How to Hold a Debate in an English Class
1. T (teacher) or SS (students) choose a contentious statement that they want to discuss. It could be linked to a topic and/or part of a syllabus.
2. The class splits into two teams. One team will agree with the statement and the other will disagree. It does not matter whether individual SS are on the team that they personally agree with. In fact, it would create a better opportunity for practice if students who disagreed with the statement in real life had to argue in favour of it, and vice versa. One SS could be designated neutral, unless T wishes to take on this role. They will act as the arbitrator.
3. T gives each team a period of time (e.g. 10-20 minutes) to work together and prepare their arguments either for or against the statement. The arbitrator spends time with both groups becoming familiar with their different arguments. Each team should write 3-4 main points, with 2-3 examples for each main point. Each team should also consider the drawbacks to their main points – i.e. the counter-argument which the opposing team is likely to make:
4. SS sit with their team, both teams facing each other. A member of the first team reads out their first point, and gives examples. Other members of their team can join in and make the argument stronger. One SS should talk about the drawbacks to their first main point but explain clearly why their team’s argument is still stronger. T or the arbitrator could enforce a time limit of, say, 3-4 minutes for each main point. It is also their role to make sure that the language remains civil and that behaviour, though probably lively, remains suitable for a formal debate.
5. Then any member from the opposing team can answer the point, with other members of their team joining in to put their team’s argument. Again, this could be with a time limit.
6. Then one member from the second team reads out their first point and gives examples. Other members of their team join in and make the argument stronger, while at the same time discussing the drawbacks of the argument and how they are not worth worrying about. The arbitrator ensures that nobody dominates and that proceedings move along swiftly.
7. Repeat steps 4-6 until all of the arguments have been heard. The arbitrator asks each member of each team whether they have been persuaded to change their mind, due to hearing the opposing arguments. All SS have to ‘vote with their feet’ and go and stand in one corner of the room if they agree with the statement, and in a different corner if they disagree. The argument that attracts the most SS at the end of the debate is declared the winner. In the case of a tie, the arbitrator must rule which argument has been consistently stronger – for or against – and declare it the winner, stating reasons for their choice.
8. Group feedback: T asks SS for their thoughts and feelings about doing this activity. Is there anything they would do differently another time? How did SS feel if they had to argue for something that they personally disagreed with? What was it like to be the arbitrator? And so on.
- SS could write up their arguments for homework, contrasting them (if possible) with their own personal opinion of the statement.
- The role of the arbitrator is important for maintaining order and a logical way through the activity. If T chooses a SS to take this role, it will leave them free to monitor, check, and correct. In addition, it gives a SS the opportunity to practise their English in an important role, rather than T doing it, who is not there to practise their English. T can ‘disappear’ into the background. T should choose somebody fairly mature and independent, who is not too bothered what their peers think of them.
- T could give time for SS to research their arguments; they could use the library and/or Internet to find relevant statistics, information, and quotations that could make their points even stronger.
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Image: Lucas Davies