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8 easy techniques to help learners practice clarifying their explanations


Mixed race businesswoman speaking at podiumFollowing on from her tips for teaching speaking for academic purposes at graduate level posts, Li-Shih Huang, Associate Professor at the University of Victoria, Canada, now gives some practical suggestions and examples to apply those techniques outside of the EAP sphere.

You have probably heard your students say “I’m not sure how to explain it . . .” while speaking, as they search for ways to get their ideas across. Think of the last time your students (or maybe you) were searching for ways to clarify explanations so that the idea you were trying to convey would not only make sense to your listener, but would also stick!

In one of my previous articles, 7 Tips for Teaching Speaking for Academic Purposes at the Graduate Level: Part 2, I mentioned the importance of linking tasks that learners need to perform outside of class to in-class activities. In that post, I included an exercise that requires students to clarify a key concept using various communication strategies.

In this article, I’d like to follow that up with some brief explanations and simple examples, because the eight techniques presented here are not limited to the teaching of speaking for academic purposes. Being able to present explanations clearly, which is a key attribute of a speaker’s effectiveness in communication, is a skill that all speakers strive to develop, regardless of whether they are language learners or aspiring or practicing teaching professionals.

Researchers have established the effectiveness of various instructional strategies across disciplines, such as: using concrete examples to illustrate abstract concepts, using analogies from outside the classroom, and using personal examples (e.g., Civikly, 1992; Tobin & Fraser, 1990; van Rooyen, 1994). The following eight communication techniques are presented with the goal of helping your learners develop the ability to achieve their communication goals. Then some simple, fun application tasks that you can try are presented at the end of the article.

Warm-up questions:

Identifying Challenges and Brainstorming Techniques/Strategies

1. How do you feel about your ability to clarify your ideas or explanations when listeners have difficulty understanding you?

2. Share with your speaking partner(s) an instance in which you encountered difficulty in clarifying your meaning. What are some personal difficulties that you faced (or anticipate facing if you can’t think of an incident in the recent past) in clarifying explanations?

Eight suggested techniques:

1. Use a practical example: Provide a practical example that your listeners can relate to.

e.g. To understand what the phrase “leisure activities” means, think of activities that you enjoy during time free from school or work.

2. Share a personal experience: Provide an example from your experience.

e.g. To understand what “code-switching” means, think of the last time you or someone else simultaneously used more than one language or dialect in a single sentence or in one conversation.

3. Provide a definition: Define the key term that you are trying to convey.

e.g. The term “analogy” is defined as “a comparison of one thing with another thing that has similar features.” It’s used to explain and clarify meaning by comparing two different things, concepts, processes, or relationships in order to highlight similarities.

4. Make an analogy: Make an analogy to some other concept that listeners already know.

e.g. In writing, the idea of fixing micro-level issues, such as mechanics, without attending to macro-level issues, such as organization and idea development, is analogous to having the intention to paint a house that has a crumbling, shaky foundation.

5. Offer a comparison and a contrast: Compare the term with a similar term or contrast it with an opposing term.

e.g. Twitter is a type of social networking tool like Facebook, but it is different from Facebook in that, for example, you can usually start following anyone you want to follow without knowing the person or sending a friend request.

6. Refer to word origin: Share the origin of the word.

e.g.: The term “motivation” is derived from the Latin “movere,” meaning “to move.” (This can be followed by a definition.)

“Prefix” comes from Latin. It has two parts: “pre,” which means “before,” and “fix” from “fixus,” which means “to attach.”

7. Link to previously learned/mentioned information: Tie the term to a previously learned, presented, or shared piece of information.

e.g. The concept of metaphor is related to what we learned about “analogy” last week…. (Note: This is an example that you can combine with such techniques as using a definition, referring to a word’s origin, and offering comparison or contrast.)

8. Provide visual means: Illustrate what you are trying to say visually, with a drawing, picture, diagram or chart, to support your verbal explanations.

e.g. This graph illustrates the relationship between market supply and demand.

The word “wince” means a facial expression that shows sudden pain (illustrate with your facial expression).

Application Task

What has worked very well for me in my teaching of graduate English-as-an-additional-language students is having students get into pairs or groups of three. Ask students to choose two or more strategies and brainstorm an example that illustrates each one. Request that students be prepared to share their team’s examples with the class without revealing the names of the techniques. The rest of the class then will identify the technique(s) that each team used for each example.

Follow-up Task

Effective academic speakers may use a combination of techniques in clarifying a complex idea. The follow-up tasks I have implemented attend to this and can have multiple variations depending on the class size, time allocation, and learners’ proficiency levels. For example, when time permits for a follow-up task, I introduce a fun challenge, where I ask students to incorporate as many clarification techniques introduced as they can and create a one-minute talk. After each mini-talk, the class will identify (by individually writing down and/or calling out) the number and type of clarification techniques used; the latter is game-like and creates more fun and excitement during the application activity. The speaker who integrates the most techniques in the talk is made the winner of the challenge with an acknowledgment of his/her accomplishments.

Now the challenge is making the eight techniques become part of students’ communication repertoires that they can pull out of their communication tool kits with little or no hesitation. Share your creative ideas about how to encourage the application of those eight simple techniques outside of class in the comments below.

Civikly, J. M. (1992). Clarity: Teachers and students making sense of instruction. Communication Education, 41, 138-152.
Tobin, K., & Fraser, B. J. (1990). What does it mean to be an exemplary science teacher? Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27(1), 3-25.
Van Rooyen, H. G. (1994). The quest for optimal clarity of presentation. American Biology Teacher, 56, 146-150.
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6 thoughts on “8 easy techniques to help learners practice clarifying their explanations

  1. Pingback: 8 easy techniques to help learners practice clarifying their explanations | English Language Teaching Journal | Scoop.it

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  4. This is something I also teach my students – naturally, some of them are more receptive to these techniques than others:-) Anyway, I find the article is a wonderful summary of the practical approaches to explanations and can even be used in the form of an input with the more conscious ones.

  5. Pingback: 5 PRÁTICAS SIMPLES QUE VÃO INOVAR SUA AULA (GARANTIDO!) - Transformação Sistêmica


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