Core vocabulary: Is it time to think about phrasal verbs

phrasal verb examples with word GET

If English is your second language, my apologies in advance. You likely already know what a phrasal verb is and may even have some strong negative emotions towards this topic of study!  You may have stacks of flash cards and lists of phrasal verbs. You may even occasionally find yourself avoiding these phrases and secretly feeling a bit of a thrill when you nail them. 

If English is your first language, well I suspect that you, like me,  never have heard of this term, unless you studied English or have attempted to teach English as a second language. 

I am beginning to think that they are somethign we should be thinking a lot more about in the AAC world.

Let me give you a quick review:

A simple verb stands alone.

  • I looked sad.
  • I gave a treat to the dog.
  • I broke the window.

Phrasal verbs in contrast are comprised of a verb plus one or more other little words (typically prepositions or particles):

  • She looks after her brother.  (not the same as looking at him)
  • Don't give up.   (not the same as giving)
  • He broke up with her.  (not the same as breaking something)

Here are some more examples and a dictionary that lets you look up by verb or preposition.

Challenge one: The meaning is arbitrary

Typically you can't readily guess the meaning from the individual words.  For example, the phrase "Look up and see the stars" is not technical a phrasal verb because you can guess the meaning. Go left also isn't because you can guess the meaning. Still, you can see how important it is to be able to easily combine verbs with other words to convey specific information.

However, if you are asked to look up the definition in a dictionary, well you likely are looking down or using the internet. It is not obvious that the standard verb for referencing a dictionary is look [something] up  and not to look for, look around, look into, etc.

Challenge two: Where do the pronouns go
Complicating matters is the fact that sometimes when you swap out a noun for a pronoun, you must split the phrasal verb:

  • He is thinking over the decision.
  • He is thinking it over.         [split]   
  • NOT: He is thinking over it

But for other phrasal verbs, you can't split them up:

  • She is getting over the death of her dog. 
  • She is getting over it.  [not split] 
  • NOT: She is getting it over.

Implications for AAC
Most of my AAC students have heard English their entire life and they have internalized the meanings for the phrasal words they have heard used over and over again in context.   There is no need for them to be taught these crazy, non-intuitive rules.  All they need is for these phrasal verbs to be modeled in context using both nouns and pronouns and to have a system that allows them to string together these words.

Having spent some time teaching English as a second language, I now worry that historically I haven't been modeling phrasal verbs very well in the context of AAC.

I use verbally such verbs all the time. It is almost impossible to speak English without them unless you revert to substituting "big words" for a phrasal verb (i.e., saying "become conscious" instead of "wake up" or "avoid discovery" instead of "get away with"), which to be clear is not recommended if you want to be an effective, "normal sounding" communicator.

With AAC systems, however, I have not been modeling all the words in a phrasal verb.  Typically I have been making the error of only modeling one word in a phrasal verb, typically the verb but sometimes only the little word. Examples:

  • When asking a kid to clean up, I often said and pointed to the symbol for clean but only said up (without pointing to the symbol)
  • When explaining the steps of a recipe, I might have said turn  and then said and pointed to on when decribing that we were about to turn on the blender. 

Now for a child who is only at the single word stage of language, this makes total sense and is the appropriate way to proceed. However for my students who are readily communicating in sentences and 3+ word phrases, I now am wondering if we need to be modeling phrasal verbs in their entirety.

Why I am starting to think that modeling phrasal verbs could be important:

  1. As a design check of the person's system.  If key prepositions or particles are missing, they should be added. Words like "on" and "in" come in very early in langauge development and  it is hard to model language use without these words.   Second, if it is navigationally exhausting to get from a verb to a pronoun and then to the rest of the phrasal verb, for example to say "get that off my chair", it might be time to brainstorm about how to solve this problem without creating additional issues in the language software
  2. To avoid miscommunication. Sometimes only saying one word leads to even more confusion.  For example, if  person said KEEP with their AAC device, it is hard to know if were saying "keep it", "keep going", or "keep away." These are very different concepts.  Little kids are often giving small things to other people as gifts.  I can't count the number of things I was given by kids  with the words "you keep!"  but we also know how important it is to be able to tell someone (umm say a sibling... ) to keep away from our art projects, sand castles, lego masterpieces, and other precious creations. 
  3. To make communication faster with fewer pages to navigate to. A benefit to phrasal verbs is how many different things you can say with a small set of English words.  If an AAC user can quickly get to pronouns (you, I, it, those, etc), the most frequently used verbs, and a good set of prepositions and particles (on, off, away, around, etc), they can say hundreds upon hundreds of phrasal verbs and only had to know a few dozen icons and their locations.

Looking more in depth at point three, here are some phrasal verbs (and in italics a few verb phrases that aren't technically phrasal verbs but still useful) you can make without changing pages on a few different AAC language systems:

Speak for Yourself:

From the main page on the Speak for Yourself app, you have access to several verbs and several prepositions including on, in, at, out, with, for, from, off, up and down.  Other prepositions can be found under the "as" button. This means that without changing pages you can say dozens phrasal verbs including:

  • look at, look in, look out, look for, look up
  • work at, work in, work out, work for, work up, work out
  • talk out, talk at, talk to, talk with, talk up, talk down
  • go on, go in, go out, go off, go in with
  • eat in, eat out, eat up
  • buy up, buy from, buy out
  • make out, make up, make off with
  • think up, think it out

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Minspeak:

Minspeak (Semantic Compaction System) is used on PRC devices. There is a related app is called LAMP Words for Life.  The English version of Minspeak is also called Unity

Minspeak, by design, also handles phrasal verbs very well.  Basically once a person knows the icon sequences for a verb in Minspeak, putting together phrasal verbs based on that verb is a fairly intuitive process:

  • First, select the verb by selecting the icon and then the "verb" action man, in this case the hammer + the verb man to say "work"
  • Then, select the preposition icon (always the "bridge" icon), followed by the desired preposition from the menu that pops up

I still forget the icon sequences at times, so to remind myself, I use the Write with Symbols tool in the free PRC Pass software (FYI F11 opens the write with symbols tool and F2 closes it) which you lets you type whatever phrases you want and view the minspeak icons that produce them. 

Here are the four icons for the following phrasal verbs::

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Using Nancy Inman's WordPower also allows relatively quick access to prepositions for phrasal verbs.

On the first page of Inman's Picture Word Power, I can easily find over 60 phrasal verbs:

  • come about, come at, come on, come for, come off, come out, come up
  • eat at, eat up, eat with
  • feel about, feel for, feel out, feel up,
  • get about, get at, get in, get off, get on, get out, get up, get with
  • go about, go at, go for, go in, go off, go on, go out, go up, go with
  • help on, help out, help with
  • need for, need of
  • take in, take off, take on, take out, take up
  • talk at, talk for, talk in, talk of, talk on, talk with
  • tell off, tell on
  • think about, think for, think of, think on, think out, think up, think with
  • want for, want of, want on, want out, want up
  • work at, work for, work in, work off, work on, work out, work up, work with

And these little words matter because I certainly want our kids to be able to tell off someone for talking for them when they are in need of more chances to take on more of their own talking!