Staging class debates

Debating picture

Introduction and notes

Further to Monday’s post on debating the Stop Online Piracy Act, here are a few ideas for staging debates with your class more generally. I find debates can be a great, memorable and communicative way of reinforcing topic-related vocabulary as well as language for agreeing, disagreeing, expressing opinions and so on, and I recommend trying them out with any older teen or adult class at intermediate level or above. Debates can be silly and slightly frivolous or more serious and meaningful; either way they should be fun.

Materials for a good debate: you may find this worksheet on language to do with agreeing, disagreeing, politely interrupting, and expressing opinions and disagreements to be of use. If you do decide to use it, remember to elicit and board related vocabulary from your students before handing out the worksheet.

(Apart from my splendid worksheet,) what makes a good debate?
For an interesting debate, you need just four things:

  • an interesting topic;
  • a controversial motion;
  • time to discuss it; and
  • good debaters.

An interesting topic is anything your students enjoy discussing: sports; fashion; science; politics; anything that seems to energise your students when talked about, listened to or read about.

A controversial motion will have to be chosen with a little care: it should cause genuine controversy (so the motion “the future is nuclear” might make for an interesting debate about nuclear power versus other forms of energy generation, whereas “the world will run out of oil” would not, as it’s obviously true); students must be interested in discussing it, either for fun or to discover different opinions about it; it mustn’t be something to which your students are too emotionally connected to (though see my notes on “good debaters” below); it mustn’t be anything to do with a particular group of students in the class (“Andrei’s shirts are beautiful”); and it must be something both they and you already have some knowledge of and ideas about (so motions requiring a lot of unknown technical knowledge are out, whether about football teams or particle physics). Of course, this leaves a huge range of motions open for debate.

Good debaters will argue their side forcefully, but also listen to and respect the arguments offered by their opposition. They will always attack the argument, not the person, and they won’t take personally the fact that someone is arguing against them. Some classes are happy and mature enough to discuss serious issues like abortion, euthanasia, and the existence of God; with others, you may be better off sticking to sillier or more frivolous topics, such as whether women are better drivers than men, or if it would be less horrible to wear for a month pants made of meat or socks made of cheese (this last was a particular favourite of a teacher friend of mine, though I have to confess I haven’t presented it to any of my classes yet…).

Only you can gauge what your class is like (though it might be worth bouncing a few motion ideas off them, to see whether, as a whole, they prefer more serious or frivolous topics in general, or on a particular day). Either way, it would be a good idea to elicit what makes a good debater from your class before getting the debate underway; board their suggestions and add your own as necessary; elicit suitable penalties for bad behaviour and rewards for conforming to the debating ideal, and board them too; and enforce these penalties and rewards as the debate progresses.

Cupids holding a heart made of flowers

Ways of generating motions for debate

There are many methods of instigating a debate. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Question and line-up
    • Say a controversial or debatable statement relating to the topic just studied. For example: it’s important to follow fashion; private schools should be abolished; you should never hit children; or even British food is the best in the world. Note that this statement need not be something you agree with. Elicit the statement from your students and board it.
    • Pair your students and ask them to discuss the statement for a couple of minutes. Do they agree or disagree, and why?
    • Nominate one end of the class as “strongly agree” and the other end as “strongly disagree”, and invite your students to stand in a line according to how much they agree or disagree with the statement.
    • If everyone strongly agrees or disagrees, ask them why. You can use this information to suggest alternative statements, based around the same topic, which might provoke more disagreement amongst them, then ask them to move once more to reflect their opinion – or you could play devil’s advocate and invite some students to join you in arguing the case for or against.
    • Use this line to decide who will be for and who will be against the statement/motion. You could ask those who agree to argue in favour of the motion and vice versa, or you could ask the opposite: students who disagree will argue in its favour; while those who agree will argue against it. This can be a good way of taking the heat out of serious issues, and of forcing your students to think about the issue from another perspective. If you choose this latter approach, after the debate has finished, you can ask each side how they would have argued their case had things been the other way around. This can lead to further interesting discussion, either inside or out of the classroom.
  2. Debates from discussions
    • Keep a note of your feedback from the last discussion activity your class has engaged in on the topic you are or have just been working on (I have a few sets of questions on different topics here, if you’d like to use them). Find a statement that students disagreed about and dictate it.
    • Elicit and board the statement. Ask your students to rate how much they agree with it, where 0 = completely disagree and 10 = couldn’t agree more.
    • As above, ask your students to stand in a line from “couldn’t agree more” to “completely disagree”. Allocate debating teams accordingly.
  3. Debates as mad discussions
    • Hand out scraps of paper, 3 per student.
    • On each scrap of paper, ask your students to write the name of one object in the world (car, potato,shoe, etc.)
    • Collect in the paper and pair your students, or ask them to work in small groups.
    • Nominate one student from each group to choose a scrap of paper from your pile. Board each group’s choice.
    • Write “Which is the greatest benefit to humanity?” at the top of your board. Randomly create oppositions (sweetcorn versus windows, or books versus lightbulbs, for example). Each group must now find arguments to show that their object is more beneficial to humankind than their opposition’s.
    • Acknowledgement: this idea comes from Friederike Klippel’s excellent book, Keep Talking. I go into its staging in more detail here.

