P is for Phrasal Verb

29 08 2010

Quiz: which of these are phrasal verbs?

Who let the dogs out?

a. go in (as in She went in the office)
b. take turns (as in We took turns minding the baby)
c. approve of (as in My mother doesn’t approve of him)
d. sit down (as in, erm, Sit down!)
e. let out (as in Who let the dogs out?)

Now read on.

A good while back an ELT author advised me: “If you want to make a few quid, write a book on phrasal verbs”. I never did, but at the time the advice was probably sound. Nowadays, the same advice might be couched: ”If you want to attract punters to your website, provide stuff on phrasal verbs”. A quick check for “phrasal verbs” using Google (never reliable, I know) logged 673,000 results, compared to 322,000 for “present continuous”.

The typical phrasal verb site will offer some kind of definition and categorisation of types, a list of phrasal verbs (seldom if ever selected and organized in terms of frequency), and some rudimentary exercises, almost always of the gap-fill type. Sadly, the explanations are seldom reliable, or even (for a learner) intelligible. As often as not, a phrasal verb is defined as “a verb plus preposition, whose meaning is idiomatic”, theoretically excluding combinations of the type sit down and let out (as in Who let the dogs out?) where down and out are not – technically – prepositions (more on that below), and nor are the meanings idiomatic. And when exactly does an idiom become an idiom: is let out in I let the dress out a phrasal verb, but in Who let the dogs out not?

On the other hand, the lists of examples often include items that, however you stretch the definiton, can hardly be classified as phrasal verbs. Two websites consulted more or less at random supplied go in (example: She went in the office), make room for, and take turns as all being phrasal verbs. This suggests that any verb followed by a prepositional phrase (like look out (the window)), or any idiomatic expression that contains a verb (like make do with something) qualifies as a phrasal verb. That – it seems to me – is stretching the category to breaking point.

This is not to underestimate the problems of definition. About the only thing grammars agree on is that phrasal verbs consist of more than one part. What the ‘other’ part is – or should be called – is still somewhat disputed. Most grammars now hide behind the somewhat meaningless term ‘particle’ but there’s no escaping the fact that many (most?) particles can behave like prepositions, in some contexts, and like adverbs, in others. When they behave like adverbs – i.e. when they don’t have any noun phrase complementation – they’re said to be phrasal verbs. Hence, the difference between:

a. She looked up the chimney.
b. She looked up the word. (Or: She looked the word up.)

In the case of (b) look up passes all the tests, both syntactic and prosodic, of ‘phrasal verb-ness’. The problem (or one of them) comes with particles with no complementation but which nevertheless have prepositional meaning:

c. She looked up.

And then, what about those particles that are only ever prepositions, but which seem somehow more attached to the verb than a simple prepositional phrase? So, take after is considered a phrasal verb:

d. She takes after her father.

But not run after:

e. She ran after her father.

And where does that leave verbs with dependent prepositions? Such as

f. She depends on her father.

The Cambridge Grammar of English (Carter and McCarthy, 2006) is happy to include approve of , depend on and cope with in its (prepositional) phrasal verbs, but I’m not so sure.

Well, you can read more about this in An A-Z of ELT. But what I’m particularly interested in is the ‘rule’ whereby separable phrasal verbs don’t allow a choice if the object is a pronoun. So:

g. She put up the picture.
h. She put the picture up.
i. She put it up.

But not

j. She put up it.

I’d often wondered why this was the case, and whether, as stated in the Cambridge Grammar, this is always the case. Then, when I was researching the notion of end-weight – i.e. the principle that new information goes at the end of the clause (see P is for Passive) – I understood why. The pronoun – because it usually has back-reference – seldom ever encodes new information, hence it feels uncomfortable stranded at the end of a sentence. But there are sometimes contexts when the pronoun does introduce new – or at least contrasting – information. Take this (invented) example:

k. Kim can pick up Chris, but who will pick up me?

