Teaching Tips

Speed debating – An ESL tip that can work for all students

My course is populated exclusively by international and ESL (English as a Second Language) students. Because English is not their primary language, I try to be mindful of what would make these students more comfortable and what would help with their academic English development. To that end, three things I do to promote a non-threatening atmosphere include: endeavoring to speak slower than I might normally (I’m not too successful with this), limiting and explaining the excess of idioms I often use (I am more successful with this) and avoiding putting the students in a position that would embarrass them. This final idea is what inspired this lesson on speed debating.

To inspire class writing, we read small essays, and last week’s reading was the philosophy of Mencius (Man’s Nature is Good) and Hsun Tzu (Man’s nature is Evil). These opposite schools of thought naturally lend themselves to a debate. So, my students and I prepared to do just that. We discussed the differences in the philosophers and their points of view and we discussed what makes a successful debate. We then prepared by researching background information and building an outline of our stance on the issue of man’s true nature. Initially, most of them chose the same side, and as a class, we recognized that we needed to have both sides equally represented. So some students volunteered to change sides for the debate.

On debate day, the students who were sure that man’s nature is evil met on one side of the room, and those who prepared to argue that man’s nature is good sat on the other side. The students shared their arguments with each other and got excited to prove their points.

We set up with two lines of desks facing each other. Each desk was far enough away from the next one (2-3 feet) so that the students could concentrate on their own debate. Then students from one side of the issue sat across from students who focused on the other side of the issue. We then began our series of mini-debates. Students each had two minutes for their opening remarks, and they had one and a half minutes for rebuttals and for introducing new points.

After 12 minutes, one line of the students got up and moved one seat to the left. Then we began again. After another 12 minutes, one more move happened. For the third mini debate, I gave no structure. I did not time their opening remarks and I didn’t keep track of switching back and forth with time for making arguments and expressing their rebuttals. This unstructured strategy was to inspire class discussion later.

For the last few minutes of class, the students wrote a reflection of the process. They answered three questions:

  • Did you use any metaphors in your debate arguments? (There had been quite a few in the text and so we had discussed this ahead of time. This question could be changed to anything appropriate for your course’s content.)
  • Did you enjoy the structured or non-structured debate more and why?
  • How does debating make you a better writer? (This is also a content question which can easily be changed for different subjects).

In their answers, students noted organization and depth of thought as benefits of the speed-debating activities.

Although this activity could be fun for any population of students, it works especially well for ESL (English as a Second Language) students because they are not used to extensive class participation. Generally speaking, they come from backgrounds of teacher-centered classrooms where the students are not expected to give input. In this activity, the students can argue for their opinion but not have to stand in front of the class and act as the authority. While this debate style gives the students the opportunity to hone and improve their arguments as the mini-debates progress, it is a non-threatening way to aid in developing confidence in class participation and advancing one’s own point of view.


Cherie Hufford, MSEd, is a student support specialist, visiting faculty, and assessment assistant at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois. She is currently completing a second master’s degree in teaching English as a second language. When Cherie isn’t teaching, she enjoys baking, rooting for the Packers, and caring for her micro “farm,” complete with a small flock of chickens, gardening boxes, and herbs in the window sill.

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