  4. From the news
    • While reading a newspaper or listening to a news broadcast, ask your students to note down any news items which they have a strong feeling about, and to bring their notes to class.
    • In class, put your students in groups and ask them to share the news stories that evoked strong responses, explaining what the story was and why it provoked such a strong reaction. Monitor your students as they discuss their stories, both for delayed error correction (see this post for some ideas here) and to listen for possible motions to debate.
    • As the groups wind down, turn the discussion into one involving the whole class. Whittle down your possible motions by finding out which provokes the most interest and disagreement, then introduce the idea of a debate and board your students accordingly.
  5. From what your students were discussing as they came into class
  6. Why waste a good conversation? Elicit more information from any students who are talking as they enter your classroom, and see if you can widen this into a whole-class discussion. The topic could then be turned into a statement for formal or informal debate.

  7. From love/hate lists
    • Think of a topic for your students to write a “love” or “hate” list about – this could relate to a language area recently studied (for example, write three things you love about travelling) or to something your students are generally interested in and can talk about (list three bands or styles of music you love to hate).
    • In pairs or small groups, ask your students to discuss their lists, saying why they wrote what they did and trying to convince others in their group. Monitor your students as they do this, focussing on the language they use to try and persuade others, to present their opinions, to agree and disagree, and to interrupt each other.
    • Get some content feedback, asking each group what they agreed or disagreed about most strongly.
    • Segue this feedback into a motion for debate, using your notes to focus on the language they will need in the subsequent discussion.
  8. From topic words
  9. This can be a useful introduction to a topic, or a nice way to revise vocabulary from it.

    • Board the topic word (e.g., art, food, or the countryside) – this should either be something recently studied, or a word from the next topic in the coursebook or class syllabus. Ask your students to draw a face to represent how they feel about it.
    • Pair your students or put them into small groups, and ask them to share their drawings, explaining how the word makes them feel and why.
    • Get some feedback from the class, asking (and encouraging your students to ask) a couple of questions about some of the more interesting responses. You should be able to turn one of the stronger reactions into a suitable motion for debate.
  10. From the coursebook
    • Ask your students to flick through the unit just studied, and tick the article, listening text, discussion topic or writing task they found the most interesting.
    • In pairs or small groups, ask your students to discuss their choices, explaining why they chose what they did.
    • Open out the discussion into a whole class activity, monitoring for language and possible motions for debate.

hot air balloon

Different kinds of debate

Here are a few different types of debate you could hold, divided into more and less formal styles. It’s an excellent idea to elicit and revise the language your students will need before beginning a debate; at the risk of repeating myself, this worksheet might prove useful. As ever, the style of debate you choose should depend on the mood and nature of your class as much as on the kind of language you would like them to produce.

More formal approaches

  • Parliamentary-style debates
  • Here, your students are divided into two teams of three or four, with or without a third group of students who form their audience and judging panel. Group A propose and defend the motion; Group B reject and attack it; if there is a Group C, they decide at the end who had the better arguments and whether the motion is carried or dismissed. Allow time beforehand for each group to think of arguments and counter-arguments to defend their position (Group Cs can help As or Bs), and to decide on the order of the speakers. To make it really formal, at the start of the debate, board “This house believes that…” followed by the motion to be debated. I discuss parliamentary-style debates more fully in this post about the Stop Online Piracy Act currently being discussed in the US House of Representatives.

  • Balloon debates
  • Everyone knows the story: the ship is sinking/ iceberg’s melting/ cannibals are coming/ hot-air balloon is slowly falling out of the sky, and only one person can survive – they need to talk their way out of being thrown overboard, into the Arctic Ocean, to the cannibals or out of the balloon’s basket. This type of debate is best held with an audience of student judges, who can note down scores for particular speakers as an aid to subsequent feedback. Allow three or four minutes per round of argument, either nominating two students to face off against each other or allowing two or more to make the case for their side at the same time. Balloon debates can be done with each student impersonating somebody famous; they can also use best/worst lists (see above), or debates more generally, with the least impressive speakers or arguments being thrown to their doom. You can read more on balloon debates with famous people here, courtesy of the University of Kent, and (much more briefly) here, thanks to Elliot Wilson at Dave’s ESL Cafe.

