How to learn phrasal verbs more easily

How often do teachers hear their students complain that phrasal verbs are too difficult to learn? Very often; and the students do have a good point – phrasal verbs sometimes have no logic and can be hard to remember.

But learning phrasal verbs is not impossible, and in this article I’ll give you a few tips on how to make the learning process easier.

Firstly, in case you’ve forgotten, phrasal verbs (sometimes called multi-word verbs) are verbs with two parts – a verb + preposition or verb + adverb: look after and wash up are two examples. In some cases, phrasal verbs have three parts, such as get on with and look forward to.

Two groups of phrasal verbs

Let’s put phrasal verbs into two groups: literal and idiomatic.

Literal phrasal verbs are quite easy to understand, as you can decipher the meaning from their two parts (verbs like sit down, look around and fall down shouldn’t cause you problems).

On the other hand, we cannot decipher the meaning of an idiomatic phrasal verb just by looking at its individual parts: learners need help to understand the meaning of verbs such as get on with, show up and let down.

Seven tips for making idiomatic phrasal verbs easier to learn:

1. Be careful when checking for meaning in your dictionary – phrasal verbs often have more than one meaning. Study the context of the sentence in which you first saw the phrasal verb. From that context you may be able to tell which definition in the dictionary is the one you need.

2. If possible, ask a native speaker about the meaning of the phrasal verb.

3. Find out how common the phrasal verb is (again, a native speaker will be a big help). Focus on learning common phrasal verbs, not ones which are seldom used.

4. Learn the phrasal verb as part of a sentence or phrase (this helps you to remember it).

5. Double check that you can use the phrasal verb correctly. You can do this by inventing your own sentence containing the verb and again asking a native speaker if it’s correct. By doing this, for instance, you will see if you are putting the object of the verb in the correct place. Look at these examples: ‘I invite friends over’ and ‘I invited over friends’ are both correct because the position of the object is flexible with this verb. However, with the verb give up, we can say ‘I gave up smoking but not ‘I gave smoking up’.

6. Don’t try to learn every meaning of a phrasal verb: one is enough to start with. Learn the other meanings once you are sure you’ll remember the first.

7. Look out for phrasal verbs in your favourite songs. Pop music is full of them, and having a melody makes words much easier to remember. How about starting with Don’t Let Me Down by the Beatles?

These are my tips. If you know any more or want to tell us your ideas, feel free to add a comment below.

Stuart is an English teacher and runs the Speakspeak website. He currently lives in Prague and has been teaching for over 20 years. See all posts by Stuart

12 Comments

  1. ponsiano - November 29, 2012, 9:51 am Reply

    hi. i love these lesson of english please assist me more.
    thanks

  2. ponsiano - November 29, 2012, 9:52 am Reply

    i love these lessons. please assist me more
    thanks

  3. kamal - December 9, 2012, 10:06 am Reply

    good idea,thank you sir 🙂

  4. brian - September 3, 2013, 1:36 pm Reply

    Your tips are very basic. Thanks anyway

  5. sonia - September 9, 2013, 9:19 pm Reply

    they are useful to me .Hope we use them more and more .

  6. sonia - September 9, 2013, 9:36 pm Reply

    You told us to speak with native speaker but finding her/him is difficult because of our native language that is Persian .
    With regards,
    Sonia.

  7. zouheir - October 14, 2013, 1:14 pm Reply

    thx for this lesson Sir. trying common phrasal verbs is a neat idea.

  8. Qadoo - January 15, 2014, 9:12 pm Reply

    Not satisfied, i have only one month to learn 100s of these with other work too. It is’nt impressive

  9. Nghia - February 26, 2014, 5:08 am Reply

    Hi there,

    Thanks for these tips, I really tire of learning phrasal verbs.

  10. Cronwell njawala - December 5, 2014, 6:50 am Reply

    This lesson is very vital to me i think i’ll learn more from it

  11. farniya - December 17, 2014, 8:04 pm Reply

    Thanks a lot.
    It was very helpful for me. 🙂

  12. Violin M - June 8, 2016, 5:05 am Reply

    Thankyou so much. Your tips are very helpful

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