Research Bites: The Cognitive Linguistic Approach to Teaching Phrasal Verbs


Over the past few days, I have been working my way through several articles on cognitive linguistics. In particular, I have been focusing on applied cognitive linguistics.and the way this discipline looks at phrasal verbs.  That is, how to take cognitive conceptualizations of phrasal verbs and apply those to instruction.

The basis for many applied cognitive linguistic approaches come from Lakoff and Johnson (1980), Tyler and Evans (2003), Kurtyka (2001), and Rudzka-Ostyn (2003). (Full disclosure: I have not read the former two references.)


Cognitive linguists argue that phrasal verbs are not as arbitrary as they might seem. Instead, they are grounded in perceptual experience, from which their metaphorical meanings extend. One common conceptualization of phrasal verbs is as interaction with a container (Kurtyka). For example, in the sentence “Please throw out some ideas,” the container is the place in which ideas are held (i.e. the mind). Out represents the movement from the inside of the container to the outsider. Throw also has an important role in establishing meaning, as it represents the manner by which the ideas leave the container. Together, they build semantic meaning that is quite clearly cognitively represented (Mahpeykar and Tyler, 2014). Most, if not all phrasal verbs can be described using a container. This container can be visualized as a simple box container, a mouth, a body, an area, etc.


Container conceptualizations of (7)a. Peter got on the bus. (8)a. Mother sent the boy out to buy something to eat. (9)a. After years of discipline and hard work he turned into a capable manager. (Kurtyka, 2001, p. 40).

Another way to conceptualize phrasal verbs is by thinking of them in terms of a landmark (LM) and trajector (TR). For example, in the sentence “He turned into a good student.”, “He” is the trajector, “good student” is the landmark, and this relationship is defined in terms of the phrasal verb turn into. Due to the abstract nature of the LM-TR conceptualization, the container metaphor seems to be much more common in the literature.

White (2012) looked at much of the previous research on cognitive linguistic approaches to phrasal verbs and designed an instructional approach, which they then tested in an EAP classroom. The following summary looks at the approach, the experiment, and the findings.

White, B. J. (2012). A conceptual approach to the instruction of phrasal verbs. The Modern Language Journal, 96(3), 419-438.

White reviews a number of articles on cognitive linguistics and phrasal verbs, basing their approach on a synthesis of ideas and focusing on the container, which they call “zone of activity”. White presents 5 stages of phrasal verb instruction, all grounded in previous research and theories. They argue that this approach enables “deeper encoding and longer retention” (p. 425).

  1. Orientation – This stage is meant to reorient students to phrasal verbs, teaching them that they are now random but rather meaning is formed through interaction between the verb and particle. This interaction occurs in the container, or what White refers to as a “zone of activity.”Using the sentence “Throw out the trash,” White explains that “The zone of activity in (3) can be interpreted as immediately surrounding the person holding the trash (i.e., the trashcan is outside of the zone)” (p. 423). In the more metaphorical sentence, “Now that my father is getting older, he put
    up his golf clubs,” White says “the clubs begin in the zone of activity because the father presumably played golf on a regular basis. They are then placed out of the zone; in a metaphorical sense, they are put up on an out-of-reach shelf” (p. 423).
  2. Collection – This stage requires students to “hunt” for phrasal verbs in various sources, building up a collection for analysis.
  3. Meaning Discussion – The third stage requires the creation of an “exploration worksheet” based on phrasal verbs in context selected from the student collection. Students discuss the meaning and then the teacher gives feedback and appropriate definitions of the verbs.
  4. Drawing – Students choose phrasal verbs to draw, incorporating the zone of activity/container imagery in order to explain how phrasal verbs are represented.
  5. Sharing – Finally, students share their drawings, explaining their representations of the phrasal verbs. White writes that this approach places emphasis on inferring meaning from figurative language rather than simple memorization
Author illustrations of phrasal verbs which include a zone of activity. (White, 2012, p. 424)

Author illustrations of phrasal verbs which include a zone of activity. (White, 2012, p. 424)

The Study

This instructional approach was tested in two university-level EAP courses taught by two different instructors. These courses had a combined population of 30 students. Students were given pre- and post- dialogue-based instructional tasks consisting of phrasal verbs with up, out, through, off, down, and in. For these tasks, students were required to explain the meaning of underlined phrasal verbs. A subsection of these tasks recycled up and out phrasal verbs in both the pre- and post- tasks and thus became pre- and posttests. The study was conducted over 7 weeks. Each week, students work through the 5 stages outlined above. Each exploration worksheet consisted of 4 phrasal verbs. Student feedback was also collected.

Results, Discussion, Adaptation

The average increase for all from pre- to post-task for all phrasal verbs was not significant. However, for the pre- and posttest up and out phrasal verbs, the increase was significant with a “modest” gain in scores (p. 429). Fourteen students improved, two remained the same, and six students’ scores fell. The analysis found examples of post-task explanations incorporating the new perspective and zones of activity, even if they did not lead to correct answers.

The author recommends adapting this approach by giving more conceptual information, focusing more on the particles, and giving more feedback on drawings – especially regarding the zone of activity. This can also be extended to not just phrasal verbs but prepositions in general (see Tyler, Mueller, and Ho, 2011).


As the author admits, this is not a “silver bullet” to learning phrasal verbs (p. 430). However, building mental models of representation in order to understand figurative language such as phrasal verbs is based on grounded cognitive linguistics theory. The challenge is to find instructional approaches that make these models salient to students while improving their ability to inference, hopefully in real-time. The research is relatively new in this area and it is hoped that more work is done to help find ways to better learn English’s complicated phrasal verb system.



Kurtyka, A. (2001). Teaching English phrasal verbs: A cognitive approach. In M. Putz, S. Niemeir, & R. Dirven (Eds). Applied Cognitive Linguistics II: Language Pedagogy (pp. 29-54). Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago/ London : University of Chicago Press

Mahpeykar, N., & Tyler, A. (2015). A principled cognitive linguistics account of English phrasal verbs with up and out. Language and Cognition, 7(01), 1-35.

Rudzka-Ostyn, B . (2003). Word power: Phrasal verbs and compounds (a cognitive approach). Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Tyler, A., & Evans, V. ( 2003 ). The semantics of English prepositions: spatial scenes, embodied meaning and cognition. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press .

Tyler, A., Mueller, C., & Ho, V. (2011). Applying cognitive linguistics to learning the semantics of English to, for and at: An experimental investigation. Vigo International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 8, 181-205.


5 thoughts on “Research Bites: The Cognitive Linguistic Approach to Teaching Phrasal Verbs

    • Anthony Schmidt says:

      It was done out of class, from websites, newspapers, magazine articles, etc. It could be extended to really any source, including spoken sources and even signs. The important thing was that they were collected in context, not as isolates.

  1. Glenys Hanson says:

    Hi Anthony,
    I always read your posts with great interest. As a classroom teacher I didn’t have much time to read research articles so it’s very gratifying now I have more time to read articles that confirm what I was doing with my students.

    I ran a workshop for TESOL France in 1996 entitled “Prepositions, Phrasal Verbs and our Mental Images” which is close to the ideas you refer to above. A revised version is here: I also created, first pen and paper and then online interactive exercises for students, see

    I wonder if there are other classroom teachers making similar exercises. Love to know about them.

    Thanks so much for this post, Anthony. I wouldn’t have known about the research articles otherwise


  2. Interesting article, Anthony, thanks! It looks at phrasal verbs a little differently than I do in my books, but the idea of recognizing the meaning of the particles is similar. I like the ideas for actual classroom instruction and wonder how they would work within my framework.

    • Anthony Schmidt says:

      Kurtyka mentions that an approach based on the particles seems to be more pedagogically sound than other approaches, as much of the meaning is derived from this area. The difference is that this approach tries to conceptualize the particles rather than just define them. They are certainly categorized similar to your approach, but they are also looked at first as cognitively embodied phenomenon that we experience via the senses, which we have then extended more metaphorical meanings. The CL approach tries to make this more visible in order to have a more concrete concept of it, and hopefully to interpret it in a more visceral way. I have the book with me if you’d like borrow it.

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