned up the music to maximum, until the neighbours complained.’

To speak up = to speak louder.

‘Speak up please; my grandmother is a little deaf.’

To speed upto increase speed.

‘Speed up, it’s a 50 kpm limit here.’

To warm up – to increase your body heat before exercise.

‘Spend 5 minutes warming up before you hit the weights.’

Meaning 3#: To make a distinction when one verb has two or more meanings

To grow up – when a baby turns into an adult.

‘I knew a lot of people in my neighbourhood when I was growing up.’

To break up = to end a relationship.

‘My brother and his girlfriend broke up last spring.’ 

To build up = to accumulate.

‘We’re building up our contacts with clients right now.’

To bring up – to introduce a subject.

‘They brought up the issue at the meeting.’

To catch up – to do tasks that should have been done earlier/ to reach someone ahead of you.

‘This afternoon I need to catch up with some reading.’

To chase up – to pursue information or work that you expect completed.

‘I need to chase up an answer from the sales team.’

To follow up = to continue a meeting with another action.

‘I will follow this up with an email next week.’

To end up = to end in an unexpected way.

‘I made the cake for my colleagues, but I ended up eating it myself.’

To look up = to search in a dictionary or on the internet.

‘I will look up the word in the dictionary.’

To set up – to configure, organise, start a business.

To make up = to invent a story.

‘Beatrix Potter made up a fantastic story about rabbits.’

Other uses of ‘to make up’:

To reconcile = ‘They made up after the argument.’

To compensate = ‘Let’s take a taxi to make up some time.’

To consist of = ‘The soup is made up of carrots and potatoes.’


To do up = to fasten a piece of clothing or a seat belt.

‘To do up your shoes.’

To dress up = to dress in a costume or put your best clothes on.

‘I am going to dress up for the party.’

‘It is customary to dress up in a scary costume for Halloween.’

To mess up = to make a mistake

‘I just messed up the project. Sorry!’

Phrasal verbs with ‘down’

Meaning 1#: To reduce something.
phrasal verbs with down

To settle down = to reduce your movement.

‘Settle down children and relax.’

To calm down = to reduce your stress.

‘You’ve had a stressful day. Have a cup of tea to calm down.’

To cut down on = to reduce something you eat, drink or smoke.

‘I’m cutting down on sugar.’

To cool down = to reduce your heat.

‘After working out at the gym, it is important to take a moment to cool down.’

To turn down = to reduce the volume of something.

‘Turn down that music!’

To slow down = reduce your speed

‘Slow down, we are coming to a traffic light.’


To come down to = to reduce an argument to its basic point (this is often money).

‘Well, it all comes down to whether they can afford to buy the house, or not.’

To turn down = to reduce your options by rejecting something.

‘He turned down the job offer.’

To let down = to disappoint (to reduce your expectations).

‘She felt let down when her parents didn’t come to see her in the play.’

Meaning 2#: To remove something that is higher or wider than you

To blow down – when something large (like a house or tree) collapses due to strong wind.

‘Many trees blew down in the last hurricane.’

To burn down – when something larger than a person is destroyed in a fire.

‘My uncle’s house burned down. It was a disaster.’

To cut down = to cut something that is higher or wider than you (a tree or a hedge).

‘We need to cut down the tree.’

To knock down – to deliberately make a building (or part of it) fall using a wrecking ball or other tools.

Want to learn more…?

Then check out our new book The Ultimate ESL Vocabulary Manual

The Ultimate ESL Vocabulary Manual shows you how to teach over 100 phrasal verbs by preposition.

But that’s not all! You’ll discover a wealth of material for your ESL classes including, fun and impactful words and phrases to express emotions, modern-day issues, convey complicated ideas, crack ‘business speak’ and socialise. 


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