Mind Your Manners! Helping Students Ask for Clarification in the ESL Classroom

Tired of hearing “What?!” or “Huh?” or “Repeat!” in your ESL classroom?

I was too.

At first, it was really awkward for me.

I was confused why my otherwise lovely students seemed so irritated.

While usually polite and friendly, my students would suddenly get this serious face and gruffly respond this way every time they needed further clarification.

Then I realized that my students weren’t frustrated, they just didn’t know how to politely ask for clarification.

These days, I do a crash course on the subject with all of my students, so they’re able to express themselves without being misunderstood.

Here are three tips to help you keep your cool while you help your students master the art of asking for clarification.

Tips to Remember When Teaching Clarification

Understand that your students aren’t being rude

You’re going to have students that give an abrupt “Huh?” when they don’t understand you. While it can sometimes come across as harsh, it’s almost never their intention to be rude.

More often than not, students simply don’t know the cultural norms behind expressing confusion and asking for clarification.

For this reason, it’s important to teach students how to ask questions politely.

If you can’t understand your student, talk with them privately

There are going to be times when a student wants you to clarify something, but they don’t yet have the language skills to convey their message. As a teacher, the last thing you want your students to become is self-conscious of their English skills.

So when you can’t understand what they’re asking, tell them to save their question until after class so you can speak with them privately.

That way, you don’t have to put them on the spot in front of all their classmates.

Don’t go off topic

Every now and then, you’re also going to get students who like to ask clarification questions completely unrelated to your current lesson. Even the most experienced English teacher can get caught off guard by an unrelated grammar question and struggle to come up with a suitable explanation in the moment.

For this reason, you should always make sure that your students stick to the lesson when asking for clarification. And if you do get caught with an off-topic question, tell your students you’ll get back to them with an answer at a later time.

ESL Classroom Phrases and Activities to Improve Understanding

As an English teacher, part of your role is to help students overcome cultural barriers when expressing themselves. If students have never learned how to politely ask for clarification, you’ll need to teach them courteous English expressions and when to use them.

Let’s take a look at different situations where a student needs to express misunderstanding or ask for clarification, as well as how they can do it politely. We’ll follow this with some activities to help put their skills to use

15 Phrases to Politely Ask for Clarification

Most students aren’t going to be able to remember these after one lesson. So as you teach these phrases, be sure you help students commit them to memory. Here are some strategies to help you do that:

  • Practice frequently.
  • Create posters with these expressions and sample sentences as you go and hang them in the classroom.
  • Ask students to write down the phrases in their notebook so they can reference them any time they need to.
  • Try starting or ending every class with a drill or quick activity that lets them practice a different clarification phrase.
  • You could also assign students videos as homework with FluentU.

    FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

Your students are sure to love this engaging platform!

Now let’s get to those phrases.

Phrases to grab someone’s attention

Explain to your students that saying something along the lines of “Hey you!” isn’t a good way to grab someone’s attention when asking a question. Instead, teach them how to use more polite phrases, like:

  • Pardon me…
  • Excuse me…

Also, make sure to explain that these expressions are often used with a flat intonation.

Expressions for when you don’t understand something

Instead of letting your students say “What?” or “Huh?” when they don’t understand something, have them express their misunderstanding politely with phrases like:

  • Excuse me?
  • Pardon me?
  • I’m sorry?

Also, since these are used to convey confusion or misunderstanding, demonstrate to the class that they have the same rising intonation that’s used when asking a question.

In addition to these three short questions, here are three long-form phrases that your students need to know when they can’t hear or understand you:

  • Could you repeat that, please?
  • Could you say that slower, please?
  • I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you.

Questions for when you need more information

For times when your students get the gist of what you’re saying but need additional information to understand completely, they can use these clarification questions:

  • What do you mean?
  • Do you mean…?
  • Could you be more specific, please?
  • Could you give me an example, please?

Not only do these questions sound more polite, your students are far more likely to get a better response when asking clarification questions.

Phrases to say when you’re clarifying

There are also going to be times when students also need to clarify themselves. Here are some phrases that will help them get the point across better.

  • For example…
  • In other words…
  • I meant to say…

Don’t forget to say “please”

One of the main reasons why ESL students often come across as demanding when they ask for clarification is because they’re not saying “please.”

Make sure to teach your students to add this oh-so-important word when making a request, and also explain that the use of modal verbs like will, would, can and could also make requests more polite.

For example, “Repeat the question” doesn’t sound nearly as polite and respectful as “Could you repeat the question, please?”

ESL Student Activities

Once you’ve taught your class how to politely express misunderstandings and ask for clarification, it’s time to introduce some engaging activities to help them practice these skills.

Here are some ways you can get your students used to incorporating these phrases.

Role play exercises

For this type of activity, it’s best to put students into pairs and have them role play various scenarios where they’d be likely to ask for clarification. The best part about coming up with role playing exercises is that you can adapt them to any type of scenario, including:

  • A teacher and student talking in the classroom
  • A sick patient explaining their illness to the doctor
  • A transaction between a shopper and a cashier

Just make sure to include some key expressions in your dialogue, such as:

  • Could you repeat that, please?
  • What do you mean?
  • I meant to say…

Murder mystery interrogation

Divide the class up into two groups: detectives and suspects.

Then, hand out pieces of paper to the suspects that say either “guilty” or “not guilty.” The amount of guilty suspects you want depends on you, but I recommend two or three for classrooms over 20 students.

After that, give the suspects some time to come up with their alibi. Have them think about things like their daily routine and where they were throughout the week, and then let the detectives interrogate the suspects.

Remember that this interrogation activity is designed to help students practice clarification questions, so make sure that both detective and suspects practice the clarification and misunderstanding expressions we’ve covered, including: “excuse me,” “pardon me” and “could you repeat that, please?”

Also, if you’re looking for a good template with ready-made questions for this activity, check out the BusyTeacher website.

Polite request worksheet

The goal of this activity is to let students practice turning demands into polite requests using modal verbs and please. For this exercise, come up with a list demands or statements and then have your students turn them into polite requests.

For example:

  • I didn’t hear you can be turned into “Could you say that again, please?”
  • Talk slowly can be turned into “Would you repeat that slower, please?”
  • Give me an example can be turned into “Could you give me an example, please?”

Feel free to add similar that phrases that won’t be turned specifically into requests. For example, you can have them transform phrases into attention-grabbers and phrases for students to use when they’re clarifying something.

And if you’d like to give your students a review before starting the activity, take a look at this YouTube video from the BBC Learning English channel on how to make polite requests.


With these exercises and phrases, your students will be able to make polite clarification requests that not only help them sound more like native speakers but will also prevent them from coming across as rude or abrupt.

These are skills that go beyond the classroom as they travel to English-speaking countries or interact with native English speakers in the workplace.

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