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Debate Rules

Over the past couple of years, I’ve started making formal debates part of my classroom practice. I say “formal” merely in the sense that (a) they have rules and (b) the positions chosen are arbitrary; in most other respects they are informal to the point of chaos. There are a couple of reasons for including formal debates among the usual speaking activities:

  • defending a point of view assigned randomly helps students to see both sides of an issue;
  • lack of personal identification with the point of view assigned lets students concentrate on language and argumentation (rather like the often absurd examples philosophers use in their thought experiments);
  • having rules prevents domination of the discussion by a few vocal students;
  • it is easier for the teacher to assess speaking compared to a free-for-all discussion.

The downside of most popular debate rules (e.g., British parliamentary) is that they have a set number of speakers, which means that unless you have a very small class, many students will be consigned to an observer role. Of course there are ways you can utilise this, but I was looking for was a system which allowed the good students to shine but at the same time made it likely that everyone would speak at least once. What I settled on started with Irish debate rules and evolved into the following format.

Each team picks three main speakers: first, second and final. In stage one, which is the most like a traditional formal debate, the first speaker for the motion (“proposer” in traditional terms) gives their speech, followed by the first speaker from the opposing team, the second speaker (“seconder”) from the first team and the second speaker from the second team. I generally give them each three minutes, but you can of course allow more time. The next stage is where we depart from the traditional debate model. For a set period (e.g. fifteen minutes), anyone other than the main speakers can ask a question to a member of the opposing team of their choice. You can then, if you want, allow one comment from each team (again, you may want to exclude the main speakers). Finally, the third speaker from each team sums up.  You’ll probably want to write the procedure on the board like this:

Debat eRules

I’ve found this works pretty well; in particular, the Q&A session keeps it lively and stops the debate being dominated by a few speaking stars. One important point, in an EAP context, is that students should have enough time to prepare – in a two-hour lesson, I usually allow around 45 minutes for the teams to prepare and then have the debate after the break. The subject of the debate should also be related to the texts students are reading at the time, and they should be encouraged to consult these texts in the preparatory period to find  evidence in support of their arguments. In this way, the debate helps students become more familiar with the issues in the course, rather than just being an isolated speaking exercise.

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