ESL Debates: the ultimate how-to-teach guide for busy english teachers

Debate: If a man goes into the forrest, and a woman isn't there... is he still wrong?

A Classroom Hero Grab-and-Go ESL Lessons Guru Guide on how to get your students debating!

Answer A: No, of course not. That's absurd!

Answer B: Are you out of your mind, of course he is! He's a man.

Answer C: Doesn't it technically depend on the man and the woman?

Of all the EFL tricks of the trade, debates stand the test of time as being a fantastic way to get students to think about 1) a topic, 2) prepare for that topic 3) speak on a focused theme for a duration and 4) allow teacher feedback time at the end of a structured lesson plan. So what's the problem?

That being said, debates have been hashed over, pushed on, forced down and re-worked by busy teachers for years - often taking the form of a balloon debate. Not only that, but how do teachers keep a class from becoming a cacophonous melee of students shouting at each other heatedly over chocolate being a better used as a therapeutic placebo than an actual means in which to keep someone alive for 7 days in a dessert. That's a good question.

In the most recent study done by the Programme for International Student Assessment (2009) - China's intellectual scores for Maths, Sciences and Reading dominated the Far East - and far surpassed that of the West. This should pose a warning to educators around the world.

How did they do it?

[callout3]They increased teacher pay and training, reduced emphasis on rote learning and focused classroom activities on problem solving. In Shanghai, now a pioneer of educational reform, "there has been a sea of change in pedagogy." It pointed out that one new slogan used in classrooms today is: "To every question there should be more than a single answer."[/callout3]

Instead of focusing on rote learning, debates are a fantastic way to foster the development of problem-solving strategies which will not only allow for the fluent use of English as a Second Language in a classroom, but also help students develop their ability to solve problems. As educators, we should be working on strategies for winning - not trying to fill 60 minutes so we can get paid so we can drink beer in an exotic country with beautiful women at the end of the week. There should be a shift in teacher training emphasizing these results so we're not left behind in the West and so that our students will be prepared to face a difficult life after leaving university, or high school.

Activities such as Hospital Mayhem and ESL Debate: Man of the Year build upon these thinking strategies which take on the form of information searches (the first) and a debate (the second).

How to have a successful ESL Debate and Discussion:

  1. Have topics. This can be in the form of a Pros vs Cons as in: "Church as we know it does more harm than good." Two sides present their opinions. Or "Abortion shouldn't be legal."
    • AUTHOR'S NOTE: These two topics can become quite heated and if you're new in the classroom - should be avoided. However, if you are able to lead a debate and show students how to defuse such topics they can be very robust, very dynamic and extremely productive debates. Those types of topics are typically left out of course books because of their heated nature - but presented to a class you know well are fantastic ways to get students talking in stressful, emotional ways. :)
  2. Set groups and give them a time limit to prepare their arguments - supplying them with necessary vocabulary if needed. Thinking globally, debates should accompany the topics you've been teaching on as this will give them a way to recycle vocabulary - hence boosting their repetition of the said taught vocabulary which is building students for successful learning.
  3. Have the weaker team start first. If a side is decidedly stronger, or has better arguments they can present everything so well that the weak team won't be able to counter - hence, if the weak team starts first at the very least they will be able to say a few words.
  4. Make sure that students speak, and you monitor their debate - writing down mistakes and extra vocabulary which they should be able to use to develop their range of the subject matter. I do this on paper, and then transcribe on the board to obviate any distraction that might cause during their talking time.
  5. After a team has forfeited, given up or agreed to disagree then you should make sure you stop the debate with more than enough time to give them feedback on what took place. Of course, teaching them inductively the vocabulary they might find useful the next time such a topic might come up.

ESL Debate topics:

  • Gays should be able to adopt children
  • The government does more harm than good
  • God doesn't exist
  • We don't need money to be happy
  • Globalization is bad for our culture
  • People who litter should be taken to jail/beaten/fined/sent to the army
  • Marriage is an outdated institution
  • Love is the most important thing in the world
  • Our education system is amazingly inadequate
  • People in prison should be making things for our government
  • Television is a waste of time
  • Sport competitions do more for character building that schools do
  • Drugs should be legalized and taxed
  • A woman's place is in the kitchen
  • It's good to have a more than one partner before getting married
  • Having a large military causes more harm than good
  • Learning foreign languages isn't important
  • Art and sports should be prioritized in schools

Debates take various forms...

We will take a look at 'advanced ESL debates' in a future post outlining ways in which we can take a traditional debate format and make it not only more dynamic but also more autonomous on the students' behalf. Such activities as ESL Debate: Man of the Year not only harness a problem solving strategy which will build the minds of students today but is a lot of fun at the same time.

Oh... and what do you think? If a man goes into the forrest, and a woman isn't there... is he still wrong? :)

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