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Compelling Conversations for English Teachers, Tutors, and Advanced English Language Learners

Conversation Tip #9: Ask Clarifying Questions!

September 20, 2010 by Eric Roth
Eric Roth

What is a clarifying question? What do you mean? Can you be more specific? Can you give us some examples? What do you exactly mean?

Sometimes our English students need help asking questions, especially critical questions that allow them to clarify concepts and better participate in conversations. One crucial skill that needs to be explicitly taught – after being informally modeled in class discussions – is asking for clarification. In fact, I consider the ability to ask appropriate follow-up questions a vital life skill.

Here are some simple questions that students can, and often should, ask to collect more information. I often encourage students to make a general statement or bold claim, and support their opinion with some reason. Proverbs and advertising slogans are great for this purpose.

Sunshine promises happiness.
Just do it.
Laugh and be well.
Bad luck can’t last forever.
You create your own luck.
Be bold.

Yet these absolute statements require qualification and clarification, especially in the context of an academic discussion or intense conversation. Therefore, it’s natural to ask some practical clarifying questions in a friendly, open-minded way.

Here are some useful examples of common clarification questions:
What does that mean?
Can you be more specific?
Why do you think that?
How did you reach that conclusion?
Can you share some examples?
To what extent, does that saying apply here?
What do you really mean?
Can you clarify that for me?
How does that statement apply to….?
Can you spin that concept out for us?
What are the implications of that statement?
What are you implying?

We can also ask questions to confirm information or paraphrase.
Are you saying that….
Are you claiming….
Do you mean ….
So you are saying…
Do you want me to…

This simple exercise is also quite helpful when teaching hedging language and formal definitions to add precision. Since I primary teach graduate students who must participate in classroom discussions and answer questions after giving presentations, I consider this ability a vital skill for intermediate and advanced English language learners.

How do you clarify information? What questions do you ask as follow-up questions when you feel confused? What questions do you teach your students to use to collect more details or verify information? Why?

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