English phrasal verbs: usage, knowledge, acquisition

Garnier, Mélodie (2016) English phrasal verbs: usage, knowledge, acquisition. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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Formulaic language constitutes an essential part of English vocabulary and is necessary for performing a wide range of communicative functions, but knowledge and acquisition of formulaic sequences is typically found to be lacking and problematic for L2 learners. Whilst much research has been carried out on formulaic sequences such as idioms and collocations, comparatively little has been done on phrasal verbs which are nonetheless commonly perceived as one of the most challenging aspects of English vocabulary. This thesis attempts to contribute to filling this gap by exploring the usage, knowledge and acquisition of phrasal verbs by native and non-native speakers of English.

Study 1 explores the semantic frequencies of the 150 most frequently used phrasal verbs using the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). Results show that, whilst the vast majority of these phrasal verbs are polysemous, only two meaning senses on average are enough to cover three-quarters of the occurrences of each of them. The most frequent meaning senses of all 150 phrasal verbs are listed in the PHrasal VErb pedagogical List (PHaVE List), in frequency ranking order along with frequency percentages. The list thus offers teachers and learners the possibility of prioritising these most frequent, and thus most important, meaning senses, thereby allowing for a more systematic approach to tackling phrasal verbs.

Study 2 explores L2 learners’ knowledge of a sample of phrasal verbs and meaning senses on the PHaVE List at a form-recall level of mastery, and the effect of a number of factors on this knowledge. Results show that only about 40 % of meaning senses were known, with a 20 % chance that all the various meaning senses attached to a given phrasal verb would be known. A mixed-effect modelling analysis reveals a significant effect of two factors on scores: item frequency and learner engagement in leisure activities in the L2 such as reading and social networking. This is consistent with previous research showing the robust effect of frequency for L2 knowledge of individual words and formulaic sequences, and the benefits of reading for L2 language acquisition.

Study 3 investigates L2 learners’ acquisition of novel phrasal verbs through three intentional, word-focused learning activities: rote memorisation, textbook exercises, and guessing from context. Knowledge of the items was measured both immediately and one week after the teaching treatment at meaning-recall and meaning-recognition levels of mastery. Results show encouraging learning gains, similar to those found by previous research for individual words and idioms, with higher L2 proficiency and general vocabulary knowledge leading to significantly higher scores. A Friedman test reveals no significant difference in learning gains between the three activities.

Taken together, these studies provide empirical evidence for the gap in L2 learners’ knowledge of phrasal verbs, but suggest that a restricted number of phrasal verbs and meaning senses can go a long way and be effectively learned using the same explicit activities commonly used for learning single words. Overall, they offer useful insights for learning and teaching English phrasal verbs in a more systematic and efficient manner.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Schmitt, Norbert
Pellicer-Sánchez, Ana
Keywords: Phrasal verbs, English language, English vocabulary, Second language acquisition
Subjects: P Language and literature > P Philology. Linguistics
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Arts > School of English
Item ID: 38662
Depositing User: Garnier, Mélodie
Date Deposited: 14 Dec 2016 06:40
Last Modified: 06 May 2020 10:15
URI: https://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/id/eprint/38662

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