How to Organise Debates in the English Classroom

Debates are “organised” arguments between two students or two teams. They encourage the participants not only to think about the most relevant facts to support their position, but also to anticipate and defeat their opponents’ arguments. Recommended for advanced learners, debates are useful especially because they expose the participants as well as the audience to alternative points of view on the same topic. What is more, by familiarizing the students with this variety of perceptions, they will develop critical thinking skills as well as a certain tolerance of diversity.

Although some students may experience discomfort with so much competitiveness, there is no doubt about the majority of students being provided with help as far as powerful communication skills such as problem solving, team work, persuasion and oral presentation are concerned.

Since there are no doubts about the usefulness of this type of activity, let’s see what the easiest way to prepare a debate is.
Firstly, the teacher divides the students into two teams according to their position regarding the topic. Each team has to choose their spokepersons to represent them in the debate. The teacher can design a special format for the debate or both the students and the teacher can “negotiate” the terms of the “game” together. However, the following have to be  considered and equally timed : the pros and cons position presentations, the work periods, the pros and cons rebuttals,  the pros and cons  responses and the position summaries.

To provoke arguments and a more enjoyable and interactive atmosphere, Jeremy Harmer recomments “a variation on the formal debate”, the “Balloon” debate. This is how this discussion activity can be organized according to the famous methodologist:

Students must each choose a character. They are then told that all the characters are in the baschet of a hot-air balloon.The balloon is losing air and so people must jump from the baschet to save the lives of others.Who should be chosen as the sole survivor? The “characters” must make convincing arguments in favour of their own survival. A final vote decides which characters should jump and which should remain.

Possible topics to debate may be introduced to the students in the following way:

Read the following statements and write “yes” (√)  or “no” (Χ):

1. People who kill people should be killed.
2. Marrying someone for their money is a crime.
3. One’s reputation or public image is more important than individual happiness.
4. Virtue is its own reward.
5. Love doesn’t follow social conventions.

A debate is not only a learning activity, but also a very good self- assessment opportunity. A student’s self-assessement grid may contain the following criteria:

1. I paid attention during the activities  
2. I brought my personal/ original contribution to the activities  
3. I worked effectively in pairs/group activities  
4. I produced accurate statements/arguments from the grammar, punctuation and spelling points of view  
5. I changed some of my opinions during the activities  
6. I will operate some changes in my behaviour from now on  

It would be a good idea for the teachers to assess their performance, too. The teacher’s self-assessement grid may look like this:

1. I properly introduced the topic to the class  
2. I offered guidance and information when needed  
3. I monitored the learning process  
4. I allowed all the students to express their opinions about the topic  
5. I learned something new from my students  
6. I praised students for originality, accuracy, attitude  
7. I followed the evaluation criteria with objectivity  
8. I organized the debate efficiently   

Being real-world communication challenges whose results depend on more than the language skills of the students involved, debates should be objectively assessed and democratic debates need secret ballots to design the winner while the teacher’s feedback is necessary for the performance of both teams.


prof. Claudia-Emilia Frînculeasă

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