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Clarification Strategies

Clarification strategies often need direct instruction for children who have communication delays or deficits. These skills are also a necessary part of advocacy for the child with a hearing loss or other type of communication delay in order to thrive in a mainstream environment.

There are many variables that go into the decision to place a child with any type of disability into a general education placement. This post is geared toward a child with hearing loss using spoken language although the content can be generalized to any child with or without a disability. When a child has a communication deficit there are particular communication skills to consider to determine if the child will be able to “swim” in the mainstream or even just “tread water”.

Being able to ASK for clarification (receptive ability) and provide clarification (expressive ability) are especially important for a child to gain independence and confidence within their classroom.

Asking for clarification is a learned skill. Some children learn it somewhat naturally from watching others manage conversational breakdowns. Other children require direct instruction to manage breakdowns.

Asking for clarification first requires the awareness that the message was not understood. That awareness may be coupled with a puzzled look or a simple “huh?”. Over time children learn to use more specific strategies that help the other person know what needs to be clarified.

Examples of Specific Clarification Requests:

  • “What does _______ mean? I don’t know that word”
  • “Did you say it was a DOG?”
  • “I missed the beginning of that sentence, could you say it again please?”
  • “Please speak a little bit slower”
  • “I didn’t hear you”
  • “What did you say about the party?”

As you can imagine, the more specific the clarification the more efficiently others can repair the breakdown. If a child just says “What?” or “I didn’t understand you” the burden falls on the conversational partner to repeat the entire message.

For the child with disabilities who is placed in a mainstream educational setting it’s imperative that we work on advocacy skills. We want the child to report when a battery on a hearing aid goes dead, to indicate when they can’t recognize or figure out a new word, and to take responsibility for repairing their own instances of misunderstanding.

It seems so natural to KNOW when you didn’t understand something. However, for a person with a hearing loss the problem can be that they don’t know what they didn’t hear because they couldn’t hear it!

For some children with limited spoken language there may be so many things that they don’t understand that not understanding something is more like the norm than the occasional situation. If there is a lot of breakdown a child may be less motivated to work for the repair because it occurs too often.

IF children learn and notice that ALL people have communication breakdowns from time to time and WE ALL need to work to clarify or resolve mis-hearings or misunderstandings then they will be more likely to speak up and ask for clarification themselves If a child thinks only he/she misses information due to a hearing loss or other disability they will be less likely to initiate a repair in front of peers or other adults.

As adults we can model strategies and point out when we mis-hear or don’t understand someone. It would be helpful to actually say “I didn’t understand what he said with the noise in this room, I’m going to move closer and ask him to repeat his answer.” or “I need to ask her what that word means because I don’t know it”. etc.

Expressive Clarification

Expressive clarification requires the child to provide more information or rephrase a message when his/her listener doesn’t understand him/her. Sophisticated communicators establish and maintain eye contact and over time begin to monitor their listeners body language and facial expressions. As an adult speaker one can often notice if the listener is nodding their head or changing expressions as the conversation unfolds.

A mature listener also uses interjections such as “oh”, “uh-huh” or “really?”, “wow” which lets the speaker know they are attending and understanding the message.

Most children are not naturally very sophisticated in monitoring their audience. More often than not, the listener has to request more information or ask a few questions when they start to misunderstand.

Children with poor speech ability need to be taught to use other words when a listener doesn’t understand what they are trying to communicate. Using synonyms or describing what they are talking about in a different way can help resolve a breakdown in conversation.

The resolution of a communication breakdown can be much more efficient if the child notices the listener is not understanding and rewords or elaborates on the idea BEFORE the listener has to ask for a clarification.

As with the receptive clarification (asking for clarification when one doesn’t understand or hear part of message) the expressive clarification (giving clarification when your listener doesn’t understand you) can also be encouraged along by adult models of the desired behavior.

Pointing out when you notice someone looks confused by something you said or saying “That me say that another way” can be good strategies to develop the child’s awareness that we all need to clarify and persist to make ourselves understood sometimes.

We want the child to take responsibility for their own comprehension and expressive skills. Strong clarification skills can be learned through practice and direct instruction. Once a child is able to repair communication breakdowns on their own their learning can become more independent and less dependent on specialists.

Patience and persistence are also necessary skills along the road to becoming a confident conversational partner and student. Be aware of how you nurture these skills in your children or clients from early ages.

Remember, conversational competency has a strong connection to academic achievement as well as social skills so never underestimate the value of time spent developing conversational skills.

Pamela Talbot

Pamela is an ASHA certified Speech-Language Pathologist dually certified as a teacher of the hearing impaired. She is a Listening and Spoken Language LSLS-AVT. Pamela has extensive experience training parents and professionals at the international level.