Clarification in ESL Conversation

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What is Clarification?

Clarification is how you make sure that you understand the other person by either asking again or repeating back the important part of what someone says to you. For example, if someone were to ask you, “What is the meaning of life?” You can repeat back, “The meaning of life…hmm… I’ve never thought of that before.”

Actually, that is a strategy I taught my students when trying to think up answers to questions that they found difficult when they were doing a live test of their speaking ability. But it did have its root in the simple skill of clarification. I’ve provided a PDF of the class I used to teach, but I will also print it out here and go over some various parts for both teachers and students to use.

This page is mainly instructional, but if you are going to use this for a class, then I suggest teaching students these skills and then have them practice either in pairs or groups of three as they ask each other questions and try to clarify what their partner has asked or answered.


Huh Jackie Chan TEFL

How to express a lack of understanding

Here are some expressions you can try to use if you don’t quite understand what someone has said to you:

  • I’m sorry? Could you repeat that?
  • I beg your pardon, but I don’t quite understand.
  • I’m not quite sure I know what you mean.
  • I’m not quite sure I follow you.
  • Can you run that by me again?.
  • I’m not sure I got your point.
  • Sorry, I didn’t quite hear what you said.
  • Sorry, I didn’t get your point.
  • I’m not exactly sure what you’re getting at.

How you ask for clarification

When you don’t understand what someone has said, you can
ask for clarification using the following expressions:

  • What do you mean by…?
  • Do you mean…? (and then state what you think they meant)
  • Could you say that again, please?
  • Could you clarify that please?
  • Could you be more explicit?
  • Could you explain what you mean by…?
  • Could you give me an example?
  • I wonder if you could say that in a different way.
  • Could you put it differently, please?
  • Could you be more specific, please?

Clarifying one’s point or idea

To clarify your idea you can use the following expressions:

  • Let me explain that…
  • Let me explain that in more detail…
  • Let me put it in another way…
  • Sorry, let me explain…
  • In other words…
  • To say this differently…
  • To put it differently…

When talking with close friends, it’s appropriate to say, “Huh?” If you’re in the southern U.S., the best response is “Ma’am?” or “Sir?” (I really like it when I meet kids who use sir and ma’am. It’s very polite. Some ladies might get upset because you used ma’am because they think it means they are old. If that happens, just say, “I’m sorry I meant no offense. I was just being polite.”

I’m sorry. Could you repeat that, please?

I’m sorry I didn’t hear you. Could you please say
that again slowly?

You said….?

Did you say X or Y?


Excuse me?

What was that?

Say that again, please?

I’m sorry, I don’t understand what ______ means.

Note: Certain common expressions can have other meanings. For example, if you respond with “What did you say?” the listener might be confused and think that the student was offended rather than confused.


A dialogue in a fast food restaurant as shown in a book might look like this:

Cashier: Hello. Welcome to Burgers-R-Us. What would you like to order?

Customer: I would like a number 5, please.

Cashier: Would you like fries or a salad with that?

Customer: I would like fries, please.

Cashier: What would you like to drink?

Customer: A coke.

Cashier: Great. So that’s a number 5 with fries and a coke. Your total is $6.95. Are you paying with cash or credit card?

Customer: Cash. Here you go.

Cashier: Thank you. Your order can be picked up at the end of the counter. Have a great day.

In reality, most fast food conversations go like this:

Cashier: Hi.

Customer: Can I have a number 5, please?

Cashier: Fries or salad?

Customer: Fries.

Cashier: Drink?

Customer: A coke.

Cashier: $6.95.

Customer: Okay.

Cashier: Pick it up over there.

Did I stutter ESL


I Hope That Was Clear!

As with all languages, there’s textbook English and real English. I remember I had a student who was so happy when she went to the airport, and she could understand everyone. Then she went into the city and tried to order at a fast-food joint. She was in tears because she couldn’t understand the guy behind the counter.

This is why I try to give my students some challenging listening exercises and some rapid-fire English questions every once in a while. They will thank you for it when they are in a situation where they need to think quick on their feet and pick out what the person is saying.

That being said, if you are teaching over in a foreign country and you learn a few phrases of the local lingo, you will probably experience this yourself. It’s always nice to memorize how to say, “I’m sorry; I don’t understand.” Or, “Could you repeat that again, please?”

I’m hoping that this was both informative and entertaining, as it should be in your class as well. In other words… Teaching English is Fun!



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