If you’re like most English learners, you hate phrasal verbs. And I don’t blame you. Mastering these peculiar verbs isn’t easy. So many English students get frustrated and lose hope because they just can’t figure out how to learn them.
The good news is: if you’re reading this post, then you haven’t given up yet! That’s probably because you know that learning phrasal verbs can drastically improve your English speaking and comprehension skills.
Now, what if I told you that learning how to use phrasal verbs in your conversations is entirely possible? It’s simply the result of using the right techniques. I’m not saying that the methods I’m going to show you are the only ones out there. But over the years I’ve spent time studying the best ways to teach phrasal verbs and today I want to share with you 5 secrets I’ve learned from my experience and research.
1. Don’t group them by verb.
The most common method I’ve seen in textbooks, classrooms and online is to group the phrasal verbs by a particular verb. For example, you might have searched Google for a list of phrasal verbs with get and found a list that looks like this:
Get back at
Get away with
Not only is this the worst way to learn phrasal verbs, but it’s also the fastest way to make yourself hate them. Why? Because you’re trying to memorize a bunch of words that all look the same but have completely different meanings. And that’s confusing! There is absolutely no logical connection between these words, but our brains need connections to comprehend and absorb information properly. So, what’s a better way to learn them?
2. Group them by particle (up, off, out, away, etc.)
Now that we know what NOT to do when learning phrasal verbs, let’s look at a four other methods that are more effective.
Instead of grouping them by verb, organizing phrasal verbs by particle can help you make relevant connections between them. That’s because the particles have tendencies, and if you understand these tendencies, it’ll make learning phrasal verbs a bit easier.
So, you might be wondering: “What's a particle?”
Each phrasal verb is composed of a verb and a particle. Let’s look at the phrasal verb sell out as an example:
The particle out can signify a few things. For example, we tend to use it when there is no more of something. So if you go to the bakery and you find out that they sold all their bread, you can say,
“They sold out of bread.” or “They’re out of bread.”
Out can also imply that something stopped existing, ended or disappeared. To illustrate, let’s look at a couple of examples with the phrasal verb go out:
“If you don’t add wood, the fire will go out.”
Which means: If you don’t add wood, the fire will stop burning.
“There was a storm last night, and the power went out in the whole city.”
Which means: There was a storm last night, and the power stopped working in the whole city.
So do you see why understanding the particles and their possible meanings is so important? This will take time and practice because out has many different tendencies, but it’s definitely worth your time and effort. It will at least give you an idea of what the phrasal verb could mean.
You can learn more about particles and their tendencies from a good phrasal verb dictionary. My personal favorite is Macmillan Phrasal Verbs Plus because: it’s easy to use, it highlights the most frequently used English phrasal verbs, and it has detailed information about each particle and their different uses and meanings.
3. Group them by topic
An even better way to learn phrasal verbs is to organize them by subject. For example, you could create a phrasal verb list for expressing emotions, describing friends or talking about love and relationships. This has worked really well for my students because:
There is a link between the different verbs.
Organizing them by topic makes them more relatable and interesting to learn
You are learning how to use them in your everyday life and not just memorizing their abstract meanings
4. Learn them in context
This is the method I use the most in my lessons. Learning phrasal verbs in context by watching YouTube videos, listening to songs or reading any authentic content is so powerful because you can see how we use them in real life.
For example, when you’re watching your favorite TV show you can:
Look for the written transcript on Google.
Write down the phrasal verbs you find in the transcript.
Look up their meanings in the dictionary.
Read some example sentences on Phrasal Verb Demon.
Practice making your own sentences.
Create flashcards and test yourself regularly.
5. Use them in a story
Another effective way to learn and practice phrasal verbs is to create a story with them. If you like writing fiction, you can create a short story using a few phrasal verbs. If not, then you can simply write a paragraph related to your life. This will help you create connections between the words and your experiences and as we mentioned earlier, it’ll help you immensely in remembering them.
If you need some inspiration, here is an example from Marina, one of my students. She created this little story to practice using phrasal verbs to describe friends in context:
“Yesterday, I ran into Mathilde, an old friend from high school. We grew apart but I remember nothing could come between us. We’ve never let each other down. She has always stuck up for me. I heard from Michel she’s still single. Maybe I should try to fix her up with my brother.“
There is no magic method for learning phrasal verbs. It takes time, patience and commitment. If you want to sound more natural when speaking English, you need to take the time to practice phrasal verbs and get more confident with using them. But not all methods are effective. So, try the techniques you learned today and make a commitment to practice regularly. Share your examples below and if you found this useful, please spread the knowledge and share it with your friends.