Non Threatening Debates in TEFL

Non-Threatening Debates are ideal TEFL debates which can be held in class and then voted on.

The idea is simple. If you get your class to debate a hot topic (e.g. anything political or religious) then students can get very emotional and carried away. Because they are often emotionally involved in the subject they can struggle to find the right language because they are wrapped up in the subject of the debate itself and the rights and wrongs of the topic.

On the other hand, if the subject of the debate is very neutral the students can concentrate on thinking carefully about how they will state their arguments rather than worry too much about the actual validity or veracity of their argument.

It’s an ideal accompaniment to more formal classroom debates and a simple way to get the class starting to think about structured debates when they don’t necessarily have the language for more advanced topics.


Collect a list of simple, everyday, objects:

  • car
  • fridge
  • fork
  • computer
  • telephone
  • trousers

…and so on.

You can prepare these as a simple word on a piece of paper or better still, a flashcard (ideal for reusing in other classes) or even a model.

Running the Activity
Firstly go over a few “debate” terms. Here are a few simple ones to begin with:

I think that…
I believe that…
X is greater/bigger/cheaper/larger than Y
What do you mean by…?
Yes, but…
Do you think that…

Of course, the type of phrases you give and revise at this stage will depend on the class and their level.

Next, explain to the class that two students will debate a particular subject and then the whole class will vote on which side they support.

Bring up two of the best students in class. (In general, if you are going over an activity for the first time using the better students helps. Later the rest of the students will get a chance.) Ask them to pick – without looking – an item each from the pile of cards you’ve prepared. They can then show the item to each other and the class in general.

Now write up on the board: MORE USEFUL.

Each student has 3 minutes only to say why they think the item they have is MORE USEFUL than the other item. Finally after each student has given their presentation, the class vote to decide which item they consider MORE USEFUL.

With a small class, you can get other pairs up to debate other items. With a larger class you can divide it into two or three groups and each group works together in a debate.


Of course you can develop many variations on this theme. You might ask students to debate on which item is more practical, or cheaper, or a better birthday present for their teacher, etc.

When you prepare the objects, you can choose, for example, a series of non countable nouns‏‎ to talk about (e.g. water, oil, hair) so the students will need to stop and think a little about this. The objects you prepare beforehand can, of course, be related to earlier lessons so that the students will already have some ideas about how they can talk about them and their properties.

Also, if the class is a little shy about speaking‏‎, remember to give them a few moments to prepare before they speak.


This isn’t, of course, a formal debate. The idea here is that students get a chance to think on their feet about what to say. In fact, it doesn’t really matter what they say at all: they might argue that their object is better because it’s red rather than green, for example. The simple fact is that they are speaking about a specific object and have to come up with associated words and phrases.

This being the case, this activity is probably more suited to teenagers and above and also intermediate students and above.

Useful Links

Debates and Discussions in the TEFL Class – preparing a more formal kind of debate in the classroom

Mini Debates‏‎ – ideas for quick debates

Badger vs Baboon‏‎ – a flexible and fun quick debate

Sensitive Subjects‏‎ in TEFL – subjects which should be avoided in the TEFL classroom

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Posted in Language Skills, Lesson Plans & Activities.

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