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ClarifyingMaking sure you understand

This page continues the academic discussion skills section by looking at how to ask for clarification. There is also an example discussion to show how to use some of the phrases.

Asking for clarification

In an academic discussion you will need to listen to many different speakers and try to follow their line of argument. This is not always easy even for native speakers, and there may be times when you get confused or lost. In such instances, it can be useful to ask the speaker a question or ask for clarification. The verb to clarify means to make something clearer and so the response should help to make the information clearer and easier for the listener to understand. The speaker is likely to paraphrase the information and give additional detail to aid understanding.

In addition to asking for clarification, you may wish to ask questions to check your understanding. In order to to this, you will have to repeat or paraphrase what the speaker has just said. If you think you understand this is a definitely more useful approach than asking for clarification, as the speaker can just respond 'Yes' if you are correct, or correct any misunderstandings you have.

Once you have asked for clarification or checked for understanding, it is useful to respond to show whether you now understand or not, so that the speaker can either continue or provide more explanation.

Phrases for each of these functions, i.e. asking questions, asking for clarification, checking understanding and responding, are shown in the language phrase box.

Asking questions

  • I have a question.
  • I’ve got a question about...
  • Could I ask a question?
  • Sorry, could I just ask...?

Asking for clarification

  • Sorry, I didn’t understand what you said about...
  • I didn’t quite understand what you meant about/by...
  • What did you mean about/by...?
  • Could you explain...?
  • Could you tell me more about...?
  • I didn’t quite follow that. Could you explain again?

Checking understanding

  • So what you're saying is that...?
  • So you mean that...?
  • Are you saying that...?
  • If I have understood you correctly, your point is that...?


  • Yes, I see.
  • Yes, that’s clear now.
  • OK, thanks.
  • That’s fine now.
  • Sorry, I still don't understand.
  • I'm sorry, but could you explain that one more time?

Example discussion

Below is an example discussion on the topic of transportation in a particular city. There are three students involved. This discussion is used throughout the discussion skills section to highlight the phrases in each section. Click on the buttons to the right to highlight different types of phrase.

Asking for clarification
Checking understanding

Student A: I think that the transportation here is excellent, because there are so many different options: bus, underground, taxi. I really love the buses here. They run many different routes, and the cost is quite reasonable, under one pound for most of the places I go to. What's your opinion?
Student B: I agree with you. The buses are very convenient and cheap. And the subway is good too, it's not expensive at all.
Student C: That may be true, but you are only considering the cost. If we look at how frequent the transport is, then it's not so good. For example I often have to wait twenty or thirty minutes for a bus when I go to the university. It's really not convenient for me.
Student A: I really don't agree with you. In my opinion the transport is extremely convenient. As I just said, the buses run many different routes, so you can get anywhere in the city quite easily. For instance I can take a bus from where I live to the university, or another one to the train station, another to the football stadium. They'll all direct and I don't need to change.
Student B: So you mean that convenience in terms of destination is important in a good transportation system?
Student A: Yes, that's certainly one aspect. In terms of the buses, there are also the number of bus stops, which again makes them very convenient.
Student B: Yes, I see.
Student C: I don't think I'd say that. In some ways, the more stops there are, the less convenient it is. It makes the journey longer. And how about frequency? Isn't that important too?
Student A: Yes, in my opinion it is. But I don't have any problem with that. I never have to wait more than about ten minutes for a bus, so in terms of frequency they are very convenient for me.
Student B: That's what I think too. I never have to wait long for a bus either. It could be that you're just unlucky with where you live.
Student C: I take your point, but I still don't think I agree. As far as I'm concerned the transportation needs improving in many aspects, because it's just not good enough. You mentioned taxis, but they're far too expensive. For example I once took one to the train station in the evening, and I paid almost ten pounds.
Student A: I'm not so sure about that. Ten pounds to me seems quite reasonable for a taxi fare. And isn't that just the nature of taxis? That they are more expensive?
Student C: I don't think so. I mean of course they should be more expensive than other forms of transportation, but not so expensive.
Student B: What do you mean by expensive? How much is too much?
Student C: I would say that two or three times as much as other forms of transport is fine, so maybe three pounds for a typical journey. Certainly not as much as ten pounds!
Student B: I see. So what do suggest to improve the situation? Taxi drivers have to make a living, after all.
Student C: Well, I think what the local council should do is reduce the starting fare for taxis. That would at least make them more economical for shorter distances. If the fare for longer distances is higher, it would equal things out. Alternatively...

Asking for clarification
Checking understanding


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Below is a checklist for this page. Use it to check your understanding.

Area OK? Notes/comment
I know how to ask questions in an academic discussion to get more information
I know a range of phrases for asking for clarification
I know phrases to check for understanding
I know how to respond once something has been clarified or checked

Next section

Read more about other skills useful for academic discussions in the next section.

Previous section

Go back to the previous section about agreeing and disagreeing in discussions.


Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 09 September 2019.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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