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Trial and error fails for phrasal verbs

Study followed by retrieval practice may be a better way to learn new items than the popular trial and error method, so finds a study by Brian Strong and Frank Boer.

One common approach to teaching new items is to present their usage explicitly with examples, then test them (study then test). Another presents the new items and ask students to try to figure out how they are used, before getting feedback (trial and error then feedback).

There are good arguments supporting both methods. Retrieval of taught content strengthens memory, while the trial and error approach can increase attention and motivation.

Phrasal verbs are both common and relatively challenging for many learners. Strong and Boer found that in 44 EFL textbooks, 61 per cent of exercises introducing new phrasal verbs used the trial and error method, with the ‘feedback’ often in an answer key

Strong and Boer tested the two methods on 140 Japanese university students randomly assigned to two groups. A third pilot study group were tested on potential sets of phrasal verbs, and a final set of 14 phrasal verbs was selected including ‘hang out‘, ‘brush up’ and ‘chicken out’

The ‘study then test’ group received an example of each phrasal verb: ‘Hey, Yuki, if you’re not busy after work, do you want to hang out?’ Followed by a clarifying response: ‘I’m sorry, Tomoko, but I’m not feeling well today. How about tomorrow?’ These students then wrote the participle for the phrasal verbs: ‘Hey, Yuki, if you’re not busy after work, do you want to hang … ?’

Students in the ‘trial and error’ group had to supply the missing particle first – and were then presented with the complete example as feedback. So, both groups were presented with the same text but in a different order.

All students were tested on the 14 phrasal verbs immediately afterwards and again, without warning, after a week. The ‘study then test’ group scored better on both tests.

Corrective feedback to the trial and error group had more influence on their immediate test scores than in the follow-up test where 25 per cent of students reverted to their original wrong answers. So, although corrective feedback after guessing did result in learning the effect was not as strong.


■ Strong, B. and Boers, F. (2019) ‘The Error in Trial and Error: Exercises on Phrasal Verbs,’ TESOL Quarterly 53(2): 289-319.

Image courtesy of Library
Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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