The Internet TESL Journal

Teaching Debate to ESL Students: A Six-Class Unit

Daniel Krieger
shinyfruit [at]
Siebold University of Nagasaki (Nagasaki, Japan)


Debate is an excellent activity for language learning because it engages students in a variety of cognitive and linguistic ways. The purpose of this paper is to elaborate upon this point by providing a step-by-step guide that will give teachers everything they need to know for conducting debate in an English class.

So, why debate? In addition to providing meaningful listening, speaking and writing practice, debate is also highly effective for developing argumentation skills for persuasive speech and writing. Davidson (1996) wrote that "with practice, many students show obvious progress in their ability to express and defend ideas in debate [and] they often quickly recognize the flaws in each other's arguments." Nisbett (2003) declares: "Debate is an important educational tool for learning analytic thinking skills and for forcing self-conscious reflection on the validity of one's ideas (210)." Fukuda (2003), in a debate study conducted with Japanese students, found that "before the debates only 30.8% of the students were not afraid of expressing their opinions when they were not the same as others'. After the debate this figure rose to 56.7%." He went on to say that "the knowledge or skills which came from the practice in the debates led the students to become more accustomed to expressing opinions." This suggests that, although debate is quite challenging, non-native speakers can develop the debating skills which are described in this paper.

Six-Class Unit Plan

The following six-class unit can be adapted to suit a variety of teaching contexts. I have been refining it while teaching a weekly 90 minute debate class.

Class One: Introduction to Debate

1. Basic Terms

2. Opinions and Reasons

3. Strong Reasons Versus Weak Reasons:

Part 1: With Your Partner, Think of at Least One Strong Reason for Each Resolution

1. Women should quit their job after they get married.

2. Love is more important than money.

3. It is better to be married than single.

4. Writing by hand is better than writing by computer.

Part 2: Now Compare Your Reasons with Another Pair and Decide Whose Reasons are Stronger and Why

4. Ways to State Reasons: Review the Following for Linguistic Scaffolding

5. Generating Resolutions: The Students Generate Their Own Resolutions

Class Two: Supporting Your Opinion

1. Warm-up

Begin each lesson with a fun practice activity which gets the students generating reasons for opinions. An argumentation exercise like one that I developed called "The Devil's Advocate" (see appendix 1) is useful for this purpose and can be used multiple times simply by changing the resolutions. Another good kind of activity for giving reasons is any prioritization task in which the students rank items on a list, giving reasons for their choices.

2. Giving Support for Your Reasons

Support consists of evidence. The four kinds of evidence, adapted from LeBeau, Harrington, Lubetsky (2000), are:
Smoking should be banned in all public places.

Example: For example / for instance / let me give an example
Whenever I go to a restaurant or bar and there are people smoking near me, I feel that I am breathing their smoke. This makes me a smoker even though I don't want to be.

Common Sense: Everyone knows / if...then / it's common knowledge that
Secondhand smoke is very unhealthy for nonsmokers.

Secondhand smoke causes about 250,000 respiratory infections in infants and children every year, resulting in about 15,000 hospitalizations each year.

Expert Opinion: According to.../ to quote.../ the book _____ says...
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, "secondhand smoke causes approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths in nonsmokers each year."

3. Practice

Have the students practice making examples/common sense support. They can develop these from reasons that they came up with in the prior class (see third activity).

Class Three: Debate Structure

1. Warm-up

Do argumentation exercise (see class two warm up).

2. Form Teams

Two or three students form a team.

3. Considering Resolutions

Give each team the resolutions culled by the teacher from the ones generated by the students. Instruct students to mark the resolutions which interest them.

4. Selecting Resolutions and Sides

Pair up two teams and have them compare their lists and decide on a resolution for their debate. They then pick sides-affirmative or negative.

5. Formal Debate Structure

Give students the following debate structure, adapted from LeBeau, Harrington, Lubetsky (2000). See appendix 2 for an additional format option which I developed for a less formal, more conversational debate.

Speech 1: The first affirmative speaker introduces the topic and states the affirmative team's first argument.

Speech 2: The first negative speaker states their first argument.

