ESL Learner’s Guide: How to Explain Things in English

Table of Contents

Tip 1: Explain with “1-2-3”
Tip 2: Explain with “Cause-Effect”
Tip 3: Explain by saying “You Know”
Tip 4: Explain by Using Synonyms
Tip 5: Explain by Saying “Before” and “After”
Tip 6: Explain with “What I meant to Say”



Have you ever noticed that you sometimes need to change your way of thinking when learning a new language? For example, the English language can be excessively explanatory while other languages like the Chinese can be cut-and-dry when trying to describe something or explain a situation.

Don’t want to take my word for it? Try answering the following question in your native language. Then, try answering it in English.

Tell me about yourself.

First, notice the phrasing of the question. How would you phrase it in your native language? In Chinese, we would translate it to something along the lines of “please introduce yourself”. But in English, we rarely hear people say it this way. Please introduce yourself. That sounds like something the teacher would say to a student who just transferred from another school. The person being questioned would expect to answer with bare facts only. Things like name, age and occupation.

Tell me about yourself. This is more informal and invites intimacy. But this phrasing is also frequently used in formal settings. We hear interviewers ask this of job seekers. The person being questioned is invited to share more than just facts about who they are and what they do.

Now let’s think about how we would answer. In Chinese, I would proceed to answer by sharing my name, age, occupation and perhaps what I hope to achieve in the near future. But in English, I’d say that I am someone who loves to explore the English language, both as a seasoned ESL learner and a native speaker. I immigrated to US at the age of 9, learned and fell in love with English as a language that is both expressive and logical. In English, we love to use adjectives, adverbs and anything in between that modifies and expands on a simple sentence comprised of a subject, verb and object.

You see, explaining something in English demands that you go beyond the bare facts. You want to be expressive. You want to line things up in order of time or sequence, explain the reason and result, establish common understanding, use synonyms, contrast and clarify. How do you do this? Fear not, I’ve put together the below list of 6 tips to get you started.


esl guide to explanation



Tip 1: Explain with “1-2-3”



Why have you decided to learn English? Try asking this question in Chinese or in your native language. Now think about how you would answer this question in your native language. In Chinese, the tone of the question demands an answer that speaks to the end-result rather than the process. I may answer in Chinese with “I wanted to study abroad” or “I want to get a better job”. And that would be the end of that question.

But in English, the same question poses a slightly different tone. It asks about motivation (end-result) as well as the process of how you got to your decision. What do you want to achieve by learning English? This question would be asking only for the expected outcome. So, what is the best way to go about answering “why have you decided to learn English?”, in English?

“1-2-3”Transition Words are Your Friend

Don’t know how to begin? Put it in order! Words like “firstly”, “secondly”, “thirdly” and “finally” can help you put a series of events in easily understandable order.



You can also talk about complex topics like “privacy” by presenting your thoughts and arguments in 3’s.


Firstly, I learned a bit of English at school.

Secondly, I was getting pretty good grades in English class and noticed that I was quite good at learning the language.

Thirdly, I started watching American drama and wanted to understand more of what is being said and the culture.

Finally, I decided that I should take a year off from university to study abroad in the US or Canada.

Other “1-2-3” Transition Words/Phrases:

  • At first; then; at last
  • In the beginning; next; in the end
  • Starting out; subsequently; eventually



Tip 2: Explain with “Cause-Effect”


Start with “because” and “so”

Do you typically say “because” when explaining your actions or decisions, like when explaining why you feel responsible or how you decided you want to learn English?

“Because” is a “cause” word, meaning that it signals the reason for an outcome. “So” is an “effect” word, meaning that it signals the outcome or result. “Because” and “so” are used separately to join together two complete sentences that form a cause-effect relationship. You do not need to use both in the same sentence.


Because I want to work at an international company, I feel that I must learn English.

I want to get a job at an international company, so I must learn English.

Because English is needed at my job, my English is quite good.

Other “cause” words/phrases include:

  • Since
  • Before
  • Due to
  • Considering

Other “effect” words/phrases include:

  • Then
  • After
  • As a result
  • Thus/Therefore



Tip 3: Explain by saying “You Know”



Share your ESL experiences with us.

How would you answer this question in your native language? In Chinese, I’ll probably answer by sharing my best achievements in learning English as a second language. But the question in English asks a deeper level of experience. Not just tangible experience like achievements but also experiences that are not as cut-and-dry—like emotions and feelings.

We tend share experiences that are relatable, such as our thoughts about love, family and weddings. “Relatable” means similar feelings or facts about something that we can relate to or understand about. This establishes common understanding. So to answer these types of questions, we will often explain by comparison.

How do we do that?


Get Personal with “You Know” Phrases

You know, learning a new language is never easy. When someone says “you know”, we instinctively feel like we should know. There is an immediate connection made on the personal level. That is the power of “you know” phrases. You speak like the person should be able to understand what you are saying, and they do.


You know, it is never too late to start learning a new language. I only started learning English during college.

You know, grammar is difficult to master. I’ve learned English for three years now and I still have trouble with the use of prepositions.

