Though everything can be learned, nothing can be taught and this is truer in trying to teach a language than in anything else.
For decades I have been trying to teach phrasal verbs. Phrasal verbs are phrases of usually two words, the first being a verb and the second a preposition. This is a hot topic when you are being tested for your knowledge of the language. And most children mess it up.There are too many we don’t use now, and there too many coming in which doesn’t make the problem any easier.
The students were made to sit around in groups of five and asked to utter a sentence in which a phrasal verb is present.
OK, then the five others have to alter at least three or four words of that sentence except the phrasal verb and repeat it. They don’t have to find a new context and they are not doing rote repetition and they have a fair amount of creative work to do. Noam Chomsky says that any sentence you utter has a mark of creativity on it.
This activity is moderately successful. Moderate success is both an excuse and an encouragement for further experiments.
So, after trying several other methods the following method was developed, partly from the students’ contribution and partly from my frustration.
Instead of using a list in which the phrasal verbs are arranged alphabetically (which means the prepositions in them which come second are in random order) I rearranged my list clustering the ones with the same prepositions together. I got a good number of clusters since there are several phrasal verbs that feature the same preposition. The preposition ‘up’ turns up in many of them.
One of these clusters, with twenty phrasal verbs all ending in ‘out’, was given to them and were asked to come up with a short article or a note or an anecdote in which the maximum number of these phrasal verbs were present.
“Sir, can it be a story?”
An expected question.
“Of course, but the point is to make it as short as possible with as many of them as possible,” I replied.
I had a second thought.
I said, “You can even write a verse using them. Since the second word is the same preposition, it will be easy to rhyme.”
I too sat down to write one. When there is some writing to be done, I find the kids angels. Even they don’t know they are there.
“Sir, is it OK if it is a rap?”
An unexpected question/
“Then you will have to come here and rap it out!”
I told them the story of the Afro-American judge who rapped out a verdict of 1800 lines to a culprit who was a well know rapper.
“Wow, that is cool. THAT IS cool!”
Fifteen minutes later, I got up with twenty lines and told the class that they may come and read theirs out. Some whispered a vehement ‘no’.
“Anyway, I am going to read out mine. Not because it is mine, it is pretty good.”
Hooting from my unfortunate audience.
I read out my work and acknowledged the comments.
Another group read out a story. So tight and so memorable. They went back to versify it.
Now a girl came to the front of the class and said she needed the help of her friend to rap it out with gestures and all.
Then she began and the class was in rapt attention.
A spellbound English class, wow!
Everyone began to move their shoulders and then their heads and then their whole body but still very attentive.
It was really a good rap. The whole class burst out in accolade as she finished.
And I was witnessing the world’s greatest way to teach phrasal verbs.