Speech 3: The second affirmative speaker states their second argument.

Speech 4: The second negative speaker states their second argument.

Give a 5-10 minute break for each team to prepare their rebuttal speech.

Speech 5: The negative team states two rebuttals for the affirmative team's two arguments and summarizes their own two reasons.

Speech 6: The affirmative team states two rebuttals for the negative team's two arguments and summarizes their own two reasons.

6. Brainstorming Arguments

Clarify for the students that each argument consists of a stated reason followed by ample support. Get students to brainstorm reasons for their resolution and then select the best two which will be used for their arguments. The teacher should model brainstorming on the board with a simple resolution to demonstrate how the brainstorming process works.

7. Homework

Have the students complete two arguments. Note: it is not acceptable to write the arguments in L1 and then translate into English. Arguments should be written in clear and simple English that can be easily understood by peers.

Class Four: Predicting and Refuting the Other Team's Arguments

1. Warm-up

Do argumentation exercise (see class two warm up).

2. Predicting the Other Team's Arguments

Each team brainstorms a list of strong reasons that their opponents could use.

3. Four Step Rebuttal

4. Writing Rebuttals

The students compose short rebuttals for the strongest three opposing team's arguments that they predicted.

5. Giving Feedback

The teacher meets with each group and reviews their arguments and rebuttals, challenging students to question their reasoning.

Class Five: Judging and Final Practice

1. Warm-up

Do argumentation exercise (see class 2 warm up).

2. Judging

The students will be the judges. In the judging form below which I developed, the students must show evidence that they have listened carefully. The teacher can evaluate the judging forms to give students an incentive to put effort into judging. A different type of judging form and guidelines can be found in LeBeau, Harrington, Lubetsky (2000).

Speech 1: The Affirmative Team's First Argument
Note: the same format is used for speech 1-4

Summarize the REASON here:

Is this reason clear? ____/1 Is this reason strong?   ____/1

Summarize the SUPPORT here:

Is the support clear?  ____/1  Good examples/common sense: ____/1
Expert opinion/statistics: ____/1

Speech 5: The Negative Team's Rebuttal
Note: the same format is used for speech 5-6 (four rebuttals)

REBUTTAL for the first argument: 
They disagree because...


Is this rebuttal clear? ____/1 
Did they use a strong because and therefore? ____/1

3. Judging Practice

To give the students practice in judging, the teacher performs speeches of a mock debate. Students listen, fill in the form, and then compare results.

4. Final Practice

The students practice delivering their argument speeches and doing rebuttals against their own arguments.

Note: if students have no experience or are shaky in public speaking, the teacher could devote an additional class before the debate to provide training in essentials such as: eye contact, pacing, pausing, gesture.

Class Six: The Debate


The six-class unit described in this paper contains an outline, principles and materials for conducting a debate. Because there are few published debate materials for non-native speakers, the teacher needs to develop and adapt materials to suit their situational needs. It is hoped that this article provides teachers who are interested in debate with enough to get started. The rest can be learned through trial and error and sharing with other teachers in order to discover the variety of ways that debate can be creatively applied to teaching English.

Appendix 1: The Devil's Advocate

  1. All Japanese writing should be in Roman letters.
  2. It is better to be single than married.
  3. Women should stop working when they get married and have babies.
  4. Women should not change their family name when they get married.

Appendix 2: Format for Interactive Debate

Seating Arrangement: students facing each other. Two or three students per team.
  1. Affirmative team: argument 1
  2. Negative team's rebuttal
  3. Affirmative team's response to rebuttal and open discussion
  4. Negative team: argument 1
  5. Affirmative team's rebuttal
  6. Negative team's response to rebuttal and open discussion
  7. Affirmative team: argument 2
  8. Negative team's rebuttal
  9. Affirmative team's response to rebuttal and open discussion
  10. Negative team: argument 2
  11. Affirmative team's rebuttal
  12. Negative team's response to rebuttal and open discussion
  13. Affirmative team's closing comments
  14. Negative team's closing comments

Appendix 3: A Student's Debate Speech (edited)


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XI, No. 2, February 2005