Debates and Discussions in the TEFL Class

Debates and Discussions in the TEFL class are great techniques to improve student participation. They help to improve the students’ general communication skills and confidence. They encourage quick thinking and improve rebuttal skills. In a more general way, they are ideal for practicing listening‏‎ and speaking‏‎.

This article looks at how you can organize and implement them in your TEFL class.

The Topic of Conversation

The choice of topic is key to successful debates in class. The topic should:

  • be relevant to your students’ age
  • match their interests as far as possible
  • be at the right language level for the class

It would be counter-productive and unfair, for example, to ask a group of teenagers at post beginner level to discuss the current job market since it would not really be relevant to their age and it’s also likely to be too difficult in terms of the language they would need. On the other hand, if you asked them to discuss whether there’s too much violence on television then they would likely have strong opinions and something to say.

Knowledge Base


However, choosing the right topic is not enough. Students will also need to be given the tools to carry out a debate. This means they will need to have a model to refer to and enough vocabulary to express their opinions in the right terms.

They will need to be able to use phrases appropriate to their level. For example:

I think that…
I believe that…

And so on. Beginners can make simple statements using these phrases but more advanced students will want to use more advanced language such as conditionals‏‎ in order to express themselves more meaningfully.

So it’s best to go over a few suitable phrases with the class before the debate begins.


Likewise, your students may well need to have a few facts to help them along the way. You can prepare a list of pros and cons for a particular subject or a set of useful statistics.

How you use these with the class is your choice. Some teachers will give students everything they have; others will divide the class into pros and cons and give each their respective lists; others will get more random with distribution of facts and stats.

Rules of Engagement

Your students will also need to be clear on how a balanced debate is carried out. You don’t need to turn this into a long list of DO’S and DON’T’s but just state a few basic rules of engagement and make sure everybody is clear on them from the start. Here are a few ideas:

  • you must support your argument and refute your opponent’s argument with logical reasoning and rebuttals by giving facts and evidence
  • you should avoid being over-emotional
  • you must dispute the facts and not attack the messenger


You will also need to decide on a few practical aspects.

  1. Is it going to be a general discussion or a team debate?
  2. Will the debate be informal with turn taking between the pros or cons?
  3. Who will speak first (pros or cons)?
  4. If the whole class participates, will students take turns, raise hands, or go with the flow?
  5. What will be your role as a teacher? Are you going to act as chairperson for a debate or discussion?

And then once you have sorted these out (either with the students or – especially if this is new to the class – by yourself) then it’s time to start talking!

Before & After

Figures can help quantify the effectiveness of a debate. So, before you start the debate carry out a mini poll.

Let’s say your topic of debate is Women are worse drivers than men. Get everybody to vote on this before the debate starts and put the results on the board.

Voting Students: 16
9 NO

At the end of the debate take a vote again to see if the arguments put forward by both sides have helped shift some beliefs.

Voting Students: 16
11 NO

Of course it’s not over there. You can add plenty of ideas and tweaks on this basic framework!

Useful Links

Quick Debates‏‎ – easy to run, non-confrontational, simple debates which get the students into the idea of how to debate.

Ideas for Mini Debates‏‎ – some useful practice debates before getting onto the more serious side of debating.

Badger vs Baboon‏‎ – a flexible and fun quick debate

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Posted in Lesson Plans & Activities.

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