Bring It On: 7 Questions Every ESL Teacher Has About Classroom Debates

What comes to mind when you hear the word “debates”?

TV debates, politicians contradicting each other before elections or…debates in class between student teams?

Well, in case you aren’t familiar with this exciting method in ESL classes, I’m going to lay it all out on the table for you.

Trust me. I have used debates in my classes for some time now and I would love to share these teaching experiences, as well as tips and resources on this method with all readers here.

Bring It On: How to Get Students Fired Up About English with ESL Debates

1. What Does an ESL Debate Lesson Look Like?

A debate is a competition in which two opposing teams make speeches on a particular topic and motion to support their arguments and contradict the members of the other team.

A debate in ESL class can be based on a specific topic that has recently been taught, therefore strengthening language skills and vocabulary but also critical thinking on the part of the students.

There should also be a judges’ table made up of 3-4 students who will be evaluating the whole process and assessing each team based on certain criteria. The judges—not the teacher—are the ones who will grade both teams and finally decide on the winner. In other words, the teacher should play the role of the coordinator, thus allowing students to feel independent, comfortable with the process and responsible for following the rules and guidelines.

2. Why Get Debates Going in Your ESL Classes?

Well, obviously, a debate is not something static but rather challenging and extremely appropriate for teenagers or young adults who can easily be bored while learning a second or foreign language. So…why not include this technique if you want to spice up your classes?

As a teacher, you are surely familiar with using board games, films or listening activities to make your lessons more interesting; however, debates in an ESL class combine lots of positive features that improve learner use of the language as well as the relevant skills.

But can debates take place in lower level classes as well as upper-intermediate and advanced ones? Well, judging by my own experience of teaching English as a foreign language to teenagers, I can assure you that debates enliven even a younger or less experienced class and encourage students to use English in a natural and direct way. However, it is up to you to decide whether you use this method in your advanced classes only or you extend it to your lower level classes too. After all, you are the one who knows your students’ needs, weaknesses and limitations.

When I started using this method in class, I thought that it could only work with my advanced students as the language structures needed throughout the debate can be used at this level more easily.

To tell you the truth, I have used debates in a couple of my pre-intermediate classes and has some less-than-desirable results—as the whole process was going on, those students seemed overwhelmed and did not enjoy it that much. But was it about the debate activity, or something else?

Later on, I realized that easier topics can be used in debates at lower levels, thus making it easier for students to be involved in the process and benefit from it. For example, you could hold debates over which pop song is better, which subject class is the most fun or who loves their mother more and why.

A great way to support this exercise is with some entertainment videos from FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

You can choose a clip, song or another piece of media and have students debate over it. It brings the topic to life and can be of great assistance in a debate based class (especially in lower levels).

Last but not least, teenagers and adults usually find this technique extremely challenging and are often intrinsically motivated to use English as a common medium of communication. The playful nature of a debate can also make the whole process enjoyable!

3. Which Language Skills Are Improved During Debates?

Well, obviously, speaking skills are strengthened throughout a debate. Students learn how to improve oral skills by using appropriate phrases and structures but also by trying to use argumentative language.

Team members will soon find that they cannot persuade the judges by using simple phrases or repeating the same expressions (“I think,” “I believe”) all the time. They have to use more elaborate language and therefore learn it.

Listening skills also benefit from this process since team members and judges learn to listen to one another carefully and understand their points of view, no matter the accent or intonation. They should be paying close attention in order to gather information for their own opposing statements and arguments.

Writing skills are strengthened when team members and judges are asked to take notes and write their arguments in the given worksheets (should you choose to give them). Furthermore, you can ask them to write an essay as a follow-up assignment based on the topic they have finished debating for or against. Do not forget this if you prepare classes for language examinations where essay writing is important—both the note-taking and essay-writing techniques can boost your students’ skills and confidence.

Reading skills can be enhanced while students are preparing their arguments by reading articles and websites and are learning how to evaluate these sources.

