Brain Candy: 5 Superb Games for Teaching Phrasal Verbs

Do away with boring exercises.

Throw out that dull worksheet.

It’s time to figure out a more amusing way to approach phrasal verbs!

Phrasal verbs can be a tough element of ESL to approach with your class. Your students have just learned the definitions of certain words… and now they have to learn all new definitions that seem to be completely arbitrary!

But once you break out these phrasal verb games, you’ll see that learning phrasal verbs can be a whole lot of fun.

But first things first: Let’s refresh what a phrasal verb is, exactly, and how you might explain them to your students.

Introducing Phrasal Verbs to Your Class

Simply put, a phrasal verb is a verb whose meaning changes when it’s accompanied by a preposition or an adverb. You can find a more in-depth explanation of what a phrasal verb is here, which is perfect for helping explain it to first-time learners, and here’s an extensive list of different phrasal verbs.

Plus, if you are searching for a basic breakdown of phrasal verbs (with famous movie scenes) to show your students, show them the video below! The lesson is from the FluentU English YouTube channel, which is a goldmine for both students and teachers alike!

If you love teaching with native materials and are looking for a resource to get your students excited about their English, then be sure to subscribe to the channel for more great content.

You’ve been seeing phrasal verbs for years, so the first time you introduce them to a beginner, you may be surprised at how large and difficult it is to intuit the difference between the verb to bring and the phrasal verb to bring up, for example.

Prepositions are some of the hardest words to intuit for foreign language learners, so when a preposition changes the meaning of an already familiar verb, it can seem like public enemy number one as far as your students are concerned. Luckily, you have the power to change that.

Why Implement Games for Teaching Phrasal Verbs

This innate difficulty is one of the reasons we love using games to teach phrasal verbs. Like with prepositions, the best way to learn phrasal verbs is to use them again and again, and this repetition is automatic when playing games. Students have to seek out the verb again and again, committing its new meaning to memory.

Another reason games are one of the ideal ways to teach phrasal verbs is because this is simple memorization. Students may find that some logic is involved in getting from the standard form to the phrasal verb form, but for the most part, these distinctions will not be automatic for learners. Using a game to help memorize these differences is one of the best ways to integrate phrasal verbs into a learner’s lexicon.

In other words, as opposed to with other ESL games, phrasal verb games can be a means in and of themselves of memorizing these terms. Whereas with other grammar themes, games should be a reward at the end of the learning process, phrasal verb games can be an important initial teaching tool.

Feel free to introduce these phrasal verb games as early in the learning process as the first or second day of teaching. This will make phrasal verbs a fun topic to learn instead of a chore!

Another top way to introduce phrasal verbs to your students is with in-context native content from FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

Hearing (and seeing) native situations when phrasal verbs are used is super beneficial for your students. Be sure to request a free trial of the FluentU program and explore all the other incredible ways FluentU can assist with tricky English components. 

5 Sweet Games for Teaching Phrasal Verbs

1. Phrasal Verb Boggle: For a Quick and Easy Class Intro

This activity is a great intro activity for the second or third day of learning phrasal verbs. Before your students arrive, create a boggle board on your chalkboard or whiteboard, with an assortment of letters. You’ll want to use quite a few letters, at least a 7×7 square.

When your students arrive, give them one minute to write down as many phrasal verbs as they can find in the assortment of letters. You can decide what rules work well for your class’s level and how much time you have.

For example, when you’re just starting out, you may ask students to find words that are already within the Boggle board, where the letters line up into the word, as with traditional Boggle. As students become more advanced, however, this can be used like a word scramble, with students being allowed to use the letters in any pattern or order they like.

When creating the board, always place the letters of the words and phrases you hope your students to find first. Then fill in the surrounding areas with assorted other letters. This can also be varied depending on your students’ level. As students become more advanced, use frequent English letters like “m,” “n,” “s” and “t,” which will throw them off. For beginners, use instead more infrequent letters, like “x” and “z,” so that they have less of a chance of using the wrong letters.

To gain the most from this activity, be sure to check everyone’s work. First, ask your students how many words they found by asking for a show of hands (i.e. “How many of you found one word? How many found two words? etc.)

The last student with their hand up (so the person with the most words) gets to come up and write them on the board. You can then correct as needed, with help from other students. After the original list is corrected, invite any students who have suggestions that are not on the list to come up and add them.

This game is great for remembering the different pairings of preposition and verb, but because it doesn’t reinforce the meaning of the words, you should not rely solely on this game for teaching phrasal verbs.

2. Catapult: For the Digital Classroom

If you have iPads in your classroom or use the computer as part of your teaching style, then this online game, Catapult, is a great tool for teaching phrasal verbs. The game is ideally used as a friendly competition-style game, but it can also be played by just one person or team.

The game works as follows: A sentence is presented with a missing portion of a phrasal verb. Students must read the sentence and choose from three options to fill in the blank. The graphics place the team in two towers, and their phrasal verb skills will help them catapult the other team out of its tower.

We like this game because it’s simple to understand and play, making it perfect for short periods of time. This game is great if you have five or ten minutes left over at the end of class and need a time-filler. Just split your class into two teams, and have them line up down the center of the classroom. Give each classroom a sign or baton to use as a “buzzer,” and have two students face off for every question.

It’s also great for quicker students in the classroom; put students who have finished any in-class work in pairs and allow them to quietly play a round of this game while other students finish their work.

3. Charades: To Wake Your Students Up

Getting students up and moving in the classroom is a great way to keep them focused. Charades is a game that most students already know, so it’s easy to use for teaching phrasal verbs.

Write some of the more physical phrasal verbs on slips of paper and fold them up, placing them into a hat or bowl. Students can draw the phrasal verb and must act it out without using any words or sign language.

Decide whether hand-raising or calling out is better for this game, based on your classroom and students. Either way, the person who guesses the phrasal verb correctly gets to go next!

4. Taboo: For When Charades Gets Old

You can only play charades so many times! Taboo is another option that not only allows you to change it up a little bit, but also affords the student an on-the-spot opportunity to speak a bit too.

Taboo is a card game that you can easily recreate in the classroom. You can either use folded pieces of paper, as in charades, or you can make your own laminated cards to reuse time and time again.

The idea of Taboo is that you must describe a word (in this case, phrasal verb), without using the words on the card. Here’s an example:

For “grow up,” a student could say, “This means when children are getting older.” The student can keep talking and giving more clues until another student finds the right answer, but they cannot use the word “grow” or “up.”

For more advanced learners, you can make the game more challenging by adding a few extra “taboo” words to each card, such as “age,” “older” and “children” for the “grow up” card.

They’ll have to be more creative in their descriptions, and might give a clue such as, “When you are born, you are small, but you do this and become an adult.”

5. Phrasal Verb Matching: For Homework or Pair Work

If you need a short activity to occupy some of your quicker learners, or want to give students some work to do at home, phrasal verb matching is a great game to play.

In order to play phrasal verb matching, you will need to create a series of matching cards with the phrasal verb on one card and the definition on the other. Your interpretation of definition can vary; here are a few fun ideas:

  • Use an English synonym or approximate synonym of the phrasal verb
  • Use a true dictionary definition of the verb
  • Use a drawing or image of the phrasal verb (many are physical, so this is fairly easy to do!)

Hand out the cards and allow students to play a matching game in pairs, placing all the cards face down in front of them and trying to find the matching pairs. This can also be used as a solitary activity when timed, for homework or individual work in the classroom.

Games are a great way to reinforce learning phrasal verbs, but the fun doesn’t stop here! Be sure to back up your games with great writing exercises to keep students using the words they learn, and keep them talking in class so that they can keep up with the curve!

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