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5 Ways to learn Phrasal Verbs

6 years ago

I wrote on this topic before, but it bears repeating because I get a lot of students asking about it. So here it goes:

If you were to ask a native English speaker what a phrasal verb is they wouldn’t be able to tell you:
“A what verb?”

Some common features of phrasal verbs can make them a bit tricky for students.
Here are a few:
· Like fixed phrases and expressions, 2 or more words have a single meaning.
· Like idioms and expressions the meaning of the whole may be totally different to the meanings of the individual words.
· They can have different meanings in different contexts – a plane takes off (departs), while a person takes off (removes) their shoes when they go inside.
· Many phrasal verbs begin with get, take, give, put etc. making it difficult to tell them apart.
But don’t despair and don’t give up. Because, even if you’ve been learning English for only a short time, you already know lots of phrasal verbs. To talk about your daily routine you use verbs like: get up and get dressed, and you learn that at Starter level.

So, the big question is: How did you manage to learn them?
Let’s see if we can come up with a few useful ideas:
1. Learn phrasal verbs by topic
When you learnt get up and get dressed you learnt them alongside other verbs and verb phrases with related meanings – go to work, get home, have a shower etc. This makes them easier to remember.
So … when you cover a topic in class, or on your own, learn a few phrasal verbs with other related vocabulary.
2. Personalize them
Again, taking the example of your daily routine, you learnt and remembered the phrasal verbs because you used them to describe your own life. You didn’t have to translate from or into your language anymore to tell people about your average day. You began to think and to express yourself in English.

So … when you learn a new phrasal verb, try to make sentences about your life or about people and things you know.
3. Listen out for and learn phrasal verbs in context
When you read, see or hear a new phrasal verb in context – online, in a book, on TV, in a movie or during a conversation – try to use the situation to understand the meaning and then think of a single word verb with the same meaning. If someone looks angry and desperate and says they “can’t put up with you anymore” (something that happens to me a lot), take a moment to think about what they mean, before replying: “Oh, you can’t tolerate me anymore. I see. I better go then.”

4. Recycle and reuse
As with all vocabulary, once you’ve learnt a phrasal verb, you have to revise, recycle and reuse it frequently. In other words: “Use it or lose it”.
So … keep a vocabulary notebook that includes phrasal verbs, definitions, sample sentences, or whatever works for you, and make sure you go back over them regularly, perhaps make new sentences or take note of new uses and contexts you have discovered.

5. Test yourself
Several books – FCE Organiser is one – have useful phrasal verb tests, often focusing on one verb, e.g. take, so you can check if you know the difference between take up and take down, take on and take over.

And, although I said “5 ways”, I’ll throw in a sneaky fifth tip – use pictures to illustrate the meanings and give you something realistic to associate the words with.

So … it’s over to you. If you want to practice these more, be sure to sign up for a trial lesson. Good luck!