A Teacher’s Guide: The Basics of a Classroom Debate

a teachers debate guide

This article explores the reasons to use debating in class and a guide on how to implement different debating styles in your class.

A simple debate guide for teachers

Why encourage your students to debate?

Advantages for teachers

For many professionals in education, there is always a concern that student learning objectives are not being met. How do students firstly, meet their career goals and secondly, how do teachers ensure they are also learning more than just the exam. The classic balance between the “need to know” and “would be great to know”. Fortunately, debating is a crossover between the two and it can allow you to get your class to:

Advantages for students

While students are focussed on getting through their exams or other goal-orientated objectives, debates will help them in the following ways:

  • Practice important employment-related skills, presenting, explaining, discussing, turn-taking
  • A chance to speak in class which is not spontaneous.
  • An opportunity for quieter and shyer students to share ideas.
  • A good mix of solo, pairwork and group activities.
  • A great prep for writing tasks (report writing, assignments, papers) and further research.

Debating basics

  1. Environment. Think about the size of your classroom, can students face each other, is the seating appropriate? And do you have enough resources for each student?
  2. Explain. Tell students the type of debate you are going to be using for instance:
    1. Oxford style
    2. Full class style
    3. Town hall style
    4. Chain debate style
    5. Spar style
    6. Presidental style
  3. Team Arrangement. You can either have; set teams before the debating day, randomly selected before the debate, randomly selected on the day of the debate, and even place students on the side where they either agree of disagree with the motion. For instance, if the topic is about space investment being a waste of money, then you can place students who agree with this statement on a personal level on to the opposite side. The difficulty increases but encourages them to be more vocal.
  4. Provide a reading base for students. For allow students to research and think about both sides.
  5. Ask students to think of questions for the other side once the main debate has been conducted. This can be done well in advance.
  6. Timekeeping. How long is each section going to last? If students become ever more excited how will you handle the excitement?
  7. Encourage students to focus on the evidence and not to attack others verbally. Have a guideline prepared so that students also know the limits of the debate. The following is a good start and has been used on classes on several occasions:
    1. The Chairperson is leading the debate and must be listened to.
    2. Try not to interrupt others.
    3. Try to keep your answers short and sharp.
    4. Be engaged and ask questions about your opponent’s points.
    5. Do not touch anyone.
    6. Try to be dispassionate.
    7. Do not speak over others.
    8. Let your teammates share their ideas as well.

quick rules for debate. debate guide. TEFL ESL EAL EAP

Choosing a Debate Topic

Propositions or questions should:

  • Two sides which have reasonable points accumulated to have the teams defend.
  • Within the understanding of the students and their course (but not always).
  • A simple debate statement which can be understood with much explanation. While also having the ability to be expanded upon in a complex way.

While there are many debate questions you can use, there are essentially three main types which are useful to employ in the classroom.

Debates based on facts

These are questions which are generally true in nature but to what extent is in contention. Here are some examples of factual debates:

  • Computers can replicate human intelligence. (fact)
  • Modern education lacks the means to inspire students. (fact)
  • The War on Terror was poorly thought through. (fact)
  • The United States is engaged in cyber warfare. (fact)
  • How important is race to the identity of a country’s population? (fact)
  • Global warming is a problem. (fact)
  • What is the importance of clean water? (fact)
  • What is the connection between pollution and consumerism? (fact)

Debates based on values

These are based on moral, religious, and ethical parts. They are dealing with the worth that an idea brings. Examples of value debates:

  • Rap, slang, internet memes are damaging to the English language. (value)
  • Manners and good behaviour should be taught in schools. (value)
  • The nations’ security is more important than that of the individual. (value)
  • Developed and rich nations have a duty to help poorer and less developed countries. (value)
  • Equality is more important than liberty. (value)
  • Democracy is overvalued. (value)
  • Immigration is a burden to the education system. (value)
  • Medical ethics is more important than that of medical technology. (value)
  • Paying students to study is a viable policy. (value)
  • Stem cell technology is ethically wrong. (value)

Debates based on policy

These are debates which are focussed on “problems and solutions” or “how to”, it centers on government or larger organisations. Examples of policy debates:

  • The government should ban gambling. (policy)
  • Reality TV should be regulated. (policy)
  • Medals for sports is a good idea. (policy)
  • How can children be encouraged to stop playing video games? (policy)
  • Human trafficking can be reduced and stopped. (policy)
  • How can more women be managers and CEO of companies? (policy)
  • How can we get more police officers from minority backgrounds? (policy)
  • How can we protect the internet as a place for freedom of speech? (policy)
  • Should TEFL be taught in mainstream education? (policy)
  • What policies should social media companies have to protect user data? (policy)

Language to teach for ESL/TEFL students

With any ESL/TEFL classroom, there is a need to teach vocab and any language related to the topic. There are a number of efficient ways to do this, but these tend to be rather dull. Gap fill activities, writing, and others are fairly standard but do not really inspire students. The best way to get students motivated is to try the following:

Common Debate Styles

Full Class Debate

  • Divide the class into two debate teams.
  • 10 minutes: Preparation
  • 4 minutes: Opening Statement (Side A)
  • 4 minutes: Opening Statement (Side B)
  • 2 minutes: Rebuttal (Side A)
  • 2 minutes: Rebuttal (Side B)
  • 1 minutes: Closing Statement (Side A)
  • 1 minutes: Closing Statement (Side B)
  • Teacher/Chairperson conducts a plenary, 2 minutes.

“Sparring” Debates/Chain Debate II

  • Ensures full participation; could be used as practice debates.
  • Present multiple items to debate from one or more topics.
  • Students debate -on-one for each question
  • 2 minutes: Prep
  • 2 minutes each: Opening Statements
  • 1 minute each: Cross Examination
  • 1 minute each: Closing Statements
  • Teacher/Chairperson conducts a plenary, 2 minutes.

Three Question Debate

  • Three questions related to a single topic.
  • Divide the class into two debate teams.
  • Alternate which team delivers main points first.
  • 10 minutes: Preparation
  • 5 minutes: Team 1 Main Points (Q1, Q2, Q3)
  • 5 minutes: Team 2 Main Points (Q1, Q2, Q3)
  • 3 minutes: Team 1 Rebuttal (Q1, Q2, Q3)
  • 3 minutes: Team 2 Rebuttal (Q1, Q2, Q3)
  • Teacher/Chairperson conducts a plenary, 2 minutes.

Small Group Debate

  • Generate two debate teams of 2-5 students.
  • Often done multiple times per semester until each student has debated.
  • 5 minutes: Prep
  • 5 minutes: Opening Statement (Side A)
  • 5 minutes: Opening Statement (Side B)
  • 5 minutes: Rebuttal (Side A)
  • 5 minutes: Rebuttal (Side B)
  • 15 minutes: Audience questions both teams
  • Teacher/Chairperson conducts a plenary, 2 minutes.

Chain Debate

  • Divide the class into two debate teams.
  • Present a topic and alternate between teams.
  • Each person must:
    • Present a new supporting or opposing argument
    • Attack an argument that has been presented
    • Defend an argument that has been attacked
    • Extend an argument that has been presented

Town Hall

  • Assign students roles to represent.
  • Introduce topic
  • 2-minute persuasive speeches
  • Council/presider deliberates
  • “Citizens” vote


If you’re stuck on how to get your debate class organised rest assured that there are many hundreds of ways and styles you can use. Whatever you do try to use do have fun and let us know in the comments section of how it went.