HomeDictionaries & ReferenceDon't give up on idioms and phrasal verbs!

Don’t give up on idioms and phrasal verbs!




Using idioms and phrasal verbs in ESL
Image courtesy of PixelAnarchy

Stuart Redman, teacher trainer and OUP author, introduces his upcoming webinar on 30th September entitled: “Don’t Give Up on Idioms and Phrasal Verbs.”

Teachers often have strong views about teaching (or not teaching) idioms and phrasal verbs. Read through a cross-section of views below. Which statements do you most identify with? Are there any that you strongly disagree with?

‘I tend to steer clear of idioms and phrasal verbs for low-level learners. They have other priorities, and I don’t want to confuse the students too much.’

‘I teach phrasal verbs and idioms as they come up, even to low-level learners; for example, they need to understand items like ‘write it down’ or ‘take it in turns’ as part of the classroom language I use.’

‘I teach quite a few phrasal verbs, but I don’t really teach idioms. They don’t seem to crop up very much in the course books I use.’

‘Generally speaking, the students I teach are learning English for academic purposes, so I don’t teach many idioms and phrasal verbs because they’re too informal. I just stick to teaching more latinate vocabulary, because that’s what they need for reading, essays and that sort of thing.’

‘I’m quite confused about how to organise the teaching of idioms and phrasal verbs. I always go over the grammar of phrasal verbs, but after that, I’m not sure how to go about it in a systematic way.’

‘I often focus on idioms associated with parts of the body, for instance, ‘have a chip on your shoulder’, ‘put your foot in it’; or animal idioms such as ‘let the cat out of the bag’ and ‘the black sheep of the family’. It’s always fun, so that helps students remember it.’

‘When I studied English at school, we used to learn long lists of phrasal verbs organised by the root verb, for example, ‘take in, ‘take out’, take over’, etc. As a student I found this quite confusing and I felt overloaded.’

‘It’s all very well teaching idioms and phrasal verbs, but the big problem is how to practise them. I think students get bored by just doing gap fill exercises, and that’s the kind of thing I come across most often.’

‘I don’t bother much with teaching idioms because a lot of learners tend to use them inappropriately or they just stand out like a sore thumb.’

Look again at the statements. Can you find fourteen idioms and phrasal verbs, not including the examples given in inverted commas, e.g write it down and take it in turns?

During my upcoming webinar we will look at ways of organising and contextualizing idioms and phrasal verbs for teaching purposes. We’ll also be looking at material from the Oxford Word Skills series and the Oxford Learner’s Pocket series.


  1. I think students at all level have to have an understanding of phrasal verbs. Even beginner students are exposed to ‘come in’ ‘stand up’ ‘sit down’ etc. Avoiding them does no one any good. Students of all levels need to understand they form an integral part of English. I’m not advocating teaching low level students the difference between transitive and intransitive etc. but from a vocabulary perspective, they are an integral part of English.

    As for Idioms, I think when students use them, they often do appear out of context, however I think teaching idioms is as much about raising student’s awareness of them so they understand the meaning when they come across them. In time, with confidence, students will learn to use them. They are fun and if taught in a relevant context, can be very interesting for students.

  2. Hi – any chance of repeating this webinar, would like to participate but can’t that day unfortunately. Are there any materials I can access from the session? Thank you

  3. Helo, … Any chance of receiving the seminar later? I mean, recorded? I’d like to see new What’s of organizing and contextualizing phrasal verbs and idioms. The only way to practice is gap filling, ….. Thank you for the reply.

    • There is lots more than gap filling you can do with idioms and phrasal verbs. Gap fills are fine, but they get boring quickly and students need some different types of practice. You could think about making some crosswords with them. I have a ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’ powerpoint game with them which I use. Students could read a text with idioms/phrasal verbs and then match to definitions.

      Metaphors and meanings CUP by Gillian Lazar is superb for higher level learners, especially with idioms. It looks at some of the etymologies etc. This makes the context much easier for students and aids in retention.

  4. I think phrasal verbs should be taught, even at a beginner level, but they are often considered too difficult to use and too remember, so priority is given to grammar items, also because they are easier to teach. Books often don’t give them much space and opportunity to be practised unless you use an upper intermediate course..!

    • I agree 100% Tonia,

      They are vital for the low level student to learn as they are such an integral part of English. We don’t need to get into the grammar complexities of them for low-level students, but they should be included from beginner level.

  5. I admit I used to have low priority for them in class. However, after becoming a mum, bringing up my children bilingually, I changed my approach to teaching in class. I include more chunks of language, phrases and idioms as they come up, and tell the students not to worry too much about understanding all of the grammar all of the time. It is just as important to learn to understand when we use these chunks and just use them.

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