Critical thinking in the foreign language is enhanced more than anything else, in my humble opinion. Every step of the process encourages students to be critical thinkers, pull points together logically and express their ideas in a clear manner. They even need to pay close attention to hear the gaps in other people’s thinking. This will aid them in every area of language and life, from test-taking to securing a new job.

4. How Can You Get Debates Going in ESL Class?

Before you start organizing debates in your classes, it is essential that you remember the following:

  • Debates are not something to be taken lightly by the teacher. They are not a good way to fill empty teaching time. You cannot sit back and let the students run without your observation and guidance. It is an activity that requires good planning on your part, along with carefully chosen resources and material.
  • Debates must have strict time limits and a clear set of rules. Time limits stop shy students from becoming totally intimidated (phew, I only have to talk for one minute!) and keep more talkative students from dominating the talking time. Rules keep things fair for everyone.
  • Props are always a plus! You need a number of inexpensive materials that give the whole process a playful touch; in other words, this activity is cost effective.
  • This can become extra-curricular. You could alternatively start an after-school English debate club, instead of trying to squeeze things into your normal class time. This might also give ESL students a chance to practice with students who speak English as their native language.

Okay now. Let’s see how a debate is performed step by step.

First, you need to find a topic or motion that your students will enjoy but will also be able to build their arguments upon. For instance, a topic could be as easy as “paper books vs e-books” or as demanding as “should animals be used for medical experiments?”

Afterwards, you ask students to form their teams. They might be given the chance to choose, or they might get divvied up based on their personal feelings about the issue at hand. You may also choose to randomly assign teams. Be sure to choose the judges’ panel as well.

Have them study the topic and find relevant sources at home or in the school library before the debate takes place in class. Studying the topic at home and evaluating sources is an absolutely valuable assignment for students. Obviously, reading skills are at their best when ESL learners are asked to read English texts, learn new vocabulary items and evaluate these written sources. Maybe you’d like to check the following site that presents techniques your students can use while evaluating sources before the debate takes place in class.

The day of the debate students sit in their teams: The team “for” and the team “against” the topic. A common phrase to use before starting the debate is the following: ”This house believes that…”. For example, “This house believe that animals should not be used for medical experiments.”

While sitting in their places, team members can choose their key speaker, who will give them a main introduction and conclusion, even though they can decide whether they all take their turns to speak.

All team members have their own materials (handouts, sets of rules, objection cards). Likewise, the judges sit at their table where they have their own materials (a clock, a bell or a buzzer, their name tags, a set of rules and handouts for their evaluation/grades).

At this point, I have to underline that class size matters; obviously, when you have a class of 30 students, things are much different than they would be with a class of 10, but this should not scare you away. Actually, I have experienced excellent debates in a class of 27 students and a rather uninteresting debate in a class of only 12 students.

In a large class, things need to be organized more carefully. There could be 4 smaller teams instead of two, with the talking time of each team decreased.

5. How Can You Choose Debate Ideas and Pro/Con Sides?

Now let me give you some nice topics that you can use in class during your debates. Additionally, you can browse topics on sites like the following: Debate topics 1 or Debate topics 2.

The following list though comes out of my debating experience with my students. Feel free to make any alterations to the topics or pro and con sides as you see fit!

  • Teachers can be replaced by computers.

Pro: Teachers can be subjective and unfair to students whereas computers are not. Teachers can make mistakes whereas computers will never give you a wrong answer.

Con: Teachers can understand the student’s emotions and help them with these, whereas a computer only expects the right answer.

  • School uniforms should be compulsory.

Pro: No need to buy new modern clothes all the time.

Con: It is better to retain your own style at school.

  • It is more fun to be an adult than a child.

Pro: Adulthood comes with independence, a job, your own money, romance.

Con: Adulthood comes with lots of responsibilities, stress and old age. Childhood is more carefree.

  • E-books are better than paper books.

Pro: E-books are huge space savers, more convenient, cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

Con: E-books can break, get stolen, have their batteries die while you are reading and they can cause eye strain.

  • Social media decreases human communication.

Pro: Online communication cannot be compared to face-to-face interaction. It can be fake, dangerous and does not rely on genuine emotions.

Con: It is easier, more convenient, faster to talk to friends and learn to communicate with people abroad using social media, so it improves and increases human communication.

The list can go on and on…The topics are just countless!

Finally, let me remind you that in case you use CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) in your lessons, debates can be English but the topics can be based on the subject matter, i.e. history, biology, literature.

6. How Should the ESL Debate Be Structured?

Both teams take about 10 minutes to work silently amongst themselves so as to prepare their initial statements and their arguments. The judges (or the teacher) let the students know of the stages below and the duration of each stage. If you browse through various websites and relevant resources, you might find different debate formats that will equally suit you. The one I describe here is the one I prefer. In particular, the stages are the following:

1. Constructive stage (10-12 minutes): The key speaker of each team presents their introductory statements and then they reinforce their affirmative or negative arguments respectively. This phase could last from 10′-12′ on the whole. While listening to their opponents, team members have to take notes about the arguments they heard so as to contradict them in the next phase.

2. Rebuttal stage (15-20 minutes): The “pro” team refutes the opposing team’s arguments and vice versa. This is the phase when team members can use their red objection cards to ask an extra question or refute the argument the opponents have just expressed.

3. Closing statements (2-3 minutes): This phase can be described as the conclusion to the whole procedure. After the exchange of ideas and arguments, students summarize their final statements and try to show the judges why they should be the winning team.

4. Judges’ questions (5 minutes): This is an interesting phase when each judge addresses one final question to each team. Those questions are based on what teams have presented so far and can be tricky and difficult so that judges can decide on the strongest team.

Throughout each debate, there is a clear set of rules that all students have to follow. The most important rule in any class debate is show respect. Each participant must show respect to the opposite team and the judges. Other rules could be the following:

  • Respect time limits and talk only when it is your turn to do so.
  • Plagiarism is not accepted.
  • If you have a source, mention it.
  • You can use your objection cards only once.
  • Speak clearly and loudly
  • Don’t look at your cards while speaking.

7. How Can Students Be Assessed During ESL Debates?

As mentioned, the final assessment will fall to you and your judges’ table. You can completely rely on them to determine grades, or you can make adjustments after reviewing what they have written down for each team in the debate.

Teenagers might sometimes find it hard at the beginning of the debate to assess the team where their best buddies are, but they will gradually get so deeply into the process that you will be amazed at how accurate and fair they are while filling in their assessment cards.

Some of the criteria which I think are easy and effective for judges to use are the following:

  • Clear voice
  • Clear way to express their arguments
  • Organized thoughts
  • Strong opening and/or closing statements
  • Effective use of argumentative language
  • Effective use of key language structures
  • Equal participation of all team members
  • Strong arguments, well thought-out statements
  • Effective rebuttal
  • Respect shown to the judges and the opponents
  • Teamwork amongst members of the same team
  • No breaking of the rules

If you want to offer your students a more surprising and more demanding debate, don’t tell them what the topic is beforehand but ask one of them to choose one slip of paper from a box where you have written random topics. This way, the whole process gets a mysterious and unexpected touch that students love.

What is more, finding arguments and using more complex structures to express their viewpoints on an unexpected topic could make it more difficult but also more challenging.


As daunting as debates might sound when you start using them in your classes, there are lots of sites and resources that can guide you and support you all the way through.

All in all, debates in ESL classes are valuable tools to involve your students in a beneficial learning process but also to enliven your lesson.

Once you and your students get hooked, feel free to jump a few steps further with this. You can organize competitions between two classes in your school or even between debate teams of your school and a neighboring school. In this case, you can ask students who do not take part in the competition to play the role of the audience who can also critically ask a couple of questions to the team speakers.

So…ready, set, go—plan your next debate and be prepared to try it in class next time.

I’m sure you will love the process! Have fun along with your students!

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