You know, practice makes perfect. I don’t mind making mistakes speaking English as long as I learn something new in the process.

Other “You Know” Words/Phrases

  • You may understand/know
  • It is often said
  • Understandably



Tip 4: Explain by Using Synonyms


Emphasize with Synonyms

Synonyms or words with similar meanings are often used to emphasize a point.



This is very useful when you are talking about feelings, experiences, facts, or even the weather. If you are feeling really down, you say “I feel down and sad”. If the weather feels really cold, you say “it is freezing (and) cold outside”. Important things must be said twice, sometimes even three times.


The English grammar can be both difficult to understand and confusing to use. (synonyms: difficult to understand/confusing)

Practising everyday was important for learning any language and I write down new vocabulary words daily. (synonyms: everyday and daily)

You know, everyone likes to do things they enjoy and I want to have fun learning English. (synonyms: enjoy and have fun)

Other “Synonyms” or Word/Phrases that Go Well Together

  • difficult/challenging
  • easy/hassle-free
  • practical/useful
  • waste of time/useless



Tip 5: Explain by Saying “Before” and “After”



We are all different. We are even different from who we were yesterday. So, it is very useful to be able to explain how things are different, such as likes and dislikes, changes in body and mind after exercise, etc.



Say someone asks you “how have you improved (in your English skills)?” In Chinese and in English, I would answer this question by describing what I could do now that I couldn’t do before. This is contrasting—when you say how two things are different. So, how do you do this properly in English?

Contrast with “Before” and “After”

Say how you started out. Then contrast with what you are able to do now. E.g., I had a hard time with tenses before but after two months of Intensive English classes I’ve got the tenses down pat.

Or you can also reverse the order. Describe some things that you are able to do now that you weren’t able to master before. E.g., I have mastered the use of tenses now but that wasn’t the case before taking Intensive English classes.


While I was afraid to talk to people in English before, I am now eager to speak English whenever I get the chance.

I am confident speaking English now but you would not think it if you had met me two months before.

Thinking back, I had a hard time with using prepositions such as “in” and “at”. I am more confident with their usage now.

Other “Before” and “After” Expressions

  • Things changed (for the better; for the worse)
  • It used to be
  • No longer
  • Not anymore
  • It could not have been more different (before, after)



Tip 6: Explain with “What I meant to Say”



We all make mistakes. Sometimes, we say something and realized that it wasn’t exactly right.

E.g., English is not that difficult. Actually, I meant that basic English grammar is not that difficult to master.

Or we say something and needed to add another detail or comment.

E.g., English can be difficult. Let me clarify. English can be difficult to master when you don’t have a good grasp on basics like grammar.

Or we said something wrong and wanted to take it back entirely.

E.g., English is my least favorite subject in school. No, I take that back. I just didn’t get good grades in English, but I hated Math even more.

So, what do you do when you want to say over or rephrase what you’ve said in English? Read on to find out!

Say it Over with “Let me clarify”

Sometimes, we want to correct what we’ve said before. This is especially true when we are talking about complicated topics like love or a new technology like blockchain. We would want to start with a simple, easy-to-understand idea and then add on to the topic as we go along. Like when someone asks you about learning a new language or experiencing a new place. How do you study English? What is it liking moving to Canada? We might start answering with one word that describes the overall experience. But we will need and want to “clarify”, which means making clearer or explaining in more detail.


I study English by watching Netflix. Actually, what I mean is that I practice listening skills by watching shows with subtitles on.

I have studied English since elementary school. Let me clarify. I mean I have gone to English classes since grade school, but I’ve only really gotten motivated to learn English during college.

I study English by singing Beyonce’s songs. Scratch that. The very first songs I learned were nursery rhymes. Songs like “Oh MacDonald had a Farm”.

Other “Let me clarify” Expressions

  • Let me rephrase
  • I should have said that
  • I really meant that
  • Let me make clear that






English is an expressive language and we explain things somewhat differently than we would when answering questions in our native language, like in Chinese.

In English, we can explain things like a process or a series of events in order, using “1-2-3” expressions. It is always easier to explain things in order. But make sure that you don’t just throw any three things together. They also need to make sense together.

To discuss how something came to be or why something is, we use “cause-effect” expressions in English. The reason doesn’t always have to be explained first. We can talk about the result first and then explain how it came about.

“You know” expressions are used to establish rapport or common understanding. We hear “you know” and we tend to want to be more understanding. It feels good to talk about common experiences, feelings and opinions in English.

Synonyms or words with similar meanings can be used to emphasize a point. In English, it is pretty common to put two similar adjectives in one sentence and side-by-side. For example, we say “the stars are bright and shiny tonight.”

Contrast what it was like “before” with how it is “after”. Describe how you’ve changed and what you’ve learned. Use “before” and “after” expressions to help you tell how far you’ve come in English.

Last but not least, “let me clarify” expressions give you the opportunity to say something over, add new comments and correct what was said. Sometimes, we realize that we’ve said something that was not entirely true. We can leave it be or we can also choose to clear it up or “clarify”.

All in all, I hope that you will practice the above six tips for explaining things in English. And have fun doing so!


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