Going through with it: exploring polysemy

As many of my fellow teachers will have experienced, whenever I ask my students what they find difficult about English, a sizeable cohort will bring up phrasal verbs.

It doesn’t really matter the age, level or nationality of the students, phrasal verbs seems to be the most consistent bogeyman for learners. I can understand it: they’re illogical; they could be separable, or not; they have many different meanings; and to add to their worries we use them all the time!

In class we try to take the stigma away from them: after all, they’re just verbs, you can learn the, like any other piece of vocabulary. There are all kinds of great lesson plans out there for  phrasal verbs that present them in interesting ways. Something I’ve been thinking about recently is helping build students’ knowledge of phrasal verbs with more than one meaning, by presenting them side-by-side in context.

Like my previous lesson plan, it takes the form of a dictation. I ask the students to write down the following story:

There was a bad car accident the other day. A man was driving too fast and hit a tree. Because he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, he went through the windscreen. In the hospital, the doctor went through the patient’s report. The doctor believed the man needed to have an operation. “I know you’ve already been through a lot”, said the doctor. “But it’s up to you. Do you want to go through with it?”. 

I asked the students to compare their version with another student, before presenting them with my version.

Next, I asked the students if there were any phrasal verbs in the text. The students alighted on “go through”, in various tenses. (I know I’m cheating a little and go through with would technically be a different phrasal verb, but that only really serves to underline the point of the exercise, which is to focus on the context.)

As the students could identify that almost the same phrasal verb had been used in the text four times, I asked if they could identify the meanings in each case. The students worked in pairs to try to create a definition for each use of the phrasal verb.

We discussed the definitions as a class, before comparing with my defintions on the board:

1. To travel through some kind of opening (go through a door, a window, a tunnel etc)

2. To read or check something thoroughly (go through a report, the details, etc)

3. To experience something, often negative (go through an ordeal, etc)

4. To do what you have planned or agreed to do, especially if it’s difficult or unpleasant (I wanted to do a parachute jump but I was too scared to go through with it)

The students wrote questions using go through and asked answered them together. E.g. Have you ever been through a difficult experience? What did you think when you went through the school doors for the first time? 

As a class we talked about how difficult it was that the same verb could have so many different meanings, and we thought of other phrasal verbs/vocabulary that worked in the same way. I introduced the idea of polysemy, how one verb can signify many things.

Homework was to find another phrasal verb that had more than one meaning, and to write a short paragraph using the verb in different ways. In the next class, the students’ stories were distributed around and they tried to deduce the meanings in a similar way.

How do you handle aspects like polysemy in your classes? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter, @sharefl_blog 

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