Phrasal Verbs: Form, Meanings, Learning Tips

Phrasal verbs are a challenging vocabulary unit for most students of English as a second language.  This is mostly due to the fact that their meanings can be completely unrelated to their form, which makes them idiomatic and therefore recognized from context only.


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What is a phrasal verb?

A phrasal verb is a verb that collocates with
a preposition to form a special meaning.

For example, while ‘break’ can imply a pause in time, ‘break up’ implies the end of a relationship.

Phrasal verbs are often confusing for students due to their idiomatic nature.  However, they are also an essential component of the language.  Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for students to learn and understand them.  Not surprisingly, most students become frustrated when studying phrasal verbs and tend to ignore their importance.

In most cases, the typical ESL student will say, “I always forget the phrasal verbs I learn in class by the next day.” Students usually become annoyed by the fact that there is no one rule for determining which preposition to use after the verb.  Students often confuse ‘hang out’ with ‘hang up’ and vice versa.

So what is the best way for students to learn phrasal verbs?

First, students need to understand that phrasal verbs cannot be accurately translated because of their idiomatic nature and the fact that it is a two-word phrase.

Phrasal verbs as they are in English do not exist the same way as they do in other languages.  Moreover, students also need to accept that there is no quick fix or rule to follow for knowing which preposition to place after the verb.  Phrasal verbs are quite foreign for non-native speakers of English.  However, once the student can understand the nature of phrasal verbs, they usually have an easier time using them.

For teachers the best practice for teaching phrasal verbs is to introduce only the most widely used ones.

Students, on the other hand, should concentrate on these and disregard obscure phrasal verbs that have become archaic or are rarely used.  It is important that students are not overloaded with too many phrasal verbs at one time.

During a typical class, it is productive if students are introduced to 5 to 8 phrasal verbs at a time.

After understanding the basic meaning of each phrasal verb, they should be practiced in a natural way through conversation.  Such conversation should be encouraged through role play and dialogues.
For a list of the most commonly used phrasal verbs, check out this page on phrasal verbs.  This may be a useful resource because students could greatly improve their English language ability if they learn how to use phrasal verbs in everyday speech or writing.

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James Soller has been teaching ESL for several years.  He spent four years teaching English in Japan and has been teaching ESL in the United States since 2011.  He is also an adjunct instructor of political science.  He has a master’s degree in political science and a TESOL certification.  He has spent significant time in Asia and in South America.  You can find out more about him on his ESL website.

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