How to teach be used to and get used to
Summary: How to present and practise be and get used to for easy and difficult things to be accustomed to, including common student errors/ confusions and be/ get used to games.
“Be used to” and “get used to” are useful expressions for talking about the ease and difficulty of adjusting to things like life changes and cultural differences. These phrases are likely to come up naturally as students talk about those kinds of topics both inside and outside the classroom, and students often struggle to find an English equivalent to similar expressions in their own languages. “Be/ Get used to” is also often included in Cambridge exams. These phrases are therefore well worth teaching from at least Intermediate level. However, there are a few things that make them difficult for students to get used to. This article looks at how to explain the phrases and typical student issues with them. It then shares some teaching ideas, including be used to and get used to games.
What students need to know about be used to and get used to
Phrases which mean more or less the same as “I am used to getting up early” include “Getting up early is normal for me”, “I am accustomed to getting up early” and “I am habituated to getting up early”. The “get” in “get used to” means “become” and is used to talk about changes (as in “get better” and many other “get” expressions). Therefore, “I will quickly get used to it” means “I will quickly adjust to it”.
Although “accustomed to” and “habituated to” are much rarer expressions than “be/ get used to” in English, they are very similar to the equivalent forms in Latin languages, so will really help speakers of French, Spanish, Italian, etc. They are also easy to look up a bilingual dictionary for everyone else (without the potential confusions of looking for translations of “used to”).
Especially for people who will get more confused by those long words, it is often easier to explain the negative sentence “I’m not used to slimy food” as “Slimy food is strange/ odd/ weird/ unusual for me”. It can also be useful to combine negative things with the positive form of “be/ get used to” in sentences like “Sharing taxis was strange at first, but I soon got used to it”.
As well as providing English synonyms and explanations, I would always get students to check that they understand with a translation into L1. I rarely do this for other language points, but for “be/ get used to” I’ve always found that there are direct translations, and students often don’t realise this until it is pointed out. This may be because the form is very different in their language, for example being just a single verb in Japanese and Turkish.
When they have understood the meaning of it, students need to know what comes after “be/ get used to…”. As in the examples above, the preposition “to” at the end of “be/ get used to” is followed by a noun, a gerund, or a pronoun (as is true for other prepositions like “by” in “I’ll get there by car” and “I’ll get there by driving my car”).
Students should also be shown that this form is used in a variety of tenses, with common tenses with this topic including:
- Present Continuous (“I’m slowly getting used to…”)
- Present Perfect (“I’ve already got used to…”)
- Past Simple (“I was used to…, so it was a shock to the system when…”)
- Future Simple/ Future with will (“I’ll never get used to…”)
These examples also include some of the key words that often go together with “be/ get used to”, which include:
- able to
- almost/ nearly
- difficult/ hard/ tough
- eventually/ in the end
- have (no/ some) difficulty
- have problems
- have to
- immediately/ straightaway/ instantly
- long (in not long, a long time, etc)
- take + time (take years, etc)
It isn’t always necessary to present these key words, but you should make sure that model sentences include a good selection of the more common ones.
Common student problems with get used to and be used to
Perhaps the most common confusion with this point is mixing it up with the past verb form in “I used to”. This is probably because the past verb form in “I used to” looks and sounds exactly the same as the “accustomed to” phrase in “be/ get used to”. In my experience, this is not helped by materials that try to deal with both “I used to live” and “I am used to living” in the same lesson. Instead, I prefer to ignore the existence of “I used to…” in lessons on “be/ get used to…” unless students ask questions or consistently mix them up. In that case, my first response is usually to say that although they look and sound the same, they have nothing in common and so are totally different entries in the dictionary, just like other homographs like the “bear” in “teddy bear” and “I can’t bear it”.
If further explanations are needed, students who have studied “I used to” thoroughly before should be able to see that “I used to…” is a past verb form by its negative being “I didn’t use to…” and its question form being “Did you use to…?” (just like “I didn’t play” and “Did you go…?”). In contrast, the verb in “be/ get used to” is “be” or “get”, and “used to” is an adjective that doesn’t change in the question or negative (like other adjectives such as “familiar with” or “red”).
Even students who understand the differences in meaning and form may continue to drop the verb in “be/ get used to”, perhaps through too much practice of “I used to”. They may therefore make mistakes like “I used to sharing a bathroom with other people”, something that will need correcting if the meaning is not clear.
The other common confusion is using infinitive after “be/ get used to” in mistakes like “I’m used to drive quickly on the autobahn”. This is incorrect because “to” is a preposition here (not part of the verb as in “want to go”) and prepositions are always followed by nouns or equivalent forms like gerund or pronouns. However, this is a bit of a circular explanation, as the definition of a preposition is that it is something which is followed by a noun or equivalent. Therefore, I tend to just elicit that it can be followed by a noun (in “I’m used to the autobahn”) and that the gerund and pronoun are equivalent to a noun.
