Friday, 31 July 2009

Debate in the Classroom - All you need to know

One of the highlights of my stint at I.E.S. La Minilla last year was when I introduced the concept of debating to the Secondary 4 CLIL students. When I first suggested the idea, I wasn't very sure what their reaction would be. Well, their enthusiasm caught me by surprise. Most of us will agree that the most difficult task facing an English teacher in a 'foreign' environment is to get the students to speak - in English, of course. They can't stop talking in their own language, can they? So, when they seemed to like the idea, I was thrilled, and I was even more thrilled when some of the volunteers were those that I'd hardly ever heard speak in class.

What are the benefits of an organised debate in the classroom? Here are some examples:
  • The quiet ones get their chance to speak uninterrupted.
  • There are those who don't speak as much because they need time to gather their thoughts together; this is ideal for them.
  • It exposes them to speaking in public, something that most of us are terrified of.
  • It is important that learners are taught the different registers of the language, and debate is an excellent oportunity for them to practise formal usage.
  • They learn to organise their thoughts. A lot of students find writing compositions a useless and boring task. Debate allows them to put what they have learned into practice.
  • They learn to work together as a team.
  • They learn to listen and take notes. (How many of your students take notes when you're giving a class?)
  • They learn to do research.
What should you expect from the students?

Much depends on their level. The higher the level, the more you should demand. In my case, just to hear them speak was already a reward! Debating is a skill which takes years to acquire, so don't expect an Obama in your midst. They are very likely to make tons of mistakes - grammar, expressions, register, etc. Make sure you take notes, and run through them after the debate. Never correct anyone during the debate - this is a fluency activity; the accuracy activity comes in the post-debate discussion.

How does a debate work?

The system I had chosen was the Mace system, from which I made some adaptations. In the Mace system, there's a chairperson, a timekeeper, three judges, and two teams of two speakers each. All the participants were students. I dispensed with the timekeeper, and made the chairperson do the timekeeping, too. Instead of two speakers, I had three, and the summary was done by the 3rd speaker. In the original Mace debate, each speaker is allocated 7 minutes, and 4 minutes for the summary. I knew this was too long for my students and cut it down to 5. Even that was too long for them!

My advice is be flexible. Adapt the system to the needs of the class. If you think it's a good idea, you can be one of the judges, or the chairperson. I, personally, prefer the students to be the protagonists.

The finer details are set out on files uploaded to Scribd, which you can either read online below, or download for offline use.

Watch out for these common problems:

  • The language employed is not formal enough.
  • The chairperson is important. She or he sets the tone for the whole proceedings, and controls the event. Make sure s/he is well organised and remembers the order of the speakers. Pay careful attention to the seating arrangement.
  • Most of them tend to speak too fast or too softly. They ought to practise their timing, and to make sure the judges at the back of the room can hear them.
  • They don't rebutt enough. In the summary, especially, they should address the issues brought up by the opposing team and by the audience during the floor debate.
  • They need to back up their arguments by solid figures, examples, case studies, analogies, and they should mention the sources they quote from.
  • Make sure they understand the motion, and speak to attack or defend it. As an example, if the motion is "This house believes recycling is the solution to environmental pollution", the proposition team needs to convince us WHY we ought to recycle not HOW to recycle.
They could do well to listen to the great speakers such as Martin Luther, JFK, and Obama. Also, I'd heartily recommend watching The Great Debaters, directed by and starring Denzel Washington.

PowerPoint Presentation:
Debate in the Classroom

Debate-Timekeeper's Flowchart

Debate-Chairperson's Flowchart

Debate-Judging Notes Sheet

Debate-Guidelines for Judges

Debate-Example of How a Debate Should Be Conducted


  1. Now I understand it! :)

  2. A name would have been useful! ;)

  3. 4ESO chairman(DEBATE)18 January 2010 at 15:33

    <span>I don't remember the exact sentence of the debate's motion

  4. You all had decided among yourselves and I have no idea, but I'll try to find out from Lola and will post it here if she tells me.

  5. 4ESO chairman(DEBATE)18 January 2010 at 18:20

    <span>I know it was something of abortion but ... I don't know it exactly ... that's why I'm asking U

  6. <span>Chiew, the motion is the one about the abortion law that you suggested in your blog. </span>

  7. 4ESO chairman(DEBATE)18 January 2010 at 19:48

    <span>And I don't know it exactly.... What do I say??? "Today's motion is about the new abortion's law"

  8. Oops :-[ sorry. I thought it was for 3º ESO. The motion can be found here:
    The rest of the class should be reading that, too.

  9. 4ESO chairman(DEBATE)18 January 2010 at 20:06

    <span>Thank You Chiew ... and you could also had a look at my nick is written 4ESO ^^

  10. 4ESO chairman(DEBATE)7 July 2011 at 09:01

    <span>I know it was something of abortion but ... I don't know it exactly ... that's why I'm asking U

  11. 4ESO chairman(DEBATE)7 July 2011 at 09:01

    <span>Thank You Chiew ... and you could also had a look at my nick is written 4ESO ^^


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