Because of the principle of end-weight, this sounds just as natural as

l. Kim can pick up Chris, but who will pick me up?

Some examples I found in the the Corpus of Contemporary American English include:

1. you know, I didn’t pick out the leaders. They picked out me.
2. a process of elimination that weeds out all but the best drivers. It won’t weed out me, however

And these examples, because the object is a compound, are easily explainable:

3. Those pillars couldn’t hold up me or you, ” the contractor had told her
4. suddenly, I let out a huge fart, which woke up me, my boyfriend, and his mom.
5. Scandinavian airline SAS bought out him and some associates for $ 30 million.

These are less easily explained, however:

6. The crowd applauds. I pick up him by the throat with one hand, grab the stake with the other,
7. And I think it’s a worthy debate to have, but a lot of people want to put down him for saying that.
8. And someone had somehow found out that he was gay and broke into his apartment, beat up him, stole all his money
9. ROS: We cheer up him –; find out what’s the matter GUIL: Exactly…
(That last one comes from the British National Corpus and is from Tom Stoppard’s play Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead)
10. Sylvia had rung up me about booking for a meal (also from the BNC)

Any theories?

A is for Attention

22 08 2010

High alert! Classroom in Palestine

Three news stories last week -  all of which dealt with the pervasive role of technology in our lives -  touched on the issue of attention and its role in learning. A front page story in The New York Times reported on a trip into the wilderness undertaken by five academics, the purpose of which, according to psychologist David Strayer, was to study “what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains — in particular, how attention, memory, and learning are affected”. Strayer added: “Attention is the holy grail. Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.”

Then there was the publicity associated with a new book, Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers, documenting one family’s retreat from an over-reliance on information technology. The book’s blurb reads:

Journalist Powers bemoans the reigning dogma of digital maximalism that requires us to divide our attention between ever more e-mails, text messages, cellphone calls, video streams, and blinking banners, resulting, he argues, in lowered productivity and a distracted life devoid of meaning and depth.

Finally (and more directly relevant to education), The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a move on the part of a handful of teachers to “unplug” their classrooms. One of the teachers was quoted as saying, “Banishing the gear improved the course.  …The students seemed more involved in the discussion than when I allowed them to go online… They were more attentive, and we were able to go into a little more depth.”


While it might be premature to talk about a backlash against so-called ‘ed tech’, there does seem to be a growing awareness as to its limitations, even its risks, especially with regard to its impact on attention.  This is not to deny the enormous benefits that accrue from the use of technological aids outside the classroom – indeed, the capacity of video games, for example, to focus attention, often over a considerable period of time, is well documented, and it’s not impossible to imagine learners (of the right disposition) making exponential gains solely through gaming (assuming the games themselves have been designed to incorporate second language learning opportunities).

Nevertheless, in terms of the quality of classroom life, the proliferation of digitial gadgetry may be having negative consequences on learning, specifically in the way that multiple information channels conspire to divert, disperse or otherwise interfere with, focal attention. We’ve known this ever since the first mobile phone rang in one of our classes.  Nowadays the presence of technology may be less obtrusive, but is no less distracting. As long ago (relatively speaking) as 1998, Linda Stone, formerly of Apple, coined the term ‘continuous partial attention’ (CPA)  to characterise the kind of restless digital flitting that results from the need to stay constantly informed and in touch. Translated to a classroom context, CPA would hardly seem conducive to learning.

Why not? Because – as the psychologist above said – everything that you remember and forget depends on attention. The more dispersed the attention, the less likelihood of remembering, while the more heightened the attention, the better the remembering, and hence the better the learning.  This is as true for language learning as for any other kind of learning.  As psycholinguists Nick Ellis and Peter Robinson put it: “What is attended is learned, and so attention controls the acquisition of language itself” (2008, p. 3). Likewise, Dick Schmidt (2001) argues that only through the exercise of attention is input converted to intake: “Unattended stimuli persist in immediate short-term memory for only a few seconds at best, and attention is the necesary and sufficient condition for long-term memory storage to occur” (p. 16).  The rest is noise.

