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Teaching Debate in the ESL Classroom


"Why don't Japanese people speak English well?" the usual answers are; "Too much grammar", "Too many tests", "It isn't fun", or "Not enough opportunities to use English in a meaningful way".

HEnDA, the High School English Debate Association, believes that debate is an exciting way for students to use English in a meaningful way.

Debate helps integrate the language skills students study in lessons. Through collaboration, taking notes, memorizing speeches, and competing, students will exercise their speaking, writing, listening, reading, and interaction to pursue a goal and give their English use a purpose. Wow!

But there are problems and difficulties to organizing ESL debates too. Without intervention, students will rely on writing everything out and then reading from their notes rather than speaking naturally, or from memory. Reading from written statements does not help students to automatize the language and to process speech in real-time. So if you are running a debate at school, it's important to help your students to memorize their speeches, and not read them. This will help them to internalize the language and leave them open to focus on their presentation and pronunciation. So you may have to make allowances to ensure this. But like Katakana-English, reading from written statements has a low ceiling for learning.

Policy debates begin with a resolution decided by the teacher or debate organizer. Examples of a resolution could be anything from "Inaction in the face of injustice makes individuals morally culpable" or simply "Schools should block Youtube". Usually, the resolution is given in advance, allowing teams to research both sides of the argument with historical and legal examples to build convincing arguments for either side. In debate, speakers may be asked to speak against their own opinions, as the judges are looking for the best speakers. A difficult position might highlight a talented presenter, and points are given for presentation and well-formed arguments. Points can be scored for arguments given but not addressed or overturned by the opposition. So every argument must be addressed to prevent the other team from collecting that point. The winner is considered to be the team with the most points from logical, compelling, or comprehensive arguments which could not be overturned by the opposing teams.

For an ESL activity, you might make some adjustments, like cutting out the research phase by choosing an opinion-based resolution, such as "love is more important than money", or "students should have school on Saturdays". The amount of speeches, and lengths, could be adjusted to fit the needs of the class, but it generally goes: a speech supporting the resolution. A speech opposing the resolution, while confronting the arguments of the first supportive speech. Another very short speech by the supporting team to regain lost ground, and then a short break. To allow both teams to reassess their arguments and address the other teams statements and prepare their rebuttals. In the second round, neither team is supposed to introduce any new information, but focus on tearing down the previously stated arguments. For this second round the opposing team speaks first, and the speeches are shorter, but both teams get 2 rebuttal speeches. Interruptions are not allowed by either team, and timelimits must be strictly adhered to. There may be a time, or lesson, following the debate for students to reflect, and receive feedback on their performance.

The sport-like dynamic can make for an exciting activity, and there is plenty of educational juice on the vine to squeezed over multiple lessons. The amount of speeches can be increased or decreased to fit the class or resolution, multiple students could perform a single speech together, or teams could take turns competing and judging for each other. But how to adapt debate for ESL is unlimited, because it is open enough to allow self-expression, but structured enough to ensure results. Debate is an activity that facilitates acquisition, higher-order thinking, values collaborative learning, and most of all provides an outlet for meaningful English use.

So give it a try in your classroom or English club!

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