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How to learn (and remember) phrasal verbs

24 września 2018, poniedziałek,

Are you particularly intimidated by phrasal verbs?  Or are you thinking: “Wait a second, what were those phrasal verbs thingies??” These are words like pick up, turn down, get off, black out – just to give you some examples. Does that make it a bit clearer? No? Ok, here’s the definition according to the Cambridge Dictionary – they are phrases that consist of a verb and a preposition or an adverb (or both) and together the words have a new meaning potentially independent of its composite parts. I know that so many technical terms in one sentence can be a bit off-putting so let’s have a look at this example: ‘to hold’ means to have something in your hands/arms and ‘on’ is the opposite of ‘down’  but ‘to hold on’ means ‘to wait” – something quite different than its individual parts. This is why learning phrasal verbs can often seem to be an arduous task. It is also worth noting that certain phrasal verbs have very easily discernible meanings such as sit down, stand up and get up.  Below I’ll show you some approaches to learning ALL phrasal verbs which may make your life a bit easier and your learning more effective.

  1. Personalisation. When you see a new phrasal verb and want to remember it, it’s not enough to make sure you know the definition and/or its counterpart in your native language. Our brain works much better and is able to retrieve new words faster if we personalise the language we learn. What does that mean? Imagine you want to learn the phrase: call off (to cancel). Try to think of a time when you had to cancel a meeting or somebody else did it and you had to change your plans. Now write down a sentence using this phrasal verb so that it is true for you, e.g.: Last week I had to call off the meeting with my best friend because my child got sick. Repeat the sentence a couple of times, revise it regularly and there’s a good chance you’ll remember the meaning of ‘call off ‘ for a long time.
  2. Lyrics. Do you have your favourite bands whose songs you keep humming to yourself over and over again? Great! Now you can pay a bit more attention to their lyrics. English songs are peppered with vast amounts of phrasal verbs.  So it only makes sense that we should try and take advantage of this very fact. Once you come across a phrasal verb in a song, try to figure out its meaning from the context. If this is too challenging, look up the meaning in a dictionary. Make a note so that you can remember it and next time you listen to the song you’ll not only understand the lyrics better but you’ll revise the new phrasal verb. This way you are learning and having fun at the same time!
  3. Categorisation. If I were you, I’d stay clear of making lengthy lists of phrasal verbs containing the same verb, eg: get away with, get down, get off, get up, get by … Who can remember all that?! It’s much more effective to learn phrasal verbs that belong to the same thematic category (and you can create your own categories). For instance, various categories could be “places or situations”: at the airport, at work, on holiday, in the cinema, etc. So, when you are at work these might be relevant phrasal verbs: lay sb off (to fire – ok, this is not a very optimistic phrase..), knuckle down (to start working hard), carry out (to do a job), hand in (to submit). It’s also good to visualise new vocabulary so once you create your own category you can also draw a mind map. Write: ‚at work’ in the middle of a page – this is your central idea. Then draw some branches and write the relevant phrasal verbs. You can use different colours and even draw some pictures that will help you to better remember the phrases.

And what are your ways of learning phrasal verbs? Do you have any special techniques of your own? As a small homework assignment why not go through this blog again and write down all of the phrasal verbs that we used.



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  1. I actually use the lyrics approach very often. Since they tend to be simple (although, not always, there are great cryptic poets there as well), I am mostly able to get the meaning of the new phrasal verb from the context.