Indeed, from a cognitivist perspective, teaching might well be defined as the ‘management of attention for pedagogical purposes’. Managing attention means both drawing attention to the subject at hand, and drawing attention away from whatever might be a distraction.  In the case of the latter, this might mean eliminating competing stimuli by shutting down peripheral channels.  In other words, by unplugging the classroom.

Whether or not you’re prepared to go that far, here are some tips for maximising learners’ attention:

  • make sure all heads are up before transitioning to a new stage or activity
  • ensure your own attention is well distributed, and embraces all students equally, including those on the fringes
  • use ‘theatrical’ techniques (e.g. eye-contact, gesture, changes in voice pitch and voice quality) to highlight key lesson content
  • make the learning objectives explicit
  • draw connections across stages, and from one lesson to another
  • use examples from the learners’ own lives, using their names (Juana always takes the bus to school)
  • use the board sparingly and judiciously – too much boardwork obscures the key lesson content
  • drill key items in the lesson – not because this promotes accuracy, or forms good habits, but because it serves to make important lesson content more salient
  • eliminate distractions: ensure books are closed and technological aids are switched off during teacher-focused presentation stages, or when learners are supposed to be interacting face-to-face in pairs/groups
  • negotiate the use of aids and technology, such as dictionaries, laptops, etc, so that learners must ask permission to use them, or use them only at designated stages
  • reduce interference from stimulus overload. e.g. unnecessary visual effects in Powerpoints, background ‘muzak’ during silent reading, etc.
  • encourage (younger) learners to show understanding by nodding affirmatively during teacher-fronted presentation/explanation stages. (This idea comes from the ‘SLANT’ technique developed in a group of US charter schools – kids have to Sit up, Listen, Ask Questions, Nod, and Track the speaker with their eyes).

Notice that I’ve not said anything about maintaining a high activity turnover (so as not to over-tax attention spans, for example) nor about activities having to be fun. This is because an emphasis on activity for activity’s sake may be counterproductive, in that it serves to divert attention onto the activity itself, and not onto the language that mediates the activity.


Ellis, N.C. and Robinson, P. 2008. An introduction to Cognitive Linguistics, Second Language Acquisition, and Language Instruction. In Ellis, N.C. and Robinson, P. (eds.) Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Routledge.

Schmidt, R. 2001. Attention. In Robinson, P. (ed.) Cognition and Second Language Instruction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

C is for Communicative

15 08 2010

A communicative activity- Teaching Practice at the New School this summer

The term communicative is applied fairly loosely.  Typically it’s used to describe any activity in which learners are interacting with one another. So, a coursebook activity in which learners perform a scripted dialogue, or a minimal pairs activity which involves pairs pronouncing words to one another and identifying the appropriate picture on a worksheet, might both be labelled  ‘communicative’. No wonder, therefore, that the term communicative approach has become so elastic as to embrace any methodology that foregrounds speaking in pairs or small groups.

But, strictly speaking, communicative means more than simply interactive. In An A-Z of ELT I list the features of a communicative activity as being the following:

  • purposefulness: speakers are motivated by a communicative goal (such as getting information, making a request, giving instructions) and not simply by the need to display the correct use of language for its own sake;
  • reciprocity: to achieve this purpose, speakers need to interact, and there is as much need to listen as to speak;
  • negotiation: following from the above, they may need to check and repair the communication in order to be understood by each other;
  • synchronicity: the exchange – especially if it is spoken – usually takes place in real time;
  • unpredictability: neither the process, nor the outcome, nor the language used in the exchange, is entirely predictable;
  • heterogeneity: participants can use any communicative means at their disposal; in other words, they are not restricted to the use of a pre-specified grammar item.

