AMITIAE - Saturday 23 February 2013

The Phrasal Verbs Machine: An iPad App with an Unusual Approach to Grammar

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers

Phrasal Verbs

I am a native speaker of Engish, but I hate to teach grammar, although I do understand its necessity. As most of my courses are concerned with using the language as a living means of communicating with others, and not as a series of exercises to be tested at the end of a semester - grammar has a lower priority for me. Fortunately there is help at hand.


My senior year undergraduate students complete a number of modules in a course: poster, presentation, making a short movie, where English correctness is not essential. Towards the end of the semester we move on to a couple of writing projects where grammar is part of the focus (not all).

In my classes with Second Year students, again, there are many tasks during the semester concerned with reading and understanding information, before moving on to a couple of (simplified) writing tasks: these are Year two Engineering students in a Thai program. I do not expect perfection.

The problem however for all these groups, and for students in past years, is that despite the many years of English instruction they have had, from high school up to university, not one can write a sentence that is error-free.

The core problem is the verb. If my students would focus on that (then the subject) before other complexities, they would write better. One particular verb type is the Phrasal verb. I try to explin part of this using the verg, Go. Alone it is not often used, but with a preposition (or a particle) the meaning changes: go to, go on, go up, go along, go up to, go over. There is a reasonable explanation of this on Wikipedia, but like many textbook style grammar outlines, it is dense and not immediately accessible.

As an attempt to make some of this more approachable Cambridge University Press have developed an app for the iPad that focuses on this: The Phrasal Verbs Machine. When I first saw the icon, I thought it was another camera app, with its double-lens design.

The interface is designed to draw users in to use the app: an interesting approach when compared with the normal, dry grammar texts that learners are assaulted with.

Phrasal Verbs Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal Verbs Machine

There are three options available on the opening screen: Phrasal verbs View, Exercise, and Settings. The last of these allows a user to change settings for languages, turn sounds on or off, and to play music (or not). There are also links to Instructions and to Credits.

As each item is selected, with sounds On, there is a machine-like clunk as a screen or selection changes. Music is played by a soloist on a piano: this may jar after a few minutes. Although English is the default language, the user may also select from Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, German and Russian.

On the Phrasal Verbs View page, there are three metal style windows. Tapping on the first, shows the verbs list. Selecting one of these reveals (alongside) the prepositions that may be used. For example, with Go, we are also shown Down, Into, Out, Over and Up. The others I used above are not prepositions, but particles.

Phrasal Verbs Phrasal Verbs

When a combination of verb and participle is selected, pressing the View button below opens the window to the right which displays a cartoon enactment of the words. Go + Out, for example has the app hero, Phraso (a slightly Gallic representation) sitting on a bench holding the hand of a young lady.

A window below also displays the meaning of the combination and examples of the use in a sentence. When another language has been selected, the selectors are still in English, but the translation is in the target language as well as the example below an English translation. Below these example sentences are any alternatives (in English).

Although the description of the app claims over 100 verbs, I counted 61 on the selector wheel. I also noted the maximum number of prepositions available was 7 (for the verb, Come).

Phrasal Verbs Phrasal Verbs


Any teaching requires testing to ensure that the student has learned properly. In this case, the learner watches a short cartoon in which the Phraso character performs an action. Alongside are a number of options. In reality, only one is possible. When the user has made a decision, the OK button below is pressed. A right answer is shown as such in a panel below with a score displayed alongside. Users may share these, if they wish, on Facebook or Twitter.

When each example is done, an arrow icon below OK, moves the exercise on to the next test item. If an answer is answered wrongly, there is no second chance. I did indeed get some wrong and I do not know why: the example answers did not seem to match the cartoon action in my opinion. Some that I had right also provided alternatives that I thought were possible.

Phrasal Verbs Phrasal Verbs


As a teacher - and one who does not enjoy teaching grammar - I rather like this approach: giving a life to a dry as dust subject.

The inclusion of only prepositions (and exclusion of Particles) does limit the value of the app in practical terms. In addition, prepositions shown with one verb (e.g. Come + In) may not be shown with others (Go + In) because these are particles: they do not take a complement. English is difficult enough for non-native speakers to learn anyway and the finer points may be lost to many. It may be valuable if these were to be added in a later version of the app.

When examples are answered wrongly in the test, it might be useful if there were a second attempt allowed, or the correct answer were shown, so that there was some learning.

Overall this is a nicely done app with an eye-catching approach to the problem of teaching a grammar point. This should be well-received and I hope this encourages the developers to try this with other grammar teaching.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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