Motivation to Learn

Dynamite Debates: One Teacher’s Experience

Motivation to Learn

Dynamite Debates: One Teacher’s Experience

by Tom Anderson

EFL teachers in Japan often come across debate in one or more forms. They might be asked to participate as judges in speech contests carried out by the English Speaking Society, a club activity. The debates might involve teams of students who are club members or perhaps a speech contest featuring student teams from their own club competing with teams from other institutions. Perhaps debate is one activity in an Oral English class. It might even be a required or elective class itself.

The debate discussed in this article takes place in a fourteen period required debate class in a program made up of students from three departments within a large university. In this article we will begin with a brief look at reasons why debate should be taught and what students can learn by participating in debates. After this I will describe how I have designed the debate class I teach. I will discuss ways I have made the class student-centered and how students are responsible in the preparation, performance, and evaluation phases of debates.

Motivation to Learn - Why Do Debates?

Carol Clark, in an article written for the EFLIS (within the TESOL organization) Newsletter (2005) says that debate’s basic purpose is “to argue a point with supports to convince a group of students about something”. She mentions four areas in which students will gain knowledge. They are: information literacy, civic education, critical thinking/evaluation, and teamwork/co-operative learning. Gaining knowledge in these areas as well as the traditional four skills (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) clearly shows the value of using debate in the classroom.

Motivation to Learn - My Experience

As I taught debate the first time, I found the class to be both daunting and challenging for various reasons. As the class is only taught in one term, I had time to reflect on what happened and then consider how I could retool the class structure and activities to make students own the course. Scaffolding would be necessary to give the students structure and to ensure that they would not become lost or waste valuable time.

The New Course Plan

I considered two aspects as I retooled the class: skill-learning and skill-using.

Motivation to Learn - Skill-Learning

I wanted to avoid lecturing the class and have the students become responsible for learning about the skills involved in debate. I’ve found the textbook “Discover Debate” by Michael Lubetsky, Charles Le Beau, and David Harrington (Language Solutions, 2000) to be very useful. Debate skills and concepts are presented in language which is easy to understand. Student groups look at three chapter groups and are given a handout which lists the concepts that they need to know. The group does one quiz together as a group and share the grade they receive.

Skill-Using: Preparation

Students do three debates over the course of the term. I divide the class into debate teams of three or four students. Thus far I have created the groups for all three debates but am now considering allowing students to form their own groups for the second and third debates with restrictions-students have to make sure that they’re working with classmates they haven’t worked with previously and that all groups have both males and females.

I’ve found it useful when starting out for the first time to give students a learning contract. The contract specifies member and teacher roles and the preparation, presentation, and evaluation activities. Each group must choose a team leader and an assistant leader. The first task for the groups is to brainstorm and come up with three topics. Team leaders from the debating teams then negotiate and choose the topic which all group members agree upon. The leaders then choose which side they will be in the debate-affirmative or negative.

After completing these tasks, the debate teams have two class periods in which to prepare for the debate. I allow students to go to the library and the media center during class time. I make it clear in writing and orally that an important task for the leader and assistant leader is to make sure that all members have a task and that they are on-task. My role is to be a resource person and someone who can help them with any problems that might arise. I tell them that I’m not a police officer.

Something interesting that happened last time I taught the course was that student groups made evidence brochures with graphs, quotes, etc and gave them to myself and the judging groups.

Skill Using-Performance

There are many debate formats and I chose the following:Affirmative/Negative opener (5 minutes each), Rebuttal preparation (5 minutes), Negative/Affirmative rebuttal (5 minutes each), Closing argument preparation (3 minutes), Affirmative/Negative closing arguments (3 minutes each) My role during the debate is to be the timekeeper and then one of the judges.

Motivation to Learn - Skill Using-Evaluation

The non-debating groups judge the two debating groups. They (and I) use an evaluation form which considers performance and content. The form has a space for comments and for naming the winning team. It usually takes two class periods to do all debates and I give feedback afterwards.


This class is a work in progress. I have made changes and adapted it based on student feedback and my insight (such as it is). Many students say that although the process is difficult, they have learned a lot. Bottom line-is doing debates worth the effort? Absolutely! I hope that what I’ve written is helpful and encourages you to create your own dynamite debates.

Works Cited

Carol Clark Debates for EFL Writers and World Citizens EFLIS Newsletter March 2005: Volume 5, Issue 1

Michael Lubetsky, Charles LeBeau, Michael Harrington Discover Debate Language Solutions 2000

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