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Classroom Debates: Shifting the Focus
by Vivian Chu
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Planning a Debate Strategy

For the teamwork activity, the paired students are split into two teams: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 11 in one team and 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12 in the other team. This way of grouping maximizes the variety of issues and reasons that each team has to work with. In planning their debate strategy, they have to prepare to take on either position of the debate, as at this point, students still do not know which position of the debate they are on. Depending on the complexity of the debate topic, this activity can take between half an hour to an hour. Each team is given a large piece of paper to chart out their “Debate Strategy” (see Appendix 2). After each team has finished discussing and writing ‘challenge’ and ‘defense’ statements for each of the four major reasons they have chosen for both positions of the debate topic, students tend to be more conscious of the relativity of views and opinions and have a greater tendency to listen to others with a more sympathetic ear.

Using Gambit Cards for Debates

In the next preparatory activity for the actual debate, students are given the “Functional Language for Debates” (see Appendix 3) for oral practice of each of the phrases to present a position, to support a team member’s comments, and to debate against someone’s position. Each team is given a set or two of the “Gambit Cards for Debates” (see Appendix 4). How many sets you give out will depend on your class size and the language abilities of your students. Students divide up the sets of cards so that each team member has an equal number of cards.

Remind students that they should use one of the three phrases on each card every time they speak during the debate. Each team member should try to use up all his/her cards. A team scores a point when a member expresses his/her ideas by using the correct functional language on the cards. Each card is turned over as the language is used. You can easily monitor which students need to speak up by looking at how many cards each student has turned over. Very often, you will see students nudging each other to use the correct language on the cards to express their opinions, in order to score a point. And, with their “Debate Strategy” fully in front of them for reference, no one is tongue-tied or short of ideas, challenges, or defenses to express.

Ready for the Debate Table

Unless a student feels very strongly about the debate topic and insists on being on one side or the other, randomly assign a position for each team. The random assignment just before the actual debate, after the process of creating an outline and the “Debate Strategy,” drives home the point that the purpose of the debate is language practice, and that opinions and perspectives are diverse and relative, that they should all be taken into consideration. And, when the focus is on using correct, courteous functional language and awareness of multiple perspectives, students tend to be less bent on winning an argument based on their own views and more accepting of others’ opinions. In using the debate cards that also serve as cues for correct language, everyone has equal support and opportunity to speak up and walk away from the debate table with broadened perspectives and a better command of the English language.

* The debate support materials (Appendix 1 – 4) are from “Teaching Global Unity through Proverbs, Metaphors, and Storytelling,” a 130-page teachers’ resource book by Vivian Chu.


Vivian Chu (B.A. English, RSA CELTA), teaches English to international students and immigrants in Vancouver, Canada. She is also a TESOL Instructor and curriculum developer, with interests in peace education, intercultural communication, and teacher development. Email:

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