The archetypal communicative activity is the information gap task (of the type that the students are doing in the picture above) where Student A has some information and Student B has some other information, and the task requires that they share this information in order to achieve the designated outcome. Describe and DrawSpot the Difference and Find Someone Who... are all examples of information gap activities that meet the criteria outlined above.

But what is their particular merit over, say, activities – such as rehearsing a scripted dialogue or playing a game like Pelmanism -  that are interactive but not strictly communicative? The standard argument (and a key tenet of the communicative approach) is that such activities better reflect the way language is used in the ‘real world’. A corollary to this view (and a core principle of task-based instruction) is that language is best acquired through such life-like language exchanges.  Cognitive theorists might add that the attention to meaning required in communicative interaction requires that learners ‘park’ their concern for formal accuracy, and thereby develop strategies – such as ‘chunking’ – that promote fluency.

None of these arguments is necessarily proven nor conclusive: for a start, it’s debatable whether info-gap activities truly replicate real-life language use – when did you last ‘describe and draw’ something, for instance?  And the argument that classroom interaction should model authentic language use overlooks the fact that classrooms, by their nature, have their own discourse norms and practices which may be quite different from “real-life”.  Finally, isn’t there a danger that – if the concern for formal accuracy is ‘parked’ indefinitely – the learner’s overall proficiency might be at risk? (See the post on P for Push, for more on this theme.)

On the other hand, there also seems to be a good case for arguing that only life-like language use can tap into the cognitive and affective factors that both motivate and nurture language acquisition. But this presupposes that  the communication matters: that it is both contingent – i.e. it connects to the real-world in some way – and engaging: that it engages the learners’ needs, interests, concerns and desires. In short, the learner needs to have some personal investment in the communication. This is what I have sometimes referred to as big-C Communication, as opposed to the kind of small-c communication that is characterised by the six criteria above. The difference between big-C and small-C communication seems to underpin this comment by Legutke and Thomas (1991):

In spite of trendy jargon in textbooks and teacher’s manuals, very little is actually communicated in the L2 classroom. The way it is structured does not seem to stimulate the wish of learners to say something, nor does it tap what they might have to say. … Learners do not find room to speak as themselves, to use language in communicative encounters, to create text, to stimulate responses from fellow learners, or to find solutions to relevant problems (pp 8-9).

So, in order to capture the defining qualities of big-C Communication, I would add the following to my list:

  • contingency: the speakers’ utterances are connected, both to one another, and to the context (physical, social, cultural, etc)  in which they are uttered;
  • investment: the speakers have a personal commitment to the communication and are invested in making it work.

How you achieve these worthy goals is, of course, another matter!


Legutke, M. and H. Thomas. 1991. Process and Experience in the Language Classroom. Harlow: Longman.

P is for Phonemic Chart

8 08 2010

(That’s phonEMIC, not phonETIC, by the way. There’s a big difference!)

Ever since I’ve been teaching in the US I’ve been challenged by the need to devise a chart of the phonemes of American English (General American or GA) that can be used in the same way as the original British English (RP) chart, both as a training and a teaching tool. (Incidentally, it’s an often overlooked fact that the layout of the original RP chart – along with lots of ways of exploiting it in class – is due to the work of Adrian Underhill).

Adrian Underhill's 'Sound Foundations' Chart (Macmillan)

In fact, the search for a GA equivalent goes back even earlier, to 1995, when I was assessing a CELTA course here in New York and was surprised to find that the language analysis trainer was trying to knock the round peg of GA sounds into the square hole of the RP chart. Fifteen years later I discover that not much has changed: another large training organisation here is using an “Americanized” version of the original RP chart, but one which not only includes five more vowel sounds than GA is normally credited with having, but adds two diphthongs ( /ʌɪ/ and /ɔʊ/) that, as far as I know, belong to no known variety of English!