  • Debate pods
  • Here, students work in teams of two or more, to prepare their case (thinking about arguments and counter-arguments, as well as putting these in order of importance) and then argue it against another group who are their opposition. Make sure you board who will be debating who before your students start their preparations, and that all groups know what they will be arguing for or against. When it’s time to debate, you can have listening groups, who judge the winner and make notes (on presentation, clarity of speech, quality of argument, body language and/or powers of persuasion) for subsequent feedback, or (if your colleagues don’t mind) pit three or more teams against each other at the same time. Be warned, this last option is likely to be LOUD!

Less formal debates

  • Class mingle
  • This method asks students to share their real opinions. Based on their attitudes to the proposed motion, and the reasons behind them, students mingle and try to persuade others to take their side. Set a time limit, and ask your students to form a line from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” with the motion at the mingle’s end. Have any of them changed their minds? What were the most persuasive arguments they heard? Whose opinion did they disagree with the most, and can they remember the arguments this person used to defend their position? Such mingles are a good way of encouraging students to speak about more controversial topics, especially when there is a real diversity of opinion in your class. By its nature, it is less structured than the more formal approaches above, so less preparation time is necessary. You might simply ask your students to think about how they feel about the issue(s) to be debated, or to spend five minutes creating a mind-map of associations or other notes about the issue, before beginning the mingle.

  • Debating stations
  • This is a nice way of debating several related motions. Print or write these out and stick them in various places around the classroom. Divide your students into groups of 4 or 5 and ask them to move around the class, sharing their thoughts about each issue and trying to persuade others of their case. This method works best with moral and political issues and, due to its informality, can be used with more controversial topics provided your students are happy to discuss these (with certain classes, I might be tempted to provoke discussion on euthanasia, the existence of God, and so on).

Caesar giving negative feedback

Ways of giving feedback

Again, I discuss a variety of ways of giving delayed language feedback here, several of which are far less discursive, and so take a lot less time, than those outlined below. A few different options might be:

  • Asking listening students to adjudicate the debate, scoring each debater for clarity (who was easiest to understand? Which English sounds caused most difficulty?), body language (who appeared the most confident? How did they achieve this?), arguments (which were the best and why?) and persuasive power (who was the most convincing speaker? What was it about their language that made them so?). If you like, you can ask different students to score different attributes for each speaker, or ask them simply to make notes and write no score at all. When the debate has finished, ask the listening students to share their notes, and find out if the class is happy to reveal their scores to each other as well. When the listening students have finished giving their feedback, I add my own as well, following the usual formula of positive thing, negative thing, positive thing. This way of giving feedback is especially inclusive, and can really help students notice and discuss particular difficulties they have with learning English; however, it does take time and could well be a lesson in itself (held as soon as possible after the debate, of course!)
  • Allocating one sheet of paper per student, on which you note both good and problematic usages of vocabulary and grammar, difficulties with pronunciation, and general body language tips when speaking in public or giving presentations. When the debating period has finished, ask your students to discuss what they thought went well and what could have gone better, then hand out your feedback sheets and ask your students to read them. You can then allocate time for students to formulate action plans for dealing with the issues they raised, which you can help them with – perhaps eliciting and boarding useful ideas from the class, as well as adding your own. This is a positive way of giving feedback; as with the method above, though, it can be fairly long.
  • Recording the debate, either video or audio-only, for your students to review in a subsequent lesson. In this later lesson, you could ask your students to write notes about their own performance, focussing on what they thought went well and what they could change or work on next. You should make your own notes as well, for subsequent whole-class discussion. As above, this feedback method is a good way of obtaining your class’ advice on debating, and on ways of overcoming language difficulties more generally, which can be boarded, or printed and shared for the class to be reminded of when they next debate an issue. It’s also a good way of reminded them of exactly what they achieved in their debate, which can be very motivating. If you hold debates in your class regularly, and regularly record them, students will also be able to see and hear how they are progressing. Audio-only recordings might be less daunting for shyer students, and of course always get permission from your class before you start recording them.

3 thoughts on “Staging class debates

  1. Hi Simon

    Thanks for this post, I not only like the content but also the way you have presented it. The detail, the way you have broken it down and how everyone can use the ideas depending on what level/ type of learners they have. The learners were asking to have some speaking time and I thought a debate is a nice idea, however I wasn’t quite sure. However after reading your post I feel the ideas in my mind are becoming clear. I did laugh at the idea of cheese and meat as clothing and yes the tone in your post is also friendly. :)

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