Conversation Tips: The Power of Paraphrasing

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

―Albert Einstein, (1879-1955) German physicist

Paraphrasing matters in conversation too ― especially when learning a new language!

Experienced English teachers know that students must learn paraphrasing skills to complete academic writing assignments. Likewise paraphrasing remains a vital skill for English language learners to participate in college classrooms, everyday conversations, social situations and commercial transactions.

The ability to re-phrase and re-state, usually called paraphrasing, allows English students to confirm information, accurately convey that information and avoid plagiarism problems when writing papers. As a result, paraphrasing is usually emphasized in English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) writing classes. Classes and teachers focusing on oral skills from academic presentations to simple conversations should also devote some attention to paraphrasing too.

English language students, whether young or old, university or adult, must learn to confirm information by asking clarification questions. This critical skill, crucial to effective paraphrasing, will increase their ability to collect information, avoid costly mistakes and reduce their everyday stress level. It’s also impossible to accurately paraphrase a conversation if one is confused about the meaning. Some useful phrases for a listener to ask include:

Are you saying…?
Do you mean?
What are you getting at?
If I understand you correctly, you are saying …
So you are saying… Right?
Did I get that right?
Speakers can also check to see if their group members and classmates understand their directions.
Are you with me?
Can you understand me?
Was I going too fast?
Should I rephrase that?
Do you follow?
Is that clear?
Should I repeat the directions?
Do you want me to repeat that?
Would it be better for me to repeat that?
Can I answer any questions?
Is anybody lost?

Asking advanced English students to repeat directions, in different words, can also be an effective group activity. The directions can be to a physical location (home, campus building, museum) or how to do something simple like finding a definition or sending an email. You can also extend the assignment by requesting detailed directions on a complicated procedure such as getting a driver’s license, applying for a visa or choosing a new laptop.

Furthermore, you can ask students to share an autobiographical story. Student A tells a story, and Student B retells that story with different words to Student C. This paraphrasing exercise also helps build a larger, more practical vocabulary.

Another teaching technique that I have found useful is asking students to paraphrase proverbs and quotations. This exercise, done in groups of two, often finishes with asking if students agree or disagree with the specific proverb or quotation. Of course, students have to give a reason and/or an example to support their answers. ESL tutors and English teachers lucky to have small classes can elaborate on this technique to match student interests.

If English students can accurately paraphrase a reading, a radio segment, or a verbal statement, they can actively participate in common conversations and classroom discussions. Many English teachers underestimate the importance of this skill, and assume students understand it more than they might. Verbal paraphrasing activities allow both students and teachers to assess listening comprehension skills in a natural, authentic manner.

Therefore, verbal paraphrasing deserves more attention in speaking activities, especially in high intermediate and advanced levels! Don’t you agree?

What techniques or exercises do you use to improve paraphrasing skills? For more on classroom English and conversation tips, check out our sample chapter on Studying English from Compelling American Conversations ―including expanded materials from the Teacher Edition!


Ask more. Know more. Share more.
Create Compelling Conversations.


  1. Top tip Eric, thanks for the list as well!


  2. Karenne – Thank you for your kind words and sharp eyes!


  3. It is so cool! I am trying to do that

  4. Paraphrasing is a difficult skill, but it becomes easier with practice. As a law student, you might try practicing listening to short broadcast pieces on the Voice of America or Marketplace, my favorite public ratio program, and mentally take notes. Then, when the broadcast – or podcast – is over, try to summarize the 2-3 minute report to two sentences. By dramatically reducing the information to a few sentences, you have to edit out many details and focus on the main idea. That’s the essential skill required for effective paraphrasing while listening to lectures – or questioning witnesses.
    As a future lawyer, you will use paraphrasing in many parts of your future career.

  5. Thank you for the tweets!


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