Bring it on: 4 Questions Every ESL Teacher Has About Classroom Debates
What comes to mind when you hear the word “debates”?
TV debates, politicians contradicting each other before elections or…debates in class between student teams?
Well, in case you aren’t familiar with this exciting method in ESL classes, I’m going to lay it all out on the table for you.
Trust me. I have used debates in my classes for some time now; and I would love to share these teaching experiences, as well as tips; and resources on this method with all readers here.
1. What Does an ESL Debate Lesson Look Like?
A debate is a competition in which two opposing teams make speeches on a particular topic; and motion to support their arguments and contradict the members of the other team.
A debate in ESL class can be based on a specific topic. This topic has recently been taught, therefore strengthening language skills and vocabulary; but also critical thinking on the part of the students.
There should also be a judges’ table made up of 3-4 students who will be evaluating the whole process and assessing each team based on certain criteria. The judges—not the teacher—are the ones who will grade both teams and finally decide on the winner. In other words, the teacher should play the role of the coordinator, thus allowing students to feel independent, comfortable with the process and responsible for following the rules and guidelines.
2. Why Get Debates Going in Your ESL Classes?
Well, obviously, a debate is not something static but rather challenging and extremely appropriate for teenagers or young adults who can easily be bored while learning a second or foreign language. So…why not include this technique if you want to spice up your classes?
As a teacher, you are surely familiar with using board games, films or listening activities to make your lessons more interesting; however, debates in an ESL class combine lots of positive features that improve learner use of the language as well as the relevant skills.
But can debates take place in lower level classes as well as upper-intermediate and advanced ones? Well, judging by my own experience of teaching English as a foreign language to teenagers, I can assure you that debates enliven even a younger or less experienced class; and encourage students to use English in a natural and direct way. However, it is up to you to decide whether you use this method in your advanced classes only or you extend it to your lower level classes too. After all, you are the one who knows your students’ needs, weaknesses and limitations.
Applying this method in class
When I started using this method in class, I thought that it could only work with my advanced students as the language structures needed throughout the debate can be used at this level more easily.
To tell you the truth, I have used debates in a couple of my pre-intermediate classes and has some less-than-desirable results—as the whole process was going on, those students seemed overwhelmed and did not enjoy it that much. But was it about the debate activity, or something else?
Later on, I realized that easier topics can be used in debates at lower levels, thus making it easier for students to be involved in the process and benefit from it. For example, you could hold debates over which pop song is better, which subject class is the most fun or who loves their mother more and why.
Last but not least, teenagers and adults usually find this technique extremely challenging and are often intrinsically motivated to use English as a common medium of communication. The playful nature of a debate can also make the whole process enjoyable!
3. Which Language Skills Are Improved During Debates?
Well, obviously, speaking skills are strengthened throughout a debate. Students learn how to improve oral skills by using appropriate phrases and structures; but also by trying to use argumentative language.
Team members will soon find that they cannot persuade the judges by using simple phrases or repeating the same expressions (“I think,” “I believe”) all the time. They have to use more elaborate language and therefore learn it.
Listening skills also benefit from this process since team members and judges learn to listen to one another carefully and understand their points of view, no matter the accent or intonation. They should be paying close attention in order to gather information for their own opposing statements and arguments.
They are strengthened when team members and judges are asked to take notes; and write their arguments in the given worksheets (should you choose to give them). Furthermore, you can ask them to write an essay. This can seen as a follow-up assignment based on the topic they have finished debating for or against. Do not forget this if you prepare classes for language examinations where essay writing is important—both the note-taking and essay-writing techniques can boost your students’ skills and confidence.
They can be enhanced while students are preparing their arguments by reading articles and websites and are learning how to evaluate these sources.
Critical thinking in the foreign language
It is enhanced more than anything else, in my humble opinion. Every step of the process encourages students to be critical thinkers, pull points together logically, and express their ideas in a clear manner. They even need to pay close attention to hear the gaps in other people’s thinking. This will aid them in every area of language and life, from test-taking to securing a new job.
4. How Can You Get Debates Going in ESL Class?
Before you start organizing debates in your classes, it is essential that you remember the following:
Debates are not something to be taken lightly by the teacher. They are not a good way to fill empty teaching time. You cannot sit back and let the students run without your observation and guidance. It is an activity that requires good planning on your part, along with carefully chosen resources and material.
Debates must have strict time limits and a clear set of rules. Time limits stop shy students from becoming totally intimidated (phew, I only have to talk for one minute!) and keep more talkative students from dominating the talking time. Rules keep things fair for everyone.
Props are always a plus! You need a number of inexpensive materials that give the whole process a playful touch; in other words, this activity is cost effective.
This can become extra-curricular. You could alternatively start an after-school English debate club, instead of trying to squeeze things into your normal class time. This might also give ESL students a chance to practice with students who speak English as their native language.
Okay now. Let’s see how a debate is performed step by step.
First, you need to find a topic or motion that your students will enjoy but will also be able to build their arguments upon. For instance, a topic could be as easy as “paper books vs e-books” or as demanding as “should animals be used for medical experiments?”
Afterwards, you ask students to form their teams. They might be given the chance to choose, or they might get divvied up based on their personal feelings about the issue at hand. You may also choose to randomly assign teams. Be sure to choose the judges’ panel as well.
Have them study the topic and find relevant sources at home or in the school library before the debate takes place in class. Studying the topic at home and evaluating sources is an absolutely valuable assignment for students. Obviously, reading skills are at their best when ESL learners are asked to read English texts, learn new vocabulary items and evaluate these written sources. Maybe you’d like to check the following site that presents techniques your students can use while evaluating sources before the debate takes place in class.
The day of the debate
Students sit in their teams: The team “for” and the team “against” the topic. A common phrase to use before starting the debate is the following: ”This house believes that…”. For example, “This house believe that animals should not be used for medical experiments.”
While sitting in their places, team members can choose their key speaker, who will give them a main introduction and conclusion, even though they can decide whether they all take their turns to speak.
All team members have their own materials (handouts, sets of rules, objection cards). Likewise, the judges sit at their table where they have their own materials (a clock, a bell or a buzzer, their name tags, a set of rules and handouts for their evaluation/grades).
At this point, I have to underline that class size matters; obviously, when you have a class of 30 students, things are much different than they would be with a class of 10. However, this should not scare you away. Actually, I have experienced excellent debates in a class of 27 students and a rather uninteresting debate in a class of only 12 students.
In a large class, things need to be organized more carefully. There could be 4 smaller teams instead of two, with the talking time of each team decreased.