How to present be used to and get used to
As I mentioned above, I would try to avoid mixing up “be/ get used to” and “I used to” in one lesson, even if this means totally scrapping the textbook pages presenting this language. Instead, I would get students to talk about changes in their lives such as starting to live alone or spending time abroad. I would then get them to read or listen to a similar story to compare to what they just said. The next step is to pick out the things which were strange to that person before but then not, and the language in the text which means that. This should include matching “be used to” and “get used to” to definitions made to match what people who speak your students’ language(s) are likely to find least confusing (e.g. “I’m habituated to” for a whole class of Italian speakers). I would end that stage by asking “How do you say that in your language?” to give them a chance to think about that and maybe look it up, even if I don’t speak their language and so won’t be able to check their answers.
How to practise be and get used to
Ranking be used to and get used to activities
There quite a few “be/ get used to” expressions which can be ranked such as “I will soon get used to”, “I will get used to… eventually” and “I will never get used to…” Using ranked phrases can be good for discussing topics such as the most difficult things to get used to in the city you are in, with disagreeing sentences like “I would go even further and say that…” and “I wouldn’t go so far. I’d say that…” After using the phrases, students can rank mixed phrases and/ or try to remember phrases to fill blanks in particular places in a ranked table.
Be used to and get used to key word sentence transformations
Particularly with Cambridge exam classes, it can be useful to get students to do key word sentence transformations such as transforming “It will soon become normal to you. USED. You will _______________________ not much time”. into “You will get used to it in not much time”. As with this example, to make this useful practice (and match the exams), there should be at least two changes in each sentence. The sentence transformations should also have a range of useful key words and tenses. There are examples of this online (most of which need changing to have enough key words and two language points each), or there are a few examples in published past Cambridge exams.
Be used to and get used to sentence completion games
This activity includes a good mix of controlled practice when students construct sentences and more communicative speaking when they hear other people’s sentences. Give students at least 15 gapped typical sentences with this language like “I had difficulty getting used to ________” and “I will never get used to ________”. The three different activities below can all be done with the same sentences to complete (although things in common works better with “We had difficulty getting used to ______________” etc).
Be used to and get used to bluff
With sentences to complete, students can choose one of the sentences for their partner to complete, listen to their sentence, ask follow-up questions, then guess if the original sentence was true or not. There are also ideas below for using a dice or key words for bluffing games.
Be used to and get used to things in common
Students tell each other their “be/ get used to” sentences and ask their partners about their feelings and experiences in order to write sentences which are true about at both people/ all of the people in their group like “We weren’t used to… until we moved out of our family homes”.
Be used to and get used to guessing games
If you have given them gapped sentences, students complete at least half of the sentences on their own with true information, then read out just the part that they have written in one of the gaps (not what was printed on the worksheet). The other students then try to guess which sentence that was put into.
As explained below, students can also explain their experiences and feelings about one thing until their partners guess that it is “Marmite”, “bowing” or “the th sounds in English”.
Be used to and get used to discuss and agree
This is similar to things in common above, but done with sentence stems about other people such as “Most people find it difficult to get used to __________” for students to give their opinions on.
Be used to and get used to dice game
Students roll a dice and make a sentence about the ease or difficulty of getting used to things, for example in this way:
- positive sentence about the past
- negative sentence about the past
- positive sentence about the present
- negative sentence about the present
- positive sentence about the future
- negative sentence about the future
A list of positive and negative words (like “easily” and “never”) and/ or examples of useful tenses might help with this.
Dice can also be used to choose topics to talk about such as:
- things in other countries/ things from other countries/ cultural differences
- life events/ milestones
- growing up/ getting older
- moving (house/ school/ office/…)
- seasons/ weather
To add more communication, rolling a dice can be used to prompt a bluffing game or finding things in common related to the topics and/ or times above.
Be used to and get used to roleplays
Roleplay conversations that could include lots of “be/ get used to” include
- recruiting young people and so having to decide what things they will quickly be okay with, what things they will need help getting used to, and what things the company will need to change
- being university staff who need to discuss how to help students who will start university soon (especially those who will also move away from home)
- discussing the difficulties of foreign people moving to this city and how to help them
- sharing experiences of changes with someone who will go through the same change soon
- trying to outdo the other person with stories of how difficult the changes in your life have been
- trying to outdo the other person with stories of how easily and quickly you have adjusted to difficult situations in your life
- proving that you will be able to cope with big future changes by talking about your experiences with previous ones (in an interview for a job, when volunteering, etc)
Discussion activities for be used to and get used to
As mentioned above, it is virtually impossible to avoid trying to say “be used to” and/ or “get used to” while talking about life changes like starting university, starting work and staying with a host family. You could therefore just give students a list of such topics to give mini-presentations on, with their partners asking follow-up questions and then sharing similar experiences and/ or feelings.
You could also give students a list of specific things that tend to be difficult to adjust to such as getting up early and street noise, which they can compare their experiences and feelings about. These kinds of topics also work well as a guessing game, where they share feelings and experiences related to one thing without saying its name until their partner guesses that they are talking about “living on my own”, “cleaning up my own mess”, etc.
Be used to and get used to key words activities
To make students use a range of language in roleplays etc, you could give them a list of key words such as those above to tick off as they use them in the speaking. The same can also be done with cards, with one key word on each card. Students deal the cards out and discard them as they use the key words, or lay them all face-up across the table and take the cards as they use those words correctly.
Key words can also be used to find things in common or in a bluffing game, similar to the ones described above for sentence completion.