Of course, the problem of devising a GA chart is complicated by the fact that – unlike the case of RP – there is no single, agreed upon, system of transcribing American vowels. (Compare any two American learners’ dictionaries, for instance). This is probably due to the fact that, while there is less accent variation across North America than there is within the British Isles, there is no single variety that can (or is allowed to) claim the prestigious status that RP enjoys.

In 2007, while teaching at SIT in Brattleboro, Vermont, I came up with a chart that was based closely on the description in Celce-Murcia et al. (1996) – see inset below (click to expand).

GA chart (after Celce-Murcia et. al., 1996)

The layout of the chart attempts to reflect the elegance of Adrian’s RP chart, with the consonants ranged from front-of-mouth to back-of-mouth obstruction, and the vowels roughly mapped on to the classic (Daniel Jones?) vowel quadrant. In terms of the symbols, the consonants were not a problem: the only change involved changing the symbol /j/ for a /y/. The vowels were another story.

First of all the layout had to be reconfigured to accommodate the fewer vowel sounds of GA (16 vs 20 in RP). While the three ‘heterogenous’ diphthongs are separated out and colour-coded, no attempt was made to distinguish the simple vowels from the vowels with an adjacent glide (/iy/, /ey/, /ow/) since the latter, technically, are not diphthongs.  Nor were combinations with /r/ (such as /ır/ and /or/) included, since, technically, these are not individual phonemes but are attempts to represent the way certain vowel sounds are “colored” by the consonants that follow them (which may be /r/, /l/ or /rl/). The only exception I made was the case of /ɜr/ which, as Celce-Murcia et al. point out, is used “to capture a significant difference in quality between the /ʌ/ in bud and the /ɜr/ in bird” (p. 105) and which they include as their “15th phoneme” of North American English (the 16th being the schwa).  Finally, an optional superscript /r/ was added to the schwa, because the combination of schwa and post-vocalic /r/ is often distinguished from schwa, phonetically, by being transcribed with a different symbol (ɚ). This represents the (phonemic) difference in GA between the final vowels in cheeta and cheater, for example. Note also that both /ɔ/ and /ɑ/ are represented in the chart, in deference to those varieties of GA that do distinguish between caught and cot.

This chart has served OK over the years, but I’ve not been entirely happy with it – not least because of the use of the consonant symbols /y/ and /w/ to flag lengthening and lip rounding, as well as the clumsy superscript [r]s. So I revisted the literature, and came up with a new one, based on the description in Roca and Johnson (1999). The consonants remain as they were. The main differences to the vowels is that I’ve abandoned the /y/ and /w/ add-ons, susbtituting symbols that more accurately realise the phonetic qualities of the homogeneous (adjacent glide) and heterogeneous (non-adjacent glide) diphthongs, colour-coding these respectively, as well as substituting the symbol ɚ for the r-coloured schwa alternative, and /ɝ/ for the r-coloured vowel in bird. I’ve also re-positioned /ʌ/ so that its central and back quality is more accurately represented, and turned the division between /ɔ/ and /ɑ/ into a dotted line to flag that, in some varieties, these two sounds are not distinguished. You can view a pdf version of the revised chart here: AmE phonemic chart v.5

All comments will be gratefully received and acknowledged.


Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D.M., and Goodwin, J.M. (1996) Teaching Pronunciation. Cambridge University Press.

Roca, I., and Johnson, W. (1999) A Course in Phonology. Oxford: Blackwell.


Click here ( US phonemic chart ) to see a pdf version of Adrian Underhill’s GA Chart – mentioned in his comments below. (Thanks, Adrian!)

P is for Pronunciation

1 08 2010

Read my lips

I’ve just completed a nine-hour block of sessions on phonology on the MA TESOL course that I’m teaching at the New School. Apart from the inevitable (and sometimes intractable) problems involved in reconfiguring my knowledge of phonology so as to accommodate North American accents, the question that simply will not go away is this: Can pronunciation be taught?

As a teacher, I have to confess that I can’t recall any enduring effects for teaching pronunciation in class – but then, I very seldom addressed it in any kind of segregated, pre-emptive fashion. Most of my ‘teaching’ of pronunciation was reactive -  a case of responding to learners’ mispronunciations with either real or feigned incomprehension. There are only two pron-focused lessons that I can remember feeling good about: one was where I used an inductive approach to guide a group of fairly advanced learners to work out the rules (or, better, tendencies) of word stress in polysyllabic words (the students seemed generally impressed that the system was not as arbitrary as it had appeared), and another where I used a banal dialogue that happened to be in the students’ workbook to highlight the different spellings of the /ay/ phoneme – a lesson that was more about spelling than pronunciation, really – but, again, one that helped dispel the myth that there are zero sound-spelling relationships in English.

As a second language learner, any attempts to improve my pronunciation have fallen (almost literally) on deaf ears. I remember being told by a well-intentioned Spanish teacher: “Your problem is that you use the English ‘t’ sound instead of the Spanish one”. To which I replied, “No, the ‘t’ sound is the very least of my problems! My problem is that I don’t know the endings of the verbs, that I don’t have an extensive vocabulary, that I can’t produce more than two words at a time. … and so on”. That is to say, in the greater scheme of things, the phonetic rendering of a single consonant sound was not going to help me become a proficient speaker of Spanish. Nor was it something I would be able to focus any attention on, when my attention was so totally absorbed with simply getting the right words out in the right order. And nor, at the end of the day, would I ever be able to rid myself of my wretched English accent, however hard I tried (assuming, of course, I wanted to).

Hence, I’m fairly sceptical about the value of teaching pronunciation, and I suspect that most of the exercises and activities that belong to the canonical pron-teaching repertoire probably have only incidental learning benefits.  A minimal pairs exercise (of the ship vs sheep type) might teach some useful vocabulary; a jazz chant might reinforce a frequently used chunk. But neither is likely to improve a learner’s pronunciation. Certain learners (a small minority, I suspect) with good ears and a real motivation to “sound like a native speaker” might just squeeze some benefit out of a pron lesson, but for the majority it will probably just wash right over them.

In An A-Z of ELT, I hint obliquely at these doubts – doubts which I claim are justified by research studies. What studies?

Well, here’s one for starters. In an early attempt to tease out the factors that predicted good pronunciation, Suter (1976) co-opted a panel of non-specialist informants to assess the pronunciation of 61 English learners from a range of language backgrounds and with different histories of exposure and instruction. Twelve biographical factors were found to correlate with good pronunciation, and, in a subsequent re-analysis of the data (Purcell and Suter 1980), these were reduced to just four. These four predictors of acceptable pronunciation were (in degree of importance):

  • the learner’s first language (i.e., all things being equal, a speaker of, say, Swedish is more likely to pronounce English better than a speaker of, say, Vietnamese)
  • aptitude for oral mimcry (i.e. ‘having a good ear’)
  • length of residency in an English-speaking environment
  • strength of  concern for pronunciation accuracy

Significantly, none of the above factors is really within the teacher’s control (although the last – the motivtaional one – could arguably be nurtured by the teacher). Nevertheless, the learners’ histories of instruction seemed not to have impacted in any significant way on the accuracy of their pronunciation. The researchers commented: “One of the most obvious [implications of the study] relates to the fact that teachers and classrooms seem to have had remarkably little to do with how well our students pronounced English”.

Now, is this bad news (we can’t do much to help our learners achieve acceptable standards of pronunciation)? Or is it good news (we don’t have to teach pronunciation, and can spend the time saved on more important stuff)?


Purcell, E.T., and Suter, R.W. 1980. Predictors of Pronunciation Accuracy: a Re-examination. Language Learning, 30, 271-287.

Suter, R.W. 1976. Predictors of Pronunciation Accuracy in Second Language Learning. Language Learning, 26: 233-253.


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