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.


How Language Shapes Our Myths, Logic, and Common Sense

There are those who will tell you that learning styles are a myth – that the evidence from psychology, cognitive science, neurology, and other numerous fields just can’t prove there is any such concept as learning styles. Despite the rational arguments, the research, and the evidence, the belief in learning styles is still persistent. It is so ingrained in us for a number of reasons, but mostly because it logically makes sense. I know that the idea is a myth, and I know the reasons why it is a myth, but also know that it still makes sense, logically. I’m sure many of us feel this way. We’re suffering from a kind of cognitive dissonance in which we must believe the evidence rather than our logic and gut instincts.

Our personalities shape how we learn. Now, let’s replace a few keywords: Our language shapes how we think. Another perfectly logical idea! However, like learning styles, it is another myth (even one that some anti-learning styles gurus may subscribe to). This is a myth I have been bothered by for quite some time.

Not a week goes by in which I do not stumble across an article that explains how our language shapes our thoughts, our feelings, our beliefs, our diet, our bodies, or our love-making skills. It’s as if Sapir and Whorf themselves have risen from the grave and begun a linguistic click bait crusade. These poplinguistics articles are found on (mostly) reputable sites like NPR, The New York Times,, The Independent and Scientific American.

This is a hotly debated issue, and the “How Language Shapes Our…” titles draws a lot of traffic, shares, and retweets to the point where just the sheer volume of these titles is likely beginning to shape most people’s perspectives on this issue. And people believe it because the idea is just so logical! Of course language shapes us. Why wouldn’t it. However, it’s not that simple and I fear a belief in this kind of logic can have minor but far-reaching negative effects.

There is an implicit sense of racism and cultural differentiation behind these headlines that focuses on arbitrary differences. Yet, the headlines abound despite these ideas being debunked again and again. John McWhorter wrote a wonderful and brief book on this subject that I highly recommend reading called “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language“. Below, I attempt to explain my thoughts on the subject, unfortunately not so articulately laid out as McWhorter’s. (Hear an interview with McWhorter on “The Language Hoax” here.)

The basic premise of most of these articles’ arguments is that our thoughts are filtered through our language, and therefore our language shapes our worldview (which is not clearly defined, but seems to be an amalgamation of thoughts, perspectives, and subconscious and perhaps conscious beliefs). For example, from the NPR article above, a glimpse of the Russian and English worldviews as permeated by language is summarized below:

For example, she says English distinguishes between cups and glasses, but in Russian, the difference between chashka (cup) and stakan (glass) is based on shape, not material.

To someone who believes in linguistic relativity (a.k.a Whorfianism a.k.a. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), this fact about how Russian and English distinguishe the objects is insight into how these languages’ speakers’ worldview differ. Couple this with the fact that Russian speakers have been shown in controlled experiments to recognize different shades of blue slightly faster than English speakers and you start to build a case for Whorfianism. A weak Whorfianist might state that this proves there is a fundamental difference in these speakers’ worldviews, and language is the variable that causes this difference.

One must say that because Russians experience blueness different from English speakers and that they perceive everyday objects as categorically different, they have different views of life (i.e. worldview). Taken to its logical conclusion, a strong Whorfian could argue the world of color is richer to Russians, and that this must be somehow related to the Russian peoples’ penchant for Communism, purges, borscht and onion domes. Whereas the world to an English speaker is rather muted and dull, which is why we may spend our time competing to design cars from every shade of the rainbow in a capitalist society.

Does the fact that most Romance languages having gendered articles make these language speakers more sexist in any way, or at the least, perceive gender and everyday objects radically differently? Does the English definite article mean that English speakers understand specificity better than speakers of Polish or Chinese who lack these types of constructions? Do Turkish speakers understand truth differently because they have special grammatical markers that tell the listener where the information they are hearing comes from?

If these last ideas sound extreme, it’s because they are. And herein lies the danger of Whorfianism. Whorfianism, in looking at language differences, focuses on what one language has and another lacks, and then makes broad generalizations about those language groups. The problem here is overgeneralization or false generalization, which leads to reinforcing subtle concepts of racism and otherness.

For example, if we say that the Hopi experience time in a better way because they lack the words for time and are therefore said to experience past, present, and future as a single phenomenon; or if we say that the Inuit experience the world in a deeper way because they have different words for minute variations of snow; or if we say that a certain Australian culture is closer to nature because they do not think of left and right, but use cardinal directions and are extremely accurate; if we say all this, then we are at the same time romanticizing the “primitive” and reinforcing otherness, no matter our noble and equalizing intentions.

According to McWhorter:

…in the end, the embrace of this idea is founded on a quest to acknowledge the intelligence of “the other,” which, though well intentioned, drifts into a kind of patronization that the magnificent complexity and nuance of any language makes unnecessary. It is a miracle when any one of the world’s six billion persons utters a sentence, quite regardless of whether it signals how they “see the world.”

He continues with a great example of the danger of Whorfianism:

Take the intransigent ultranationalist German historian Heinrich von Treitschke. Prussophile, xenophobic, and nakedly anti-Semitic, he was given in the late nineteenth century to insights such as “differences of language inevitably imply differing outlooks on the world.” You can imagine the kinds of arguments and issues he couched that kind of statement in, and yet the statement itself could come straight out of Whorf, and would be celebrated as brain food by a great many today. “Surely,” after all, “the question is worth asking …”—yet somehow, we would rather von Treitschke hadn’t, and find ourselves yearning for thoughts about what we all have in common.

Given that our intentions are pure, and that we seem to want to raise up the status of people seen as culturally “backward”, it would be better to focus not on these differences but on the fact that phonetics and grammar are universally arbitrary and that we all speak essentially randomly organized languages. Not equalizing enough? How about the fact that most “primitive” languages are thoroughly more complex than your average world language (English included)? Or how about the fact that, as McWhorter’s subtitle suggests, we all see the world in the same way?

So, here we have a perfectly logical idea: language shapes thought. And this idea make so much sense, that it is written about time and time again. Yet, looking at the evidence, and even more carefully critiquing the idea, we can see that this supposed common sense is just a myth. Yet, it still persists, just as the belief in learning styles and numerous other debunked myths do. Why?