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Debating In The EFL Classroom


By the end of November, my class of twenty-five 6th grade boys had finished their textbook and taken their final exams for the 2008 school year.  Every student had passed and would be going on to 7th grade.  But there were still three more weeks of school to go! What was I going to do in the final three weeks?  The purpose of this article is to share with colleagues how I used debates with my students during those three weeks.

Why did I decide to use debates?

There were two reasons I decided to use debates.  First, I had used various forms of debate in the past as a classroom speaking activity.  One of my favourites is the “Balloon Debate”.  In this activity, a group of four to eight students is formed.  Each student chooses to be a famous person who is in a balloon that is rapidly losing altitude.  The group can only be saved if one person sacrifices themself by jumping overboard.  To decide who must jump, each student must give reasons why they should stay in the balloon.  The teacher and/or the class (by voting) then decides who has made the least persuasive argument.  That person must jump.  This process continues until there is only one person left in the balloon, who lands safely, winning the debate.
My second, and most important, reason for using debates with my class of sixth graders was because of a movie I saw, “The Great Debaters” (2007).   It was directed by Denzel Washington. In it Denzel also plays the role of Melvin Tollson, coach of the undefeated Wiley College Debate Team of 1935.  The movie is based on a true story.
Let me describe the simple yet powerful scene that made me think to myself, “Even my sixth-graders can understand that”.   Denzel is explaining his philosophy about debating.  The room is full of nervous students who are trying out for the debate team:
Denzel:  “Debate is combat.  Your weapons are words.  In a debate there is a “resolution”.  One team, called the “affirmative team”, argues for the resolution.  The other team, called the “negative team”, argues against the resolution.”
When I heard that, I knew that was “all” my students needed to get started debating.

What is beneficial about debating?

At the 2006 JALT Hokkaido Language Conference, two researchers, Mandy Manning and Tomoko Nakamura, gave a presentation entitled, “Teaching Debate in the EFL Classroom”.  Manning and Nakamura have developed a debate course for high school EFL students in Japan.  They make the following claims:
  1. Debating ability is a valuable skill.
  2. Debate utilizes useful English.
  3. It is a unique way to teach grammar.
  4. It develops critical thinking skills.
  5. It introduces global issues.
  6. It develops research skills.
Dr. Alfred Snider, Director of the World Debate Institute at the University of
Vermont, in his book, “The Code of the Debater: Introduction to the Way of Reason”
(Snider, 1999, p.5), also lists six answers to the question, Why debate?
They are:
  1. Debating is fun.
  2. Debating is a sport of the mind and voice.
  3. Debating is controlled by you.
  4. Debating creates the skills you need for success in life.
  5. Debate can give you the power to change things.
  6. Debating is not just for “geeks” or “nerds”.

Are there any disadvantages?

Yes! There can be arguments, shouting, insults, even physical attacks if a debate is not conducted in a respectful manner.  It is therefore essential to ensure that debaters are taught to “disagree agreeably”.  Dr. Snider lists an excellent, “Code of the Debater” (Snider, 1999, p.13) in his book.
Three of his rules of conduct that I taught my class were:
  1. I will respect the rights of others to freedom of speech, even though we disagree.
  2. I will respect my partners, opponents, judges and coaches.
  3. I will be a generous winner and a gracious loser.
  4. How dod I teach debating to sixth-graders?
First, the class was informed that for the final three weeks we would be debating.  My 25 students were divided into 6 teams of 4 students each.  One of my best students was selected to be my “Assistant Coach”.
Next, the meanings of the terms resolution, affirmative team, and negative team were explained.  Turn-taking was explained.  One member of the affirmative team speaks first, then one from the negative team.  This continues until everyone has spoken.
After that, the speaking roles of the four team members were explained.  The first speaker on each team is the Captain. This person introduces their teammates and outlines the main arguments their team will make. The second and third speaker for each team, in turn, presents their argument for or against the resolution. The final speaker for each team summarises the arguments their team has made.
The “winner” is the team that has scored highest in three categories: teamwork (strategy), content (argument) and delivery (how well the speech was made).  The students are judged on a scale of 1 – 10 in each category with 30 points being a perfect score.  The judge’s decision is final. The judge explains why they scored the debate as they did and offers constructive criticism to both teams.  Respectful discussion, including questions and opinions, are allowed by both teams.  The idea is that this kind of immediate, two-way, post-debate feedback will help students to improve their performance as debaters.
As a fun, motivational tool, I also had my class copy and memorize the following, “Debater’s Creed” from the movie, “The Great Debaters”:
Denzel: “Who is the judge?”
Debaters: “God is the judge.”
Denzel: “Why is God the judge?”
Debaters: “Because God decides who’s right or wrong, not my opponent.”
Denzel: ” Who’s your opponent?”
Debaters: “My opponent doesn’t exist.”
Denzel: “Why does your opponent not exist?”
Debaters: “Because our opponent is a voice dissenting from the truth I speak.”
Denzel: “Speak the truth.”
Debaters: “Speak the truth.”

Final debate preparation

In our next class the students reviewed what they had learned in their last class.  Each captain introduced his teammates and then together each team said the Debater’s Creed.  This was done in teams.  My Assistant Coach and I circulated to observe.
After that, the teams were given the same debate resolution: Resolved – “Spiderman is better than Superman”. Working together, each team now had to decide on what their arguments were going to be and in what order they would be speaking.  My Assistant Coach and I circulated, helping with vocabulary and grammar.  At the end of the class the debate pairings were decided upon for the next class.

The debates

The debates were lively and fun.  All students participated.  My Assistant Coach   was the timekeeper.  All speeches lasted one minute.  I was both the Debate Chairman and judge.  Each team debated on a resolution twice, once as the affirmative team and once as the negative team.  After that we changed the resolution.  While two teams were debating, the other four teams were the audience.  The students debated the following resolutions:
Spiderman is better than Superman.
School uniforms are not necessary.
School should last year-round with no summer holiday.
Students should not have to take tests.


Debating was easily taught and quickly learned by my 6th graders.  They used grammar and vocabulary they had learned during the year. This recycling helped them consolidate their previous learning. Students worked collaboratively and got practice in public speaking and using critical thinking skills to develop arguments.  Debating proved to be a fun and enjoyable way to productively finish the year for my students.  Finally, I recommend debating for teachers at all levels since it is a highly adaptable activity.


Manning, M. & Nakamura, T. (2006).  Teaching Debate in the EFL Classroom. http://www.jalthokkaido.net/conference/JALT_Hokkaido_2006.pdf  and
http://www.myplick.com/view/5n0YpaQ4v06/Debate-for-EFL-classrooms Accessed December 19, 2008.
Snider, A. (1999).  The Code of the Debater: Introduction to the Way of Reason. USA. Sponsored by the Open Society Institute, the World Debate Institute and the University of Vermont.
Author’s Bio:
Thomas Baker is a CELTA-qualified EFL teacher and writer with seven years experience in Chile. He is the Editor of the TESOL Chile newsletter, “In A Word”. He taught at Colegio del Verbo Divino, a Catholic school for boys, for five years. He currently teaches Academic Writing in the English Pedagogy Department at Universidad Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. He has given presentations at conferences in Chile, Argentina and Peru and is the President-Elect for the 2010-2011 term for TESOL Chile. He can be reached by email: profesorbaker@gmail.com.

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