Turning Informal Into Formal: A writing activity for phrasal verbs

The purpose of this exercise is to reinforce students’ understanding of the differences between formal and informal English, highlighting the role phrasal verbs can play in changing the register. Students will begin with informal speech and edit it for a more formal context, using one-word equivalents for the selected phrasal verbs.


Level: High intermediate to advanced

STEP 1 – Ask students to name people in positions of power who can effect change, for example, a president, mayor, or school director. List their ideas on the board.

STEP 2 – Ask the students to choose one person in power and list 2-3 actions they would like that person to take. Each item on the list must use at least one phrasal verb. Be sure students have access to a good phrasal verb reference chart that includes definitions, such as the one in the appendix of Book 4 of the Focus in Grammar series. Model:

I want our governor to:

  • come up with a way to help out state college students with tuition
  • put together a program to help students find work after college
  • make laws that will stop people from using up too much gas, water, and electricity

STEP 3 – Students will use their lists to compose a short letter. Model the business letter format on the board, indicating the correct positions of the addresses, the greeting, the closing, and the signature.  In the body of the letter, one-word equivalents must replace the phrasal verbs. (Additional revisions may be necessary to increase the formality, e.g., elimination of contractions and abbreviations, more appropriate greetings and closings, etc.) Model:

Dear Sir:

I would like to make three requests. First, I kindly ask you to find a way to assist students who attend state colleges. Tuition is difficult to pay, and students like me need more help to get a good education. Second, the state government needs to create a program to help students find work after college. You could create free job centers at libraries, for example. Finally, I am worried about the environment. I believe the state government can make new laws that will stop people from wasting gas, water, and electricity. Until there are such laws, people will continue to waste.

Thank you.



VARIATION: Instead of a business letter, students can write a short article. Tell them to imagine they are writing for a local newspaper. The headline can be Time for Change or Changes We Need.


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