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Teaching Speaking Skills: Debates in The ESL Classroom

A class debate can be a fun and challenging way to encourage class interaction, review vocabulary, and develop speaking fluency. With a solid lesson plan and good moderating skills, your debate will be a success and well-appreciated by your students.

Here are some tips to get you started!

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Topic: Make it Interesting

Choose a topic that your students will likely be interested in (Something that affects their lives directly). Draw upon their common experiences: school, work, family, technology, language-learning, etc. Don’t choose a dull topic just because your students have a lower level; one can form an opinion on a variety of issues without sophisticated vocabulary. A little controversy is a good thing here, but mind the potential cultural differences of your class and don’t risk deeply offending anyone. Choose a topic that easily generates a lot of ideas, and think about your topic yourself before the class!

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Dividing the Class

The class should be divided evenly. You may start by surveying the actual opinion of students on the topic, and divide students according to their real preferences, but an arbitrary assignment of students to opposing sides will force all students to see both sides of the question, which is important.  Choose one or two group leaders for each group. This leader will take notes when the opposing team speaks, and organize the main ideas of their own team’s turns during the preparation rounds.

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Structure: Keep it Simple

There are some possibilities for how structure your debate into stages depending on how much classroom time you have to work with. Whatever stages you choose, make sure your students have enough time to meet the expectations of the debate; a little time pressure is a good motivator, but cutting off your students mid-sentence will not aid their fluency.

A basic plan for a 1-hour debate might look like this:

Preparation (7-10 min) – Introductory Remarks Team A / Team B (3-5 min each)

first arguments; in turns

Preparation (7-10 min) – Rebuttal Team A / Team B (3-5 min each)

response to first arguments; in turns

Preparation (5 min) – Open discussion (simultaneous) (7-10 min)

interactive discussion of the introduction and rebuttal points

Preparation (5 min) – Conclusion (3 min)

restatement of the strongest arguments from all previous stages; in turns

Moderator’s Comments


As you can see, there is a preparation stage before each performance stage. The preparatory stages can get shorter as the debate concludes, as the opinions at later stages are being repeated and refined rather than invented.

All students should have to speak. The group leader should make sure that everyone has a point to deliver during the speaking stages. If the groups are large, the speaking duties can be divided among the number of rounds.

Read: What is TEFL?

Moderating: Moderate, Don’t Dominate!

The teacher in the class moderates the debate. Here are some do’s and don’ts of debate moderating.


  • Regularly inform students of time limitations
  • Take an opportunity to summarize the main points after the introduction and rebuttal rounds if it seems necessary
  • Help struggling students to formulate their opinions by feeding them key words or eliciting their intended meaning
  • Be available to the students during the preparation stages to offer vocab, etc.
  •  Push students to be on task if their conversation strays during the preparation rounds


  • Rush students when they are speaking, or interfere with your own ideas
  • Become the centre of attention during debate rounds; students are to pay full attention to the opposing team only
  • Make your personal opinions obvious during the debate; be impartial.

Final Tips – Teaching Speaking Skills with Debates

  • Stand behind the listening team to focus the speaking team on their audience
  • Use an online or physical timer to help you keep track, but allow extra minutes as needed
  • Offer some key phrases to help students argue for or against ideas during the debate; provide a handout or use the whiteboard for reference
  • Remind your students to be natural in speaking, as if they were debating these ideas over a drink with a friend
  • Review the main ideas and major speaking difficulties at the end of the debate
  • Ask your students who they thought won the debate and why

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Related Articles:

Large ESL Classes: Tips and Tricks for Teaching Speaking Skills

How to Encourage a Great Discussion in an English Conversation Class

Taboo Topics in an